Filmmaker Nick Quested Explains Why Syria Is ‘Hell On Earth’
"We were always looking to find the humanity in the darkest places"
Just when you think you have a handle on what’s going on in the world, a documentary like Hell on Earth reminds you that you know nothing at all. Most of us are aware that war-torn Syria is one of the most dangerous places on the planet right now, but how many of us know what’s really going on? We’ve all heard about terror attacks carried out by a group known as the Islamic State in Syria, aka ISIS. We’re also aware of the refugee crisis highlighted in M.I.A.’s brilliant music video “Borders.” But how many of us understand that all of these crises stem from a long-running conflict between Syria’s government and young people inspired by what was once hopefully described as the “Arab Spring,” a youth movement that started around 2010 and swept across the Middle East? After the Obama administration failed to support the uprising, it began to morph into something else and eventually ISIS took over. Though all of this is arguably the most important story in the world today, our news media has done a terrible job of informing the public.
Let me start off by saying congratulations for putting something so real out there. After the screening I was literally speechless. Even if you’ve been following everything that’s covered in the news, seeing the Syrian civil war on screen is so different then what you could ever conjure up in your mind.
People are seeing this conflict in microbursts. You know they see it in the news in little bits. When you start to aggregate the content and all those events, you start to put them in context. You give it a timeline. It really brings some clarity to the situation. It starts to really explain the gravity of the situation. For all my issues with the [Obama] administration about their approach to Syria, they’re doing it in real time. It’s very difficult… We’re sitting here in 2017 assembling a timeline of what happened. All those decisions are very difficult to make.
So, lets start from the beginning: How did you end up getting into this?
I collaborated with Sebastian on several films, starting with Restrepo with our colleague Tim Hetherington. We’ve been touching on issues of conflict and war and the small units within war—that’s particularly what Restrepo was about, how young men form a sort of societal bond. So we’ve been examining this topic excessively. When Tim was killed in Libya we made a film about him, again we’re touching on similar things, because that’s what we were always discussing. We were always looking to find the humanity in the darkest places. There’s no darker place than the Syrian civil war at the moment.
We wanted to explain how the Islamic State came to be. How geopolitical decisions filtered down to influence what started as a series of protests which would then be suppressed. That became a civil war, which then turned into a sectarian jihad. So we’re trying to explain, holistically, how this happened—like the big picture. We took the families, a microcosm to show, well, this is what actually happens to people on the ground who were affected directly by the Islamic State and forced to leave.
One of the most amazing parts of the movie is the family you show who are living through this. I guess it’s a nightmare situation, with young children. I assume they’re one of many families who are living this way every single day. How did you connect with them?
So I did most of the field reporting. I probably took, over the course of the year, I myself probably took 20 trips. At least 10 long trips to the region—maybe more. I think we totaled 39 trips total.
Wow. That was over a period of how long?
A year and a half. That includes other journalists that were working for us. But it was 39 trips. So we developed this networked of fixers and activists that were helping us tell the story. Then we would check and verify everything that we possibly could. So the family was Adnan al-Muhammad’s brothers. He said, “My family’s planning to leave ISIS territory. They were recently displaced from Aleppo but they cant live under the Islamic State. Would that be something you’re interested in?” So then we worked on that, we managed to get them a camera, we gave them a short 2-pager on how to shoot, like always turn the camera sideways, and try and focus on your feelings and your children’s feelings and try to give us a sense of your environment. Try to give us, you know, road signs, political road markings that you possibly could. And which they managed to do very effectively. I mean truly… I think they were better than 99% of the film school kids that I’ve seen with enormous amounts of training.
Yeah, I didn’t realize that they were actually under no directorial guidance and just shooting what they wanted. They definitely brought a perspective on things that I don’t think you could capture any other way.
I think using the cameras like that when it’s actually the participants filming themselves, it’s much more documentary than a big white guy pulling a camera out. Smart phones are ubiquitous even in war zones. When they pull a camera out it doesn’t change the behavior of anyone around them. So they can really show you what it’s like to be there.
One of the most stressful but incredible scenes was the part where they family tries to cross the border. Was that the dad again just using a camera phone?
Yeah absolutely. They filmed themselves all the way until they got to Turkey where I picked them up and shadowed them for a little bit.
What were you initial feelings? You probably didn’t know if you were going to see them on the other side or not.
Well we were just elated and relieved that they made it. We were communicating through Adnan at that point because we were not really able to communicate by a text. So we didn’t know what was going on while they were in Syria. We had to wait for them to come out into Turkey. I remember getting a text one day from Adnan saying “My family’s here.” So we were very happy to hear that.
