The National Geographic documentary “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” drew on more than 1,000 hours of footage and interviews in the war-torn region, proving to be a major challenge for the filmmakers in weighing the safety of journalists on the project.
The movie spotlights a family living under in an area under ISIS control, Shia militias in Iraq, Kurdish fighters in Sinjar and Al Qaeda operatives in Aleppo and Raqqa.
“We analyzed the risk reward on many things,” said Nick Quested, who directed “Hell on Earth” along with Sebastian Junger. “We had many interviews that seemed to be very attractive, and we would decide if these were safe to do. I don’t speak Arabic, so even in an interview it is an egotistical endeavor to go just to do the interview when you can send a journalist who you have prepped and trained who is local to the country and has much less value as a kidnap victim. So the chances of them kidnapping a Syrian are much smaller than a western journalist.”
The movie, which opened this weekend in New York and Los Angeles and airs next month on National Geographic, examines the roots of the Syrian civil war and the emergence of ISIS, but also fears of what lies ahead when it comes to the war on terror. They also feature chilling footage of Mohammed Merah, the extremist responsible for a string of attacks in 2012 in Toulouse, France. The documentary features video shot from a chest cam that Merah was wearing as he hunted down a French soldier and shot him.
“That was the first time you have seen the bold evilness of first person jihad,” Quested said, adding that Merah continues to be a “poster boy” for lone-wolf jihadists.
Quested also talks about why he thinks the recent U.S. airstrikes on a Syrian air base had little impact on the Assad regime’s actions.
“I think what is really going to have an impact is the arming of the SDF, which are the Kurdish militias … in the eastern parts of Syria,” he said. “I think the arming of that is going to aggravate the Turks an enormous amount. The Turks are especially sensitive to Kurdish empowerment in the region and I think that is much more significant and long lasting and potentially power balancing changing in the region.”
Quested also talks about interviewing Michael Flynn before he became a key figure in the Trump campaign and later served a brief tenure as national security adviser. In the movie, Flynn actually warns that the motives of ISIS are to instill terror — and that it could spill over into politics and the exploitation of issues like immigration.
Michael Kirk, director of the new Frontline documentary “Bannon’s War,” talks of how White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has influenced the White House so far — and how he’s likely to as the administration grapples with crisis.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11 a.m.-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.