Having worked on a series of documentaries that took western audiences behind the scenes of the Afghanistan conflicts, particularly with the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, filmmaker Sebastien Junger has set his sights on a new frontline, this time offering an accessible and shocking breakdown of what’s occurring in Syria.
For some, the Syrian crisis is a complex issue that’s hard to find time or reason to understand. Whether it’s the origins of the war (which seems to have all started with nothing more than schoolyard graffiti), and how the Arab Spring immediately looked positive for the country only to lead to a living nightmare, or the practicalities of what’s currently occurring.
Hell On Earth does more than enough to break it down for western audiences, employing a variety of video sources to reveal what it’s like on the front line, unearthing footage from the everyday people forced to suffer a torrent of atrocities.
Indeed, we live in a time of camera-phones, which means the suffering of distant populations no longer require news correspondents to turn up with a camera crew. Far from it, as with his previous films, the footage Junger and fellow director Quested (who served as producer on the Afghanistan-based docs) have obtained is a shocking experience, taking the viewer deep into the heart of the civil war and showing what it’s like for everyday people to try and survive a war that’s literally landing on their doorstep.
Where it is extremely successful is connecting universal fear, which is achieved by focussing on two brothers displaced by the war, one particular is trying to keep his family alive amid the bombs and ISIS maniacs. The family’s presence, while utterly heartbreaking, is essential in landing the message that Syrian refugees don’t want to lose their homes, nor do they want to die at the hands of ISIS. And yet the west largely rejects them. Something it’s hard to imagine doing when their plight is so clear to see, as it is here.
Much of what the western audience needs to know about the situation is crammed into the opening hour, and by the final third, which meanders around the various consequences of the war, many a viewer will have had enough of the unrelenting horror (many dead bodies and child deaths are depicted, albeit not graphically). But seeing the story through is essential. One way or another, this is a story that will never achieve a happy ending.