Doc ‘Theo Who Lived’ Makes Sense of Syria from an Al Qaeda Prison


There’s a kind of up-close war-zone journalism accomplished only by the few freelancers willing to go to the brink of what’s prudent. Indeed, Theo Padnos (who also reports as Peter Theo Curtis) blames himself for his capture by an Al Qaeda group at the Syria-Turkey border in 2012. Without such audacity, though, our picture of situations like the Syrian conflict — now preoccupying so many nations and expelling millions of refugees — would be even more woefully incomplete.

The documentary Theo Who Lived is a grueling travelogue, and director David Schisgall hangs back as he and Padnos retrace the journalist’s punishing journey to the dank rooms in which he suffered torture and from which he attempted his failed escapes. Interspersed are trips home to idyllic Vermont, where Padnos’s mother and cousin describe worry-soaked efforts to negotiate his release.

Padnos is a gifted storyteller who maintains an incongruous joie de vivre. His ability to connect with a few guards and the group’s leader not only probably saved his life, but also helped unearth many unwanted details. This film is valuable on account of its singular vantage point, and not just because of the firsthand description of the jihadist group’s brutality, which is unsurprising.

Padnos also recounts flashes of humanity on the part of his captors and expresses understanding for their frustration with the troubles in the region that have simmered and boiled over for decades, if not centuries. We are only privy to these complexities, which should inform policy at the highest levels, because of what Theo dared and endured.

Theo Who Lived

Directed by David Schisgall

Zeitgeist Films

Opens October 7, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas