In late 2012, Theo Padnos entered war-torn Syria as a freelance journalist looking for material for a great story to submit to a publication like the New Republic (but not The New Yorker—he matter-of-factly states that he could never get something published in that magazine). In Theo Who Lived, a documentary about his two-year imprisonment by Al Qaeda in Syria, viewers get a vivid sense of this eccentric, daring person and what motivated him to take the profound risk of venturing to a war zone.
The film traces his steps when he entered Syria in 2012, hopeful that he could interview some local youths for insight into the raging civil war involving the repressive regime, the Free Syrian Army, and terrorist groups. The film offers a wealth of information about the intricacies of the Syrian conflict, as well as the humanizing, quotidian realities of cartoonishly evil participants like Al Qaeda. But perhaps its most distinctive and memorable quality is the insight into the eccentricities of Padnos himself, a figure at once fearless and submissive, charismatic and grating. There is more than a little Timothy Treadwell about him in his mannerisms and his nearly manic desire to insert himself in dangerous situations to uncover unseen truths, heedless of glaring risks. Think of Theo Who Lived as Grizzly Man meets Al Qaeda.
During his very first interview with Syrian teens, Padnos is assaulted and taken hostage, as the interviewees turn out to be Al Qaeda operatives. Padnos offers interesting tidbits about what really motivates such terrorists, and he says that the first thing they did upon kidnapping him was to blame him for a litany of American sins, from Wounded Knee to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, up to and including Guantanamo Bay.
Padnos takes viewers on a thorough tour of his captivity and his torture, with replicas and reconstructions of rooms where he was held. As he reenacts the beatings he was given, the fury with which he demonstrates how they let loose on him is jarring and makes clear that the physical scars may have healed but the psychological ones have not. The story takes a remarkable turn when he gets a cellmate, a fellow captured American, the photojournalist Matthew Schrier.
Schrier is described as being almost more aggressive and intimidating than the captors. Eventually, the two are able to work together well enough to hatch an escape plan—Padnos gets on all fours and acts as a human footstool for Schrier to remove a window and crawl through. Padnos, of course, expects to be pulled up to freedom with Schrier after helping him escape, but Schrier instead flees. Yet this betrayal does not embitter the saintly Padnos, who claims not to blame Schrier for only thinking of himself. He did, however, expect Schrier to tell the U. S. government where they were being kept so a rescue party would be sent for him. Though weeks and months ticked by, and it became obvious that no cavalry was coming, Padnos still claims he doesn’t blame the CIA, as he imagines that they have plenty of more pressing matters to attend to.
Padnos’s empathy runs so deep that he does not blame Al Qaeda for their hatred of the West and even for holding him hostage. A remarkable chronicle of compassion, this film highlights how much more powerful kindness and love can be than the forces of destruction and hate. It offers an unparalleled look into a man who endured profound suffering, and yet he became stronger and more empathetic because of it. This is not to say that Padnos is some otherworldly saint—he is a down-to-earth, relatable figure, if an eccentric one. But the documentary demonstrates his humanity, revealing that seemingly superhuman empathy and compassion are within reach of all of us.
Such a vivid portrayal of a life in captivity, with a happy ending, is a rare accomplishment, and Theo Who Lived should be widely seen. It is valuable equally for its depiction of forgiveness and understanding, as well as its unparalleled look into the largely hidden recesses of life in the more combustible sections of the Middle East.