Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS


The complete documentary airs on National Geographic Channel, Sunday evening (6/11) at 9pm Eastern, 8pm Central.

It can also be viewed on YouTube Movies from 6/12.

David Denby writes: Sebastian Junger, who co-produced the documentary with Nick Quested (the head of Goldcrest, a documentary-production company in London), narrates “Hell on Earth,” which he also wrote. Junger points out that foreign players (Iran, the Kurds, Turkey, Russia, America) have all pursued their own interests in Syria. “Once you get involved in a proxy fight, so many people have so huge a stake in the outcome that it’s almost impossible to stop,” he states. The trouble is, not only does foreign involvement keep the war going, the war itself comes back and bites its enablers. American politics has been materially altered by the fear of ISIS and of Syrian refugees. Our hopes for a normal life have been dislodged as well.

In 2010, Junger and the late Tim Hetherington made the classic documentary “Restrepo,” a portrait of an American combat unit in Afghanistan. After Hetherington was killed, in Libya, Junger refashioned the “Restrepo” outtakes into another strong movie, “Korengal,” in 2014. For those films, the two men did the camera work themselves. But Junger and Quested couldn’t get into Syria, so they adopted a different strategy. They drew on various media sources (network news, Human Rights Watch, ISIS propaganda), and they interviewed a wide range of experts (including the British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab and, in a lucid moment, Michael Flynn). The core of the movie, however, was shot by Middle Eastern news outfits, and by activists, witnesses, and citizen journalists. Most of this footage is devastatingly effective. The participatory camera has become commonplace, but you don’t often see one (usually a cell phone, I would guess) being carried into a tumultuous firefight or threading through the shocked, incoherent wake of a bomb blast. Or capturing shots of panic as a crowd falls under open fire. Or sharing eloquent views of rubble-strewn streets and grieving relatives. The movie dramatizes the destruction of a society from within that society. Watching “Hell on Earth” is not an easy experience; I can’t recall another documentary with so many corpses. It’s a grief-struck history of cruelty, haplessness, and irresponsibility—a moral history as well as a history of events. [Continue reading…]

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