Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Theo Who Lived: A Syrian Hostage’s Story
fate of Theo Padnos was ironically and tragically linked with that of fellow
hostage Jim Foley. Obviously, Padnos was the lucky one, but he did not feel
very fortunate during most of the nearly two years he was held hostage by al
Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Somehow, Padnos endured regular torture
sessions and prolonged bouts of hopelessness to tell his story and retrace his
fateful steps in David Schisgall’s Theo
Who Lived (trailer
opens this Friday in New York.
fact that Padnos (a.k.a. Peter Theo Curtis) entered Syria with the intention of
writing a piece on hostage Austin Tice is an irony that gets buried in TWL (FYI, Tice is still being illegally
held by his captors). Padnos (the name he used professionally, presumably
because it sounded less American) was not exactly the most prominent freelance
journalist, but he was (and still is) fluent in Arabic and highly versed in
Islamic culture. Hoping to raise his profile with reports from the field, he
slipped into Syria. In retrospect, he now readily admits this was rather rash
thought he had made contact with the Free Syrian Army, but they were really
members of the al Nusra Front who were luring him in. They even went through
the charade of sitting for interviews, before lowering the boom on Padnos. The
months that followed would be filled with sadistic torture and emotional
cruelty. Padnos actually escaped on several occasions, but in each instance,
the institutions he turned to for shelter quickly gave him up to his abductors.
Meanwhile, the Curtis family had forged something like a support system with
the family of Jim Foley. Given their interests, the respective families assumed
the two journalists would be fast friends should they ever meet, but that was
not to be.
irony that goes mostly unremarked is how the hostage-taking terrorists often
abduct and brutalize the journalists who are most receptive to their claims of
victimization. Even today, Padnos goes way, way out of his way to criticize the
war in Iraq. He even claims he was better able to articulate his captors’ grievances
than they were. However, this should not be simply ascribed to Stockholm
Syndrome. He was clearly trying to win the trust of a high-ranking al Nusra
commander, who took a personal interest in his disposal.
testimony is often fascinating. Frankly he is probably tougher on himself than
anyone else, which certainly bolsters his credibility. Still, his accounting of
events in Syria is likely to be controversial, particularly because it differs
(in unflattering ways) from that of his former cellmate, Matt Schrier, who
escaped largely thanks to help from Padnos that was not or could not be
reciprocated. However, Padnos’s compulsion to empathize with the familiar Islamist
narrative of victimization quickly grows tiresome.
As a result, Theo
Who Lived is much more compelling as a cautionary hostage narrative than as
an actionable analysis of the Middle East foreign policy. Still, when Padnos
chronicles al Nusra’s hasty retreat from Syria, getting strafed by Assad’s
military forces, with ISIS in hot pursuit, it is hard to conclude the
Obama-Clinton policies in Syria have been a rousing success. Recommended
circumspectly for its intimate account of Islamist terrorism, Theo Who Lived opens this Friday (10/7)
in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.
Labels: Documentary, Theo Padnos