It all started in 2011 with a teenage boy, Naief Abazid, and a can of spray paint. “It’s your turn, Doctor [Bashar Al-Assad]” — a reference to a recent string of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. It was Syria’s turn.
In the premier of “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, directors Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested compiled a collection of footage from inside the Syrian revolution. The documentary moves from inspiring, to heart breaking, to bone chilling. It follows the bubbling tensions that exploded into a civil war, that would eventually displace over half of the Syrian population and open the door for ISIS to grow into the global cancer it is today.
The film details the chaos of war that allowed an ISIS occupation in Iraq and Syria by focusing on the the region’s citizens who are just trying to survive. The film follows a family hiding in Aleppo, through their smuggled escape out of the war zone, and their attempt to cross the ocean to find safety in Greece.
How exactly ISIS managed to gain control of major cities straddled with war is one of the most important topics of the film. ISIS prioritized profits; capturing natural resources like oil, getting involved in weapons trafficking and human trafficking, and looting historical landmarks for antiquities. The fortunes the terror group has amassed is spent on their sophisticated propaganda machine, pumping out enticing, high-quality recruitment videos. In the end, the terror organization’s videos look similar to high-quality United States Armed Forces recruitment videos.
Throughout the film, as ISIS grows in influence and Syria descends further and further into hell, the filmmakers confront the uncomfortable truth that no single country, person, or movement is directly at fault for this situation. But, while Assad committed atrocities and while ISIS developed and perfected their organization, the situation probably could have been corrected by an international coalition — instead of becoming the unsolvable entanglement of proxy wars that Syria is today.
The documentary serves as insight into the past on how we got here. But it is also a lesson for the future, for when the next indiscriminate dictator inevitably loses their grip on their country and tries to force their people into submission with lethal force.
See more of our 2017 Tribeca Film Festival coverage.