As soon as you see Theo Padnos on the big screen, he seems like a cool guy. Personable and easygoing with an unassuming personality that you can see is easy to talk to. Directed by David Schisgall, Theo Who Lived is a documentary that takes us through the journey of a survivor. It turns out Theo lived to tell about his captivity by an Al Qaeda group in Syria. Though the documentary focuses on Theo, through his story — mostly narrated by his soft, laid-back voice — this film makes an urgent contribution to an important but murky subject. The way the documentary delivers its message is subtle, but it builds to a message of peace, embedded in beautiful photography and action-driven scenes.
Theo calls himself a risk taker. Ever since he was a young man, he went after thrill-seeking adventures; from rock climbing as a child to flying to Syria as a freelance journalist hoping to gain an edge over others because of his location. Writing and taking photos directly in Syria, he says, is the way he saw making a name for himself as a journalist and publishing in the competitive New York Times. He bemoans his decision to go to Syria, and recalls his own naivete before being captured. He recounts and re-enacts somewhat the torture he went through. The camera lingers, sometimes zooms into his face, and he changes from a laid back easy-going guy to a man stressed and angry, at times wincing as he remembers the pain.
His very descriptive delivery is the core of this documentary, with the background of the cities and open spaces of the Syrian desert. It is easy to see how any person would be at the mercy of Al Qaeda; it is indeed a complicated terrain. To add to the extreme difference in landscapes, there is also an added layer of different perceptions about the military conflict and what it is about. However, for Theo, these differences seem to have worked in his favor. Theo, who is also fluent in Arabic, approaches Syrians as any other person. He adopted a submissive and patient posture to get close to an Al Qaeda leader. He felt sympathetic to their claims, which he communicates with a raw honesty that is not just convincing as an audience member but was also convincing to his captors. He was able to develop a relationship with the people who held him captive and approached the situation with an inquisitive mind that allowed him to navigate this different culture.
The documentary also features Theo’s mom, who brings in the perspective from home. It would seem like a wild tale if we did not have that contrast. The clips of TV, early on, relaying his captivity also bring Theo’s experience into sharp focus. It is almost forgettable the extreme danger he is in when we hear from Theo’s hopeful and optimistic outlook that he has endured a harrowing two years in captivity and that this armed conflict is far from over.
It is not only insightful to see Syria through Theo’s eyes, but his attitude is a refreshing reminder that the human experience is resilient and one’s mindset can make all the difference in the midst of dire circumstances. He now approaches the conflict from this same space of understanding and love, volunteering in the island of Lesbos to help Syrian refugees and talking to whoever may listen about treating enemies with affection and how that approach changes entirely the logic of conflict. This is perhaps not a new message, but it is one that may be easily forgotten. Theo’s talent and resilience may reside in that big heart that is able to unleash fearlessness.
Theo Who Lived runs 86 minutes and is not rated. It premiered on Sept. 30 at the Globe Docs Film Festival. For nationwide screenings please click here. Images in this post and a screener link was provided by Zeitgeist Films for the purpose of this review.