This week, U.S.-backed forces launched an attack to retake an ISIS stronghold in Syria, beginning what is expected to be a long and difficult fight in the midst of international terror attacks and diplomatic discord. In a new documentary, Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested examine the horrific conditions created by ongoing violence in the region, and how its effects reverberate around the world.
Junger and Quested previously collaborated on a series of documentary films including the Academy Award-nominated Restrepo. We spoke with Junger and Quested before the premiere of Hell on Earth, on National Geographic.
HELL ON EARTH: SYRIA'S CIVIL WAR Go behind the scenes of National Geographic Documentary Films' Hell on Earth with creators Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested. They discuss civil war, the rise of ISIS, and Syria's complex refugee crisis.
Why did you decide to make this film?
SJ: We decided to make a film on the Syrian civil war because it is the greatest tragedy of this generation, and it pulls in many different world powers in an extremely dangerous way. And it created ISIS, which is unparalleled in its savagery, and we felt needed an explanation.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the production process?
SJ: By the time we started working on this, it was virtually suicidal for a Western journalist to go into Syria itself. So we had to establish connections with people in Turkey who knew other people in Syria who could shoot for us. We had people with the Kurds, with the Shia militias in northern Iraq, with the Free Syrian army, and other militia groups. We even tried to get a cameraman with ISIS, but in the end, that proved impossible to do.
NQ: While I was covering the Islamic State's exploitation of oil reserves, I was filming a pipeline in Kirkuk in Iraq and I was arrested. That was a little bit of a sobering moment, but it turned out alright, they were the peshmerga [Kurdish military forces] and not the Islamic State. I ended up drinking a lot of tea with the generals and trying to find some common ground, which football's very good for.
What was it like to film in the conflict zones?
NQ: It’s quite tense, because you can see the town has been flattened and there’s booby traps everywhere. You have to be very careful about where you walk, constantly walk in the footsteps of the people in front of you. And the Islamic State had blown the pipelines that went from the oil wells to the refinery, so that's why you can see those huge clouds of black smoke, and that was particularly unpleasant.
Can you tell us more about the refugee family followed in the film? How did you get that footage?
NQ: That footage was shot by the family themselves. Radwan and Marwan are the brothers of Adnan al-Mohammad, who was one of the archaeologists for the National Museum of Damascus. We were working with him, trying to establish how the Islamic State used to mine antiquities and sell them, and he mentioned that his family was recently displaced from Aleppo and was in the ISIS-occupied territory, and they were looking to escape to Europe. He asked if we would be interested in filming that, and we said of course.
We managed to get them a camera and then we gave them a two-page document about how to film themselves. We said to tell us how you feel all the time, show what life is like where you're living wherever you possibly can, and try and shoot landmarks so we can understand where you were.
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So they filmed in Manbij, in Islamic State-controlled territory. Then they're crossing the front lines to the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish front lines, and then eventually crossing the border into Turkey, where I picked them up and interviewed them. I continued to follow them to Izmir, where they tried to cross into Europe, but they were turned back on the day of the EU-Turkish treaty. They spent a week in a detention centre, and they went back to living in Izmir after that. They tried seven times to get to Europe and were unsuccessful.
What do you want people to know about the situation in Syria?
NQ: We want to sensitise people to the fact that most refugees are normal people. Marwan had a truck repair garage, and Radwan had a cell phone shop. These are very normal people who were faced with some very stark choices of living under the Islamic State, or living under the consistent bombardment of Bashar al-Assad and the Russians. They did what they had to do to survive, and we want people to be more sensitive to the fact that if they were faced with the same options, they would do the same thing.
HELL ON EARTH: EXTREMIST IDEOLOGIES Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested discuss the Syrian Civil War and how it created an opportunity for extremist ideologies to spread.
SJ: The people of Syria, both refugees and those still in Syria, are people just like us. My father was a refugee from two wars. And I think as a country we were very lucky to get my father and other friends of mine who are war refugees. And likewise, there are many Syrians that we as a country would be lucky to have as citizens.
Why are you interested in stories about war?
NQ: I’ve always been interested not necessarily in the war itself, but by trying to find humanity in the darkest places. And some of the dark places are at the most contentious places, which can be the front line.
SJ: I think war contains ancient human narratives of courage, cowardice, group loyalty, of self-sacrifice, that have always been important to the human experience, and they’re exemplified in very intense ways on the battlefield. In making documentaries about war, I felt that I was addressing some of those eternal themes and I wanted to explain to the American public what I had come to understand about war, having covered it for a decade.