When they had to do the second trip they weren’t as successful. They were trying to then go again on the boat
On the subsequent trips trying to cross the sea—which you don’t see—they tried seven times to get on a boat to get there. It was very complicated. The cousin you see in the film, he actually held the money, so they would negotiate with the smugglers. But the smugglers often abandoned them on the beach. So they were abandoned on the beach the first time they were there. It was actually a friendly policeman who drove them home in a van. They weren’t arrested at the time and they subsequently went another five times before they were successful on the seventh attempt. We have footage of them on the beat trying to heat water for the baby, milk for the baby in a plastic bottle. They were on the beach and you know the beach is a terrible place to stay overnight. We couldn’t get close because the smugglers had dogs. There was nothing we could do to help them. Like I got out of the car once and we followed them the first time and we got out the car and we got back in and we didn’t know what…
We fixed up our camera stuff, we got back in the car, we drove another 100 feet closer and a pack of dogs came out the woods. It looked like the Hounds of the Baskervilles. Probably a dozen dogs, like Staffordshire terriers—big dogs, big terrier dogs—bouncing off the car. If we were outside of the car it would’ve been really bad. It makes sense like if a smuggler shoots you, someone’s gonna have to pay the price, there’s gonna have to be an investigation. You get bit by a stray dog, that’s a stray dog.
You mention that majority of time they get stranded is it because they don’t want to get caught?
I think it’s a combination of things. I’m not in the smuggling business but I think they made good enough money to fill the boat and the smugglers, it’s not a commoditized business. You don’t buy a ferry ticket. So if they didn’t have enough people on the boat, or if something didn’t go right or a boat didn’t come back, there could be a million reasons why they just get abandoned there
Yeah, but ultimately on a human level are they trying to help their people to an extent?
They’re smugglers. They’re people smugglers. It’s a commodity. They don’t care about the people. They care about the money. They care about if they make the crossing, they care if they make the money. They wouldn’t put 80 people in the boat if they knew…they put as many people in the boat because it’s the most profitable thing, not because it’s the safest thing to do.
Well you’ve seen the whole process now.
There’s a whole business in Turkey now of selling life jackets, selling boats. It’s a multi-million pound business. Weekly I’m sure. If you think it costs just under $1000/adult to cross to Greece and there’s 80 people on that boat, that’s 80 grand.
Send three boats a night…that’s a business.
How are these refugee families able to afford this? Are they using all their live savings?
They use everything they can because they have no other choice. They don’t wanna stay in Syria and be bombed to death, they’d rather take the risk of a chance at life in Europe.
Are they literally carrying everything? All their belongings and all their savings with them at all times?
Oh absolutely. They carry everything. Their entire possessions they carry with them.
So that in itself is a risk. And people are aware of that.
Yeah, totally. They can be robbed at any time. We have footage in some extras we created for the film of a smuggler who was on the boat and the boat was sinking and is rescued by the NGO’s in Greece. They find out he’s a smuggler and he’s got jewelry and watches, you know. It’s a terrible business, they are so vulnerable to exploitation… And they are exploited. Even the best-case scenario they are.
The other thing that really stuck out in my mind was the Go-Pro footage of that guy on the motorcycle who was shooting people in France. How did you get that footage?
Yeah, that’s the first time you see jihad from the first person. You’ve seen people fly airplanes into buildings, you’ve seen people blow themselves up on security cameras, you’ve seen people put pressure cookers in crowds in Boston and then run away. But you’ve never seen someone as cold, as evil, as calculated, and as calm as Muhammad Mera. It just shows you how deeply evil and malevolent they are. How it could have nothing to do with religion at this point.
This is one of the points that really comes across. This person is entirely brainwashed and that’s really what we’re dealing with when it comes to terrorists I guess. You have managed to create a great network where you’re able to get this out there, but has it been difficult?
Has it been difficult getting this stuff out there? We’re always looking for more awareness for a tragedy like this to make people understand what is really happening. But we’re really lucky that National Geographic commissioned this film. So it’s really in their hands to get it as wide and far as possible.
What kind of response have you had with this film?
So far it’s been an overwhelmingly positive response. People who have seen the film have responded in an overwhelmingly positive way, and thanked us for sort of giving this holistic view of the war and explaining what actually happens. People who haven’t seen the whole film and have just seen the trailer and are happy to troll online, it’s much more polarized. There’s discussions of propaganda, there’s discussions of fake news—and I can tell you, there’s no fake news in what we presented. Everything is verified and double-checked and is factual.
How does Trump affect the big picture now?
