In 2012, American journalist Theo Padnos crossed the Turkey-Syria border to investigate the Syrian civil war, when he was immediately kidnapped by his tour guides and held for almost two years as a prisoner, primarily of the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front, though he changed hands several times. Padnos somehow survived prolonged torture, failed escape attempts, and the bureaucratic hypocrisies and convolutions of various warring factions to return to his family and country. Scarred but breathing, Padnos provided an extraordinary insider’s glimpse into the mechanics of a terrorist cell, most notably in his 2014 article for The New York Times Magazine, “My Captivity.”
Director David Schisgall’s Theo Who Lived is a performance documentary in which Padnos orates and pantomimes stories recounted in “My Captivity,” retracing his steps in portions of Turkey and Israel, lingering in ad hoc prison cells, or running through an olive orchard that came to represent a final gasp of freedom before, as Padnos memorably writes in “My Captivity,” “a rent in the earth had opened…I had fallen into the darkness and woken in a netherworld, the kind found in myths or nightmares.”
There’s an obsessive ghoulishness to the conceit of reliving this ordeal, as Padnos wrestles with his imprisonment and with what he sees as a pervading wish to risk his life. Padnos reveals a willingness to blame himself that’s not entirely irrational. There’s are also elements of sadomasochism in Padnos, particularly when he places a noose around his neck and stands on a stool, illustrating one of many deaths that could’ve befallen him, and of egotism.
Padnos is an unsurprisingly bruised presence, with a poetry about him that connotes steeliness and slightness simultaneously—an unusual duality that’s further complemented by his reed-light voice, which says as much about his hard-won idealism as the words he chooses. The film elides much of the fascinating nuts-and-bolts details of “My Captivity,” streamlining the banal specifics of organization and rank as well as the extremity of violence that entail life in terrorism. That’s a shame, because those details are where “My Captivity” distinguishes itself as journalism, though also to be expected, as the minutiae lends itself more to the printed rather than the spoken word.
The documentary pushes through one story point to the next, occasionally prizing velocity over texture.
Theo Who Lived sporadically captures the article’s lyricism, most notably in juxtaposing Padnos with settings that take on a psychological otherworldly quality. The film immerses us in the present-day of Padnos’s life, stressing his empathy with Islamists and his curiosity about the Syrian war and America’s culpability in the country’s instability, which had a hand in saving his life, emboldening him to empathize with his captors in fashions that might strike some audience members as signs of Stockholm syndrome.
The stories Padnos tells are often organized around little pockets of humanity he tried to carve out for himself in his cells, while being beaten with rods and cables, sometimes with his legs restrained with large tires, as his tormenters taunted him with threats of death or even of a release that continually eluded him. Padnos recalls massaging an imprisoned jihadist’s shattered femur, despite the pus and other fluids flowing from the wound. Held in a desert “hot box,” in which he had to sleep diagonally so as to fit in the tight cell, he plucked the leaves from the oranges that he was rarely fed, and placed them in the cracks of the mortar in the cell’s wall, calling it his “garden.” Padnos’s delivery of “garden” is among the film’s most haunting touches.
Theo Who Lived is fascinating, and Padnos is an exacting storyteller, but the film pushes through one story point to the next, occasionally prizing velocity over texture. It’s too trim at 85 minutes, making one wish that the material were allowed to breathe and further expand in the imagination. For instance, Padnos nurses considerable bitterness toward Matt Schrier, the American photographer with whom he shared a cell, who escaped their prison, leaving Padnos when he got stuck in the shoebox-sized cell window. In the film, Padnos watches Schrier’s interviews on television, claiming his version of the story, in which he insists that Padnos couldn’t be helped, is a lie. (Schrier has also disputed portions of Padnos’s account.) But Schisgall might’ve further mined this anger as well other emotional residue, though there’s a startling moment when Padnos impersonates a torturer, beating the ground in an open field with a large cable in an act of purging. Theo Who Lived could use more of that craziness, as it’s overly occupied with its empowering narrative contours.