Hell on Earth is a hard film to watch – and it is meant to be. Any film that deals with the war in Syria – which has claimed some 400,000 lives – and the rise of ISIS is not going to be pleasant viewing. But although filmmakers Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm and Restreppo) and Nick Quested have ample footage of combat and bombing victims and ISIS prisoners being readied for beheadings (no actual beheadings are shown), the real power of this film is in its ability to explain the complexities that led to the war in the first place. It does not detract from the horror of the killings, but it puts what otherwise might seem to be the meaningless slaughter of the civil war and apparently psychopathic addiction to violence by the ISIS killers into an understandable framework.
President Bashar al Assad saw the fates of Egyptian President Mubarak (imprisoned), Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi (killed) and Tunisian President Ben Ali (exiled) and he said to himself, as one of the film’s interviewees says, “If I am to survive I have to take it to the limit.” If that meant torturing boys who had written anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school or bombing civilian hospitals and dropping barrel bombs indiscriminately, so be it.
As for ISIS, the filmmakers show how it had its origins in the anti-American Sunni resistance in Iraq, and found a vacuum to expand into northern Syria when the civil war took hold there. They also show that Assad allowed ISIS to grow, because it justified his increasingly violent hold on power, and his self-serving excuse that he was “fighting terrorists.” The film portrays ISIS as a criminal enterprise that was making millions of dollars a day from oil smuggling, antiquities trading and extortion of its captive population inside its self-proclaimed caliphate. Their extreme violence was a means of social control: “the beheadings were the force that silenced people,” as one interviewee explains.
Running through this ghoulish narrative of killing and suffering is the story of two brothers, Marwan and Radwan, with their wives and multiple children, who are from the outskirts of Aleppo. They have filmed themselves in short clips throughout the war, showing how they have tried to keep their family alive and safe as the war came ever closer. After rebels occupy Aleppo and Assad’s air force hits back with indiscriminate airstrikes, the brothers decide to flee to Manbij closer to the Turkish border. But then ISIS takes over Manbij, the beheadings start and the parents find it increasingly hard to shield their children from the horror surrounding them. Finally when ISIS requires all men from 18-40 to enlist as jihadi fighters, the two families make a desperate run for the border and manage to get into Turkey, adding to the number of Syrian refugees there. The scenes of the family huddling together in the dark as bombs fall nearby humanizes the story of the war, while at the same time adding to the horror.
In the question and answer session after the screening, Junger said “we set out to make a film about how the war [in Syria] started.” This was two years ago, before the election of Donald Trump and the controversy over the travel ban, which included citizens from Syria. “Since then we have shifted a bit to stress the issue of refugees from Syria,” which now number 4.8 million outside the country, on top of 6 million internally displaced Syrians. “We are trying to sensitize Americans to what is going on.” Junger and Quested shot almost 1,000 hours of footage in and around Syria, although much of the Syrian footage was shot by Arab cameramen as it has become too dangerous for westerners to film in any area where ISIS is operating. The violence perpetrated by ISIS, said Junger, “is appalling but it is exactly the kind of public violence that the US used against the black population here in the south… every society has used violence like ISIS does.”
At the beginning of the film the filmmakers state their thesis that “radicalism depends on grievance”. Even as ISIS is now losing territory in both northern Iraq and Syria as their caliphate falls apart, the fear is that their radicalization will spread to other parts of the world. As Quested says, one common thread that ran through the uprising in Syria against Assad and the Arab spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia was the shared hatred of corrupt regimes. “These populations are sick to death of that level of corruption,” said Quested. And as long as that primal grievance is not removed, peace will be hard to attain.