NEW YORK (CNS) — Sadly, the title of directors Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s documentary “Hell on Earth” isn’t hyperbolic.
Subtitled “The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” the commendable, informative, yet less than fully realized film debuted June 11 and is playing in reruns throughout the month on the National Geographic cable channel.
“Hell on Earth” is rife with graphic images of war at its most brutal and of the suffering of the innocent Syrian people as the victims of their own government’s savagery. The footage — by now, sadly familiar — of the tortuous convulsions of children suffering from the effects of sarin nerve gas will certainly distress and perhaps nauseate viewers.
Understandably, some may not be inclined to subject themselves to the visceral, disturbing sights “Hell on Earth” presents. But those judicious adults who confront these realities will at least be reminded, albeit in the most challenging way, of our common humanity.
As the filmmakers recount, what many have called our era’s worst humanitarian crisis began with a modest act of rebellion. A Syrian teenager, one of the “freedom boys of Daraa,” recalls in an interview what happened in 2011 when he and some friends painted slogans critical of the notorious Bashar Assad regime: They were arrested and tortured with electric rods for their putative offenses.
When the Syrian people discovered this, protests broke out in the streets as well as through social media. According to author Robin Yassin Kassab — who appears frequently in the film — initially the protesters “weren’t calling for regime change.” They were just looking for “dignity” — an important concept, as Kassab points out, “in a country where people are used to being pushed around.”
The brutality with which Assad responded led, in Kassab’s words, to a “cycle of protests, gunfire, funerals the next day, more protests, bigger demands for freedom, social justice, the end of corruption, followed by more violence.” This cycle, in turn, engendered the rise of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group prepared to use force to obtain freedom for its country’s citizens.
As the conflict stalled and dragged on, the influence of the Islamic State began to spread from Iraq to Syria. To date, the utterly ruthless terrorism of ISIS, together with the equally merciless barbarism of the Assad regime, has caused some 400,000 Syrian deaths, and sent one million refugees fleeing to Europe alone.
The ascent of ISIS is a complicated story involving several moving parts and many actors, American foreign policymakers among them. Although outlining this sad saga requires some exposition, “Hell on Earth” takes too long to accomplish that task.
Viewers will find it difficult to keep track of the vast array of commentators and of the often-unfamiliar affiliations and titles of those who explain the pertinent issues. Those include the much-debated role played in all this by the United States, which draws a barrage of blame from the filmmakers.
By constantly referring back to the analysis of its experts — bafflingly, even fired former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s views are solicited — “Hell on Earth” stalls, losing its narrative momentum. As each talking head adds a piece to the puzzle, moreover, the film becomes ever more unwieldy.
Consequently, and despite its admirable intentions, “Hell on Earth” fails, ultimately, either to cohere or to satisfy.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.