HotDocs2017: Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS


At one point in Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, an interviewee describes the small triangle that is Syria on a map as the centre of the world right now. What is happening in Syria has been affecting, and will continue to the affect, events around the globe. After viewing Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s documentary, you will likely be inclined to agree. In the epilogue, Junger, who narrates the film, argues that even if you don’t believe that the plight of Syrian refugees is your problem, human suffering inevitably affects us all.

Hell on Earth operates as a straightforward two-part chronicle of, first, the Syrian Civil War, and, second, the origins and conquests of the jihadist militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, demonstrating how the two important events are intimately connected. However, the film’s effect is more far-reaching.

Thanks to its discussion of significant contexts and historical threads, Hell on Earth ties many of the momentous and horrific events of our fractured times back to the Syrian conflict. For instance, we learn how the uprisings of the Arab Spring led President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to vigorously and violently suppress even the most minor dissent and protest, fearing that if he let demands for reform take root the movement would not stop until he was removed from power. So, when boys wrote anti-Assad graffiti in their schoolyard, they were imprisoned and tortured, which led to the initial protests and demands for dignity and fair treatment from the government.

Similarly, so many of the recent “lone wolf” killings across Europe and North America are shown to be directly related to one of ISIS’s innovative programs for “individual jihad.” If radicalized youth cannot make the trip to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS, they have been encouraged to take up any and all means to kill Westerners in their countries. We have all seen or read about the horrific attacks with guns, machetes, and trucks in France, Belgium, and Germany. With their sweeping investigative eye, Junger and Quested also consider the legacy of failed strategies in the Iraq War, Obama’s decisions to not attack Syria, the role of public spectacles of violence in human cultures across history, and the mass exodus of refugees from Syria, to name just a few of the many threads they uncover.

If all of this sounds over-extended or scattershot, know that it isn’t. I commend Junger and Quested and writer Mark Monroe for their clarity as they map out relations and lines of cause-and-effect without reducing the conflicts and events (too often) to simplistic narratives. However, while they are not willing to write off ISIS as a group of psychopaths, instead trying to assess their reasoning and appeal, their assessment of the goals of “moderate” Syrian rebel forces, their unquestioning assumption that Assad used chemical weapons, and their account of Russia’s role in the conflict all struck me as perfunctory.

When these investigate patterns are coupled with a selective group of American interviewees, most notably Senator John McCain and General Michael Flynn, one can detect a subtle US interventionist message at work. However, that message is never over-stated and Junger and Quested spend a good deal of time criticizing the US approach to Iraq, so the film is not uncritical of the West and its interventions overseas. Overall, the film never comes across as an essay crafted to persuade the viewer to support a military invasion of Syria or to adopt a refugee family. You might think these things after the movie, but it’s not the movie’s point.

For someone like myself who has followed the civil war in Syria for some time now, there are not many new revelations in the documentary; however, I found the movie to be an incredibly useful summary of the origins and events in chronological order, something news articles rarely provide in detail. The film packs in a wealth of information, background, and context, talking head interviews, and more-personal narratives into its relatively-short running time, making this an indispensable chronicle of Syria and ISIS. Some of the footage Junger and Quested assemble is astonishing, such as front-line skirmishes alongside rebel fighters, high-production-quality ISIS propaganda videos, and the Toulouse shooter’s headcam. It seems that no matter how crazy the conflicts and events today, someone is shooting with a cellphone or wearing a GoPro.

One particularly moving storyline follows two families as they try to live in the countryside of Syria under Assad and then ISIS, then showing their attempts to flee the country. Such elements help to remind us, amid all the historical facts, shocking war footage, and analysis of broad patterns, of the human element of the conflict. The film informs as it moves us to agree with the seventeenth-century English preacher-poet John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

8 out of 10

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS (2017, USA)

Directed by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested; written by Mark Monroe.