Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 07, 2016 9:59 pm 
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A prisoner's tale

Peter Theo Curtis (a.k.a. "Theo Padnos") must have an unusually strong survival instinct. Despite his 48 years and 22 months as a prisoner of Al Qaeda, he is youthful and vigorous, self-deprecating and spirited as he tells the story of his harsh adventure in Syria to the camera of David Schisgall in the places where it happened. Schisgall's is a talking head film with a vengeance - Theo does 95% of the talking - but he is a good storyteller, and it's a good story, presented in a well-made and vital, if somewhat simplified, film. He seems to have a need to retell his ordeal, and the filmmaker to capture and enliven the retelling with appropriate locations and props. There are no restagings, and perhaps none needed.

In late fall 2012 he was a struggling journalist sharing a $50 a month room in Antakya, Turkey with a young Tunisian when he "threw his life away" as he himself tells it and slipped into Syria. He "interviewed" some "nice young men," students, who promptly kidnapped him for the Al-Nusra Front, then Al Qaeda's branch in Syria, late in his captivity its enemy. He had studied Arabic and Islam for years in Yemen and Syria, which made all the difference. So did his readiness to sympathize. Let's not call it Stockholm Syndrome of masochism. Because he already strongly opposed the US's incursions into the Middle East. He could tell his captors what all the US did wrong in Iraq better than they could. But first off, the assumed his fluent Arabic meant he was a CIA agent. They tortured him and held onto him.

His fluency also led to exceptional engagement with his captors and despite several escapes and recaptures and helping fellow prisoner Matt Schrier, a war photographer, escape (who he says lied about leaving him behind), he eventually became a sort of "houseboy" for Al Qaeda's command in Syria and, by the time of his release 22 months after capture, had become a confidante of its leader, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, who had plenty to complain about.

In the flm Schisgall follows Theo back to where he was then, and he acts out his experience, sometimes with gruesome detail of the torture, but also with an account of the novel he wrote on scraps of paper to stay sane that he read to sympathetic guards also in need of distraction. The film also includes interviews with Theo's mother and cousin in his native Vermont. The beheading of James Foley was the tipping point that led to a "machinery" being unleashed that led also to his release. Theo frequently blames himself for the stupidity of his risk-taking. He now volunteers in Greece helping arriving Syrian refugees, and in a lecture to a Boston class suggests America should send love to Syria and stop the bombs. Padnos seems so resilient as to be a little bit nutty, but he could also be a role model.

But that is only of limited service, since the film does not provide precise guidelines of dates or names. On the other hand, Padnos not only is precise about the names of his various captors, but quotes them and himself in Arabic frequently. As some reviews have pointed out, this film can't hope to capture the all the details, nuances and complexity of "My Captivity," the article Padnos wrote about his experience, published in the 28 Oct. 2014 New York Times Magazine . As often happens, 9,000 copiously illustrated words are worth a bunch of film pictures and then some. But this film is an experience all its own.

David Schisgall has worked as a documentary director and writer since 1991, collaborating with Errol Morris for 20 years. On his own he has directed Theo Who Lived (2016), Very Young Girls (2007), and The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs (1999), and won a 2004 Edgar R. Murrow Award for work in Iraq, among other TV work in the Middle East. much-admired TV documentary work in Iraq won him the 2004 Edgar R. Murrow Award for his work in Iraq. With Morris worked on A Brief History of Time, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, Mr. Death, First Person, and The Unknown Known. He produced Nina Davenport’s 2007 fOperation Filmmaker and co-wrote the 2011 feature comedy Our Idiot Brother.

Theo Who Lived, 86 mins., was released 8 Oct. 2016. It opens 16 Dec. at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.


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