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New Documentary Traces the Rise of ISIS

In his new documentary, “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” filmmaker Nick Quested traces the geopolitical decisions that unwittingly contributed to the Syrian conflict and the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Syrian pro-government forces set up a road checkpoint next to a mural reading, in Arabic, “Islamic State,” after they took control of the northern Syrian town of Maskanah from the jihadists on June 5, 2017. AFP/George OURFALIAN

After the death of his friend and colleague Tim Hetherington in the Libyan city of Misrata, documentary filmmaker Nick Quested decided to delve even more deeply into the Middle East’s complex domestic issues and foreign interventions.

His latest documentary traces the worsening of the war in Syria, among other factors that have enabled the rise of the so-called Islamic State and one of the worst refugee crises of our time. “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” premiered on National Geographic on Sunday.

Syria Deeply spoke with Quested, who directed the documentary along with author Sebastian Junger, about collecting more than 1,000 hours of footage in Iraq and Syria.

Syria Deeply: You have produced more than 35 films covering various topics. Please tell us a little bit about why you chose to cover the war in Syria and ISIS.

Nick Quested: Sebastian and I have worked together since “Restrepo” [a documentary about a platoon of U.S. soldiers being deployed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley]. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian were shooting [as the co-directors of “Restrepo”] and I financed the post-production and helped place it in the marketplace. In 2011, Tim was killed in Libya by a mortar, and then Sebastian and I made a film about Tim because we thought that the best people to make a film about him were his friends and colleagues. We’ve continued to examine the subjects of conflicts and brotherhood and those types of relationships as well.

We always followed the war in Syria, which is potentially the greatest tragedy of our generation. To see it unfold in micro-bites on the nightly news didn’t really give us a clear picture of what was going on. We wanted to make a film that holistically told the story of how the protests in the southern city of Daraa escalated into a series of mass protests that became a civil war after the violent oppression of those protests became a sectarian jihad that led to the rise of ISIS.

I also wanted to humanize the war by showing how war affected people on the ground. So we followed a family recently displaced from Aleppo and living in ISIS-controlled territory. We gave them a camera and they documented their life under ISIS, and then how they managed to smuggle themselves out of Syria and into Turkey over the front lines of the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and the Kurdish army and into Turkey, where we picked them up and followed them as they try to make it to Europe.

Syria Deeply: For this documentary, your team collected more than 1,000 hours of footage and over 100 interviews. How did you collect and verify it?

Quested: We commissioned a lot of that footage ourselves. All those interviews are probably an hour or two hours long, some were longer. Then we commissioned a group of activists and journalists through a variety of fixers that we used. We commissioned the stories based on research, and then instructed the journalists and cameramen on how to go and get it. In addition to that, I went to Turkey, Jordan and northern Iraq to film. We were some of the first journalists, the first Western journalists, into Qayyarah, which is a town just south of Mosul, which was key to the beginning of the Mosul assault. We went with the Iraqi Golden Division. We kept extensive notes and cross-referenced all our interviews and fact-checked them. I don’t think there’s very many controversial facts in our film. I think that the overall narrative is what becomes traumatic about the subject, because it’s just so tragic.

Syria Deeply: You did more than 100 interviews, with subjects ranging from a family fleeing ISIS-controlled territory, Kurdish fighters, Iraqi Shia militiamen and al-Qaida-affiliated fighters in and around Aleppo and Raqqa, as well as high-profile French and U.S. politicians, like former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, Michael T. Flynn. What were those interviews like?

Quested: It depended. Some interviews were much harder to get, like Michael Flynn. The think-tank interviews were much easier to get; it’s basically their job, and we’re very grateful for that input for our check and verify process. The idea was to explain how geopolitical decisions filtered down to affect all the levels of society, from politicians to the commanders, the combatants, the inhabitants. That’s why we have such a broad range of interviews with intellectuals, politicians, combatants and the family that represents the inhabitants. Combatants in war are generally not the most loquacious people. It took a lot of meetings and trust-building from a lot of people to understand that we’re just trying to tell their story and not trying to throw a slant on it.

Syria Deeply: Just a few days ago, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officially launched the offensive on Raqqa. How do you think this will change the narrative that was the focus of the documentary?

Quested: I think it will accelerate the elimination of ISIS on the battlefield. Both the YPG and the [Turkish] PKK are exceptionally well-trained and battle-hardened fighters. They are an excellent force but improperly equipped to fight something as resilient as ISIS. So I think it’s an interesting policy move for the U.S. to support the Kurdish militias.

Syria Deeply: What conclusions would you like people to draw from this documentary?

Quested: We want to sensitize people to the fact that the families that you see are normal families. They are working-class people. [One] had a truck repair shop, [the other] a cell-phone shop. They were displaced from Aleppo by the bombardment from the regime. Then, faced with this uncertainty and living under ISIS, they were forced to flee to Turkey.

We want Americans and people of the world to understand that when faced with the same choices, you would probably do the same thing that this family did. The world needs to be as accommodating as possible and inclusive of families like this. Because they need your help and you would want that help if you were in that position.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The documentary can be viewed here.

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