I think it’s been interesting because as Michael says in the film, and I think what he says it appropriate because it’s one of the last times he was candid in public. I see Trump wants to claim victory against the Islamic State and to that end he’s armed the Kurdish militia, the SDF, which is a combination of the PKK, which is an enemy of the Turks, and the YPG, who are Turks. And that is a big step to arm the Kurds is…they’re probably the most effective military force in the region. I think it’s a good thing that the U.S. is using the Kurds in this way to apply pressure on the Islamic State.
As a film maker you’re always at risk when making documentaries,. Did you or your team have any particular stresses while filming?
Well, I got arrested in Iraq. I was almost arrested in Turkey twice. Frontline journalism is a tricky business. You have to evaluate the risk and rewards extensively. We were lucky that some of the risks we did take we were rewarded for and some of the other risks we did take didn’t hurt us. So in the end we were quite lucky.
Are there any risks in simply putting it out? Do you have any scary feelings having made the film?
No. I don’t think we’ve misrepresented anyone in this film so I have no fear of unwarranted retribution. I don’t see the Islamic State having reach out and touch capabilities. They’re not the Russians. They’re not the French. They’re not the Americans.
One of the things that I really respected about the movie was that, as brutal as ISIS can be, you made an effort to show the brutality that has been going on through the centuries in different countries at different times. There is a long history of public lynchings in America. Every country has done bad things to their own people at some point.
Absolutely. It’s much easier to murder someone brutally in public and control everyone through the fear of that happening to them than it is to… That’s the most effective way to keep public order. Public violence has been a way to control the population that’s been used from the beginning of time. The Romans were particularly good at it—the crucifixion of Jesus being a particularly brutal way to kill someone. You don’t die from blood loss during crucifixion. You die from asphyxiation. You can’t hold yourself up and you slowly die. It’s like a two-day process. Not a good way to go. The crusades… We think about public violence and the Crusaders were the most brutal invading force that you can imagine.
Right. Especially since 9/11 people are constantly living in fear of terrorism. One thing your film seemed to highlight that ISIS actually having less and less power within Syria because they’re making enemies everywhere.
Yes, I’d say that the Islamic State are losing militarily. They’ve got too many enemies confronting them directly. They’re going to be overwhelmed, but the ideology stays virulent. I wanted to point out that the chances of you being affected directly by terrorism, being murdered by a terrorist—in a terrorist attack, or even anything close to it—is very small. But your life will change from populist politicians using the tragedy of terrorism for political capital. So your life is much more likely to be changed because of that, not because of the act of terrorism itself.
Right. London just went through it
I mean it’s a tragedy. It’s the radicalization of the youth. Generally people aren’t even talking about the kid like Dylann Roof in America. What’s the difference between Dylan Roofe as a young disenfranchised, asocial kid who gets politicized and weaponized by white nationalists? Empowered by this populist momentum that’s in America at the moment. What’s the difference between that and the kid in Manchester? It’s a very similar…when I went college people use to talk to me about “Watch out for the cults” “If anyone comes to talk to you whether it be the Moonies—you better watch out” right? But now it’s more organized and hard to detect because the guys of these movements have a veneer of respectability.
It was incredible just to see how advanced into media and technology ISIS has become.
You’ve got to think of it this way. That kid in Manchester, he’s second generation, he should be living the English dream. He sees everyone else living it. He’s probably more upset than his father who used to live in Libya and immigrated to the country and buys into British ideals much more easily because… His father’s successful, they own their own house, he has his own room, he’s dislocated from his family in a certain sense. Not like when families all used to live much closer together. You’ve got the further dislocation of actual society and computers, so this kid could be living a whole new existence on his computer in his room, dislocated from his family. They might even still eat together, they might do those traditional things, but they’ve lost that parental control and that parental relationship that you used to have. I mean, I don’t know if that’s the case in this situation but the more money you have the further apart the family grows in many ways.
Also something that I remember feeling quite freaked out about last year was the young girls in London who were pretending to go to school and they’d end up joining these radical groups.
And their mother knew nothing, right?
Exactly. Nobody would have guessed
And then they were off on a flight to Turkey and on the Jihad Express and running across the border.
So in a nutshell if you had to sum up what you really want people to take away from this film, what would you say?
Well I’d say the message of the film is that you need to be more sympathetic to refugees and displaced people. Because if that happened to you in New York then you’d be asking the same type of protection from other countries around the world, and it could be us. The family that we followed, in Syrian terms, is a middle-class family. They had a truck repair shop and a cellphone shop. So they were very successful in their own right in Aleppo. Then this war came through their town and they had to move. The fact that they’re being marginalized in Turkey because they can’t go anywhere else is a tragedy. It could be very likely you if you lived in Aleppo. You’d be facing the same issues as them.