New film explores rise of Islamic State

Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, as two of the world’s most acclaimed war documentary filmmakers, have witnessed the horrors of mankind.


Their films include Restrepo, the 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary depicting the year Junger and the late British photojournalist Tim Hetherington were embedded with a US Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, considered one of the most dangerous postings in the US military.

American Junger and UK-born Quested, in what could be their last war film, have turned their attention to the terror group Islamic State and the Syrian civil war with Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.

Junger and Quested recently spoke to AAP about the documentary, which airs in Australia on National Geographic on Tuesday (June 13) at 7.30pm AEST.

Q: What was the main motivation for making this documentary?

SJ: We both felt it was possible to make a 90-minute survey of the Syrian civil war to explain how it started, why it got so bad and why ISIS came out of this situation.

Q: Looking into your crystal balls, what will Syria be like in five or 10 years time?

NQ: I’d hope for some type of relative peace and potentially some type of federally partitioned republic.

SJ: I think you would have to bring the Russians in on that. You would have to crush ISIS. Bring the Russians in and figure out a partition like they did with Bosnia which requires Russian co-operation.

Q: What was something your investigation unearthed that surprised you?

NQ: Finding humanity in these dark places. People with sunny dispositions and generous natures.

Q: That was fascinating. You focus part of the documentary on a Syrian family living in hellish conditions and they still manage to smile and remain positive.

SJ: I wrote a book about this and it seems to me adverse conditions produce positive social behaviour in humans. Situations that are safe and comfortable allow for people to act selfishly. In times of hurricanes, civil wars, the blitz in London, people recall those times with enormous fondness because it brought out the best human behaviours.

Q: Have you kept in touch with the family in the documentary?

NQ: They are in Izmir, Turkey. They have opened a shop and selling small things to the Syrian community there, which is massive.

Q: During your investigation, did you come across any Australians in Syria or Iraq or any other Australian links?

NQ: We did come across a preacher in Melbourne that we found intriguing that has been given a travel ban in Australia. We were going to have a chat to him but it was hard to tie him into the overall narrative.

Q: It was interesting seeing your interview with Donald Trump’s fired national security adviser General Michael Flynn.

NQ: We interviewed him in March last year. It was a long and involved interview and we wanted that voice in the film that said, ‘You have to be aware of politicians using refugees for political gain’. We think it is even more poignant now that Michael Flynn subsequently changed his opinion. That’s why we kept the interview.

SJ: He also makes a case for nation building as a solution to the refugee crisis which of course is completely an anathema to Donald Trump’s world view. I found that fascinating.

Q: Did General Flynn take any calls from Vladimir Putin during your interview?

NQ: (Laughs) No, but we had a lot of conversations with Mr Lavrov’s (Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov) office about an interview which in the end he declined.

Q: What is next for you guys? Is it time for a romantic comedy?

NQ: (Laughs) Well, I’m going to a direct a thriller in New York called Cleaning House. It’s a little lighter. We like to balance things. If you were to just do this you would lose perspective on the world.

SJ: Absolutely. I don’t want to be involved in stuff like that again. I stopped war reporting a few years ago. I don’t think I want to go into another film that is violent and graphic like this one was. I feel like I understand war to the extent that I want to understand it and I just became a father for the first time. My wife and I just had a little girl.