Wednesday, October 5, 2016

In THEO WHO LIVED, a kidnapped journalist survives to show & tell in David Schisgall's doc

How odd that, within a bit more than two weeks, two documentaries would open that feature their protagonists as both the subject and the narrator of their tales. And yet, the two films are as different as, well, oil and water, or maybe truth and falsehood. The first was the more-or-less execrable doc about that faker, JT Leroy/Laura Albert, a movie that seems to exist to build upon, glamorize and entertain us with lies. The second, opening this Friday, offers a lot more truth -- which, these days, seems a rarer commodity than one might think in documentary films.

THEO WHO LIVED tells the true story behind the 2012 kidnapping by Syria's al-Qaeda of American journalist Theo Padnos, who was held and tortured, escaped only to be caught, held and tortured some more, for nearly two years. As the title explains and as anyone who remotely followed this story at the time will know, Theo does live and is here now on film to provide us with his tale, as helped along by the documentary's director, David Schisgall (at left), who also acted as screen-writer (which I take to mean that he helped Theo present a more professional scenario).

As Theo (shown in the photos below) points out, and more than once as I recall, it was rather stupid of him, as a not-so-well-known freelancer, to undertake this speculative opportunity to interview fighters inside Syria and then write about them and hope to sell the piece. But he did. And then paid dearly for it. The young men who promised to put him in touch with those he wanted to interview turned out to be al-Qaeda agents only too happy to first beat an American journalist senseless, then turn him over to the powers-that-be.

Theo, however, spoke fluent Arabic and is also, as we soon see, hear and understand, a smart, resourceful and above all empathetic fellow. As horrible as things grew from time to time, he managed to form a kind of bond with his captors (some of them, at least) that somehow helped him survive. How all this occurred is told us by Theo as he returns to some of the landmarks of that "trip" -- which began in Turkey (the border of which with Syria, he explains, is quite a porous one), moves on to Syria and imprisonment, and ends up in Israel.

Much of the film uses recreations, but always with Theo front and center, to explain what went on and why. We visit the small apartment building in Turkey where those supposedly university students lived, and meet the "nice young men" who live there now and who might be, from all we know, al-Qaeda themselves. All this is uneasy-making and deliberately so. Theo's first escape comes fairly easily, it seems, and he ends up in the local police station. What happens next is doubly disturbing and should give you a very good sense of how the law operates in Middle-eastern countries at war with themselves.

As all this is happening we meet Theo's mom and sister (the latter is shown above, with Theo), who describe their actions and feelings as all of this was going on. "It's an emotional dead zone," mom explains. the "routine of daily life" being all that keeps one going. Theo remembers so many details that his experience resonates with alternately lively and horrible events. He also, without even trying it seems, expresses via his very being how his personality and liveliness enabled him to carry on. Even so, you may find yourself wondering how he could have managed this without totally giving in and up. Especially after those guards who were kindest to him end up dead and/or martyred.

Theo's story grows more and more amazing without ever seeming to lose its hold on the truth. There's another prisoner added to the mix who, with Theo's help, manages to escape but leaves our boy behind to face the consequences. Another journalist, Jim Foley, is taken prisoner and the two families of the men unite and help each other as best they can over the dark time ahead. Finally, Theo's mom explains how "shoe size" figures into all this, and her remarks proves darkly ironic and telling.

At the end of it all, how Theo feels about the whole experience -- his torture, his captors, and what is going on in the middle east -- should, if you are listening and feeling keenly enough, stop you in your tracks. Thanks to Mr. Schisgall and Theo we've been given entry into an experience that puts us in touch with life and the world in a new and very different manner that encompasses much more than you will expect. All the details Theo has given us add up, in their strange and specific way, to what really matters. Suddenly we look at things differently: the homeless man on the street in Israel, for instance.

This an amazing movie and, for my money so far this year, it's the documentary to beat come Oscar time. From Zeitgeist Films and running 86 minutes, Theo Who Lived opens this Friday, October 7, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema; in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Brattle Theater on October 14; and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center on Friday, October 21. Click here, then scroll down, to see all currently scheduled playdates -- which I hope, once word-of-mouth starts growing, will increase exponentially.

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