Syria is ‘Hell on Earth’ as Sebastian Junger documents in new film

Pop, pop, pop: the sound of constant gunfire fills the air, and it’s nearly impossible to tell who is being targeted. Everyone in Daraa, Syria, who is protesting on the streets is being eyed through Syrian Army scopes. People are chanting with flags and signs, protesting the regime’s taking and torturing teenagers who spray-painted slogans against President Bashar al-Assad on a wall. Bullets hit protesters who hit the pavement. One after another. People are running, yelling to get a car as they carry a bloody body through the streets. The year is 2011, and Assad has begun using maximum force against peaceful demonstrators.

“Protests were met by gunfire which lead to funerals the next day,” British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab says in the National Geographic documentary “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.” “The funerals became bigger protests. The demands then began to get bigger. Social justice and freedom, the end to corruption. The regime responded again with more and more violence.”

The film is painful to watch: it not only documents the brutality of the government — with its guns, bombs and, yes, chemical weapons — but a family living right in the heart of it all. After Aleppo comes under constant attack, brothers Marwan and Radwan Mohammad, who are held up in a room outside of the city, gather their wives and young children and flee to the countryside. Still, they hear bombs drop all around them. The children cry and want to sleep with their parents; they have no books, no lives, and they need to get out of the Middle East. Tortured faces are transformed by smiles when they cross the border (smuggled in the back of a pickup truck) into Turkey. The brothers don’t want to stay there, and one wife fears they will drown on a raft on their way to Greece. At least they’ll all die together, her husband says.

Junger typically is on hand to chronicle worn-torn nations, as he was with Tim Hetherington (who died from a gunshot wound in Libya in 2011 while at work) for the 2010 documentary “Restrepo,” but he says that Quested couldn’t get into Syria, so many of the cameramen for “Hell on Earth” were stationed in Northern Iraq, where they could shoot safely. To get more direct views of Syria from within, the filmmakers gave cell phones to the Mohammad family so they could document their lives; they worked with Syrian cameramen who shot the war themselves; they pulled ISIS footage from the internet; and they bought additional footage from networks and elsewhere.

What is revealed in “Hell on Earth” is devastating. Perhaps the most difficult part of the film is seen from the perspective of a body camera worn by French-born ISIS supporter Mohammed Mera who, in 2012, rides up on a motorcycle and asks another biker if he’s in the French military. The man says yes, he’s been in for 10 years. Mera tells him to lie on the ground. The execution isn’t seen, but we hear gunfire. Mera later kills teachers and students from a Jewish school.

“It’s pretty clear on a human level what footage is provocative and what material [is so shocking] that you’ll shut down,” Junger says. “Interestingly the [motorcycle] footage isn’t bloody at all. [It’s] probably the most disturbing image in there [and] doesn’t show anyone getting killed.”

Mera’s murders, the film argues, are the first lone wolf ISIS attacks of many to come.

Back in Syria, men are defecting from the regime’s army to join the Free Syrian Army, which Assad considers a terrorist organization and targets it. The Free Syrian Army manages to fight against the government and ISIS, which has found a place for itself in yet another worn-town nation.

ISIS supports itself by forcing men to pay to pick their own olives, bakers to bake, and through “forgiveness cards” that people can buy to avoid being murdered.

The Syrian people see ISIS as a foreign occupation, and Yassin-Kassab says that the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front Militia and Al-Qaeda all begin to fight against Isis and eventually push it out of Syria and back into Iraq. ”[Today], ISIS has been all but crippled,” Junger says, adding that it was done by the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Pesh Merga and U.S. Special Forces, with air support and a Marine Artillery Battalion. “It had been devastated militarily on the ground.”

Junger says that while making the film he learned about the negative impact the United States had on Iraq, and thus its contribution to the formation of ISIS. And then there’s the issue of immigrants.

“I think the wartime refugee issue is a big one in this country right now,” Junger says. “I hope it gets people to be less dismissive about refugees [and immigrants]. I hope the film humanizes people trapped in civil war. … This country always had open doors and refugees, and that makes it a good country and we should continue [to take them in].”

Especially since, in Syria, Assad is still in power. He recently dropped more chemical weapons on his own people and it doesn’t look like his actions will change.

 The brutality of the Syrian regime is chronicled in “Hell on Earth,” which will show at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Wellfleet Public Library at 55 West Main St. Following the screening, filmmaker and Truro resident Sebastian Junger will be on hand to answer questions about the documentary he narrated and made with partner Nick Quested.

Junger says that one of the reasons the filmmakers took on Syria is because the six-year war has cost half a million lives. “It is the most costly, bloody, dangerous conflict of all of the Arab Spring’s conflicts and movements,” he says.

The documentary makes the case that the Arab Spring sprung from government corruption, which led to the ousting of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. When Assad saw that happening around him, he and his generals took swift and savage action, Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says in the film.

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