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

Hot Docs 2017

11 mins read

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS
(USA, 99 min.)
Dir. Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)


Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s new documentary, is the closest thing we’re likely to see to a comprehensive narrative about the Syrian Civil War. Where films like City of Ghosts and Last Men In Aleppo tell the incredibly complicated story of the war through the individual stories of, respectively, the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and the volunteer first-responders the White Helmets, sacrificing context for on-the-ground stories, Hell on Earth is resolutely big-picture, without any extraneous hooks.

The story is familiar, if convoluted and grim. In early 2011, some teenage boys in the southern town of Daraa scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall. The regime responded by arresting and torturing them. The people protested. The regime, seeing what was happening to their counterparts in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, decided not to risk leniency and responded with a heavy hand, violently crushing the protests. The funerals of dead protesters then turned into bigger protests. Soon, masses across the country were calling for the ouster of Assad, which he met with bombings and chemical attacks.

Seeing these abuses, soldiers starting defecting to defend the protesters from Assad, starting local militias under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Assad characterised the resistance as foreign-funded jihadism. The West, based on those warnings and its experiences in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, refused to fund or militarily aid rebel groups. The Free Syrian Army splintered and into the void it left came ISIS.

The film offers several stories about where ISIS fighters come from. Many are from Al Qaeda, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some are Iraqi ex-Baathists. American debaathification left many Iraqis without jobs or pensions; some probably only joined the party for career expediency. Driven to desperation in a destroyed country, and radicalized by the spectacle of American violence, they joined ISIS. Extremists formerly imprisoned by the Assad regime and released after the outbreak of revolution to undermine the rebels’ image, joined them, as did foreign fighters—largely aimless youth wooed by ISIS’ action movie-style propaganda videos—from Africa, Central Asia, Europe and North America.

ISIS quickly took over large swathes of northern Syria, establishing a capital in Raqqa. When they were driven out of parts of the region, they stormed over the border into Iraq, where they took over Mosul and massacred the Yazidi religious minority group. The Kurds came to the rescue, driving ISIS out of Iraq’s north while the Iraqi army fought it back from its outposts near Baghdad. Back to Syria went ISIS—and there it remains, in a sinister semblance of a truce with Assad and his Russian backers as they focus on driving out the other remaining rebel forces and establish regime control again.

If that’s a lot to take in—well, there’s more, both in the film and outside its scope. What is Russia’s stake? What are Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s interests? Why are migrants, knowing the risks of crossing the Mediterranean, still so desperate to leave the apparent safety of Turkey immediately after reaching it? What does Turkey want to happen in Syria and with the Kurds?

The most important unanswered question, though, is the one at the centre of the West’s involvement—or lack thereof—in Syria, at least up until last month’s attacks by President Trump: Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons. There’s a canonical Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg called “The Obama Doctrine” that deals with this in some detail. Essentially what Goldberg says is that Obama found that he did not have concrete proof that Assad was responsible for the notorious 2013 chemical attacks that killed 1400 Syrians and so opted against direct military engagement.

In fairness, Hell on Earth does mention this uncertainty, but has to move on quickly to cover the rest of the story. But it’s an important point to consider: an entire alternative news ecosystem of investigative journalists, bloggers, academics and conspiracy theorists—which surfaces in reasonably respectable outlets across the political spectrum like The Intercept, Alternet and The American Conservative and goes deep into places like The Centre for Research on Globalization, Consortiumnews, and the dread RT, among others—has taken this uncertainty, and the fact that mainstream media coverage of it seemed not to reflect it, as a casus belli of its own. This loose group has questioned many of the assertions that Hell on Earth makes. For example, what is the cause of the revolution: was it really a mass movement? was it really spontaneous? What about the crimes of the Assad regime: is he really bombing people? are the numbers of dead really accurate? These and other questions are emerging in a subterranean war with human rights organisations and citizen journalists within Syria and outside it, contesting the narrative that governments, mainstream media and movies like Hell on Earth and City of Ghosts construct.

It would be nice to be able to dismiss them, but some of the questions—like the ones about the chemical attack, which have been repeated now that there’s been the new one—don’t have convincing answers. Why would Assad use sarin on his own people in April 2017 when he already had the upper hand? Why were the Syrian protests, as reported in mainstream Western media like Time and the New York Times, so small at first? We’re left with unruly coalitions voicing contrary positions—Trump and the media, together at last, saying Assad did it; Putin, Assad and a coterie of self-appointed investigative journalists that can seem either to be far-left or far-right saying ISIS did it. Who to believe?

That’s the most important question that coverage of the Syrian Civil War has raised. North American faith in the political establishment, always fragile, has, over the course of the last two years been almost completely shattered. In the US, we’ve seen the rise of Trump, the fall of Clinton, the DNC’s sabotage of Sanders, instance after instance of Republican moral bankruptcy, the dismantling of Obama’s achievements (as much in rhetoric as in actuality). In Canada, we’ve been outraged as Trudeau sold billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia, approved pipelines and appear to capitulate to Trump at every turn. At the same time, trust in media is at an all-time low. That no apparently credible news source predicted Trump could win until he’d already done it proved to many that the mainstream media were hopelessly myopic, mere mouthpieces for the liberal/neoliberal establishment, stenographers of soft power. It’s in this context that alternative news has flourished—a context in which the mainstream seems to have lost all credibility.

It is a hallmark of these times and this particular conflict that even Hell on Earth — an unapologetically complex film that admirably takes pains to provide historical and philosophical context to many of the war’s most notable atrocities (ISIS’ beheadings are compared to historical displays of violence as tools of social control, from lynchings in the US to drawing and quartering in Britain) — can’t really come close to giving a full sense of the story it tells. In a moment in which propaganda, fake news, slander, paranoia and prejudice are ubiquitous, epistemological questions around evidence and interpretation can’t be ignored in pursuit of a conventionally stated objective narrative. An authoritative tone and mastery of material can’t, finally, stand in for transparency about sources and methods.

Nevertheless, for telling the story of the Syrian Civil War in a clear and expansive way, Hell on Earth is an invaluable introduction to the issues. It serves as an indispensable foundation for contextualizing the wealth of other documentaries surrounding the conflict and, part and the refugee crisis in Europe. Just know that it is not, for all its merits, the whole story.

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