Mar 28, 2017
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Interview with Director of Theo Who Lived
by Doniphan Blair
(lf-rt) David Schisgall, Evgenia Peretz, his wife, at the time, and co-writer of the comedy 'Idiot Brother' (2011), and her brother, Jesse Peretz, who directed the film. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
DAVID SCHISGALL STUDIED PHILOSOPHY
At Harvard, which turns out to have been perfect training for a film career which whiplashes between comedies, notably co-writing “Our Idiot Brother” (2011), a minor hit for star Paul Rudd, and producing docs about criminals or Iraq.
Rounding out such eclectica, Schisgall also directed “Life Style” (1999), a doc about over-60 swingers in suburbia, and “Very Young Girls” (2007, with Nina Alvarez) about tween prostitutes, who are seduced, abused, and sold by pimps on the streets of New York, while being considered criminals by the cops. A striking piece, it showed in festivals worldwide and was picked up by Showtime.
Now we find Schisgall jumping into the deep end with “Theo Who Lived”, produced by Zeitgeist. An amazingly bare-bones documentary, “Theo Who Lived” is dominated by Theo—Theo Curtis, nee Padnos—in a performance for the ages, recounting his experiences as a traveller and journalist in the Middle East, which led up to his kidnapping in Syria in 2012.
Held for two years, severely confined and tortured, especially after two escape attempts, Padnos is open, honest and disarming—mystical even, while also tough and perceptive, especially psychologically, having entered, lived in, and made it out alive from the lion’s den.
“Theo Who Lived”, which is finishing its theatrical release and moving to Netflix, gets to the heart of enormous contemporary concerns: first and foremost, “Who the hell are the jihadis?” while also investigating the naïvete of Americans, the inverse of extreme cynicism, the counterbalancing faith and—wait for it—“What happened to the hippie travellers of the 1970s Middle East?”
I had the good fortune to meet the bearded, quick-to-laugh Schisgall at the offices of Larsen and Associates in San Francisco where we, too, jumped right in to it.
Was he ever frightened [while shooting]?
The first night we got to Antakya [Turkey, 60 miles from Aleppo]—it was Theo’s idea to retrace his steps—he had a panic attack. Not a particularly severe one but he exhibited what you’d expect from someone who had been in the place where they were sequestered.
That was the one time he was freaked out. When that was over, the next day, he was more gung-ho than the rest of us, ‘Let’s go here. Let’s go there!’
Did you have a fixer or someone who could protect you [filming near Syria]?
Theo Padnos Curtis recounting his months in a tiny, sun-baked cell, the one set Schisgall actually built. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
We had a wonderful associate produce in Turkey named Sebnem Arsu, who reports for The [NY] Times in Turkey and is a great journalist in her own right. Her husband, Shane Bell, was for a long time Times’ security consultant in southern Turkey, [although] he was not when we hired him.
You are not allowed to carry a gun in Turkey unless you work for the government, so we were unarmed. Actually, I have done a lot of work in the Mid-East and [other] dangerous places and I think that is a better way to do it.
It is really hard to imagine a situation where someone has to shoot their way out—successfully shoots their way out [laughs]. But it is really easy to imagine a situation in which everyone dies because you unsuccessfully shoot your way out [laughs].
If someone shows up with a bunch of guns and they are going to take you, one guy with a gun it is probably not in your interest. Much more important is to have is what Sebnem and Shane had—detailed local knowledge, knowledge of the risks.
The hotel we stayed at in Antakya, we knew the family who owned it; they knew the people who worked there. That is the most important thing from the security point of view.
Did you ever suspect that maybe word would get back to ISIS people?
Yes, we wanted to keep as low a profile as possible. That was one of our real worries when we were in southern Turkey: not letting people know whom we were bringing in. [Theo] was a wellknown figure in that conflict.
Is Theo, like, the meta-story of America’s naive involvement, the good-spirited guy—
I think that is true. But I think naïve is the wrong word.
He wasn’t naïve. He is one of the most knowledgeable among us—he speaks the language for starters, which is very rare among Americans.
He is very knowledgeable. He knows Syria WAY better than anyone who is not a specialist. He lived in Damascus for two years prior to the war; he lived in Yemen for a long time. He did not become a Muslim but he studied in a series madrassas [religious schools] in order to write a book.
I have gotten into cars in the Middle East and my understanding of it was much less, since I have spent much less time there than Theo. I don’t speak the language.
It is more a meta-story of how Americans—all of us, even the Arabists among us—continually want to project our ideas and images in that part of the world. That gets us in trouble.
They would 'visit' places similar to where Curtis was during his kidnapping but it was not a re-enactment. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
In Theo’s case, it was an idea—shared by most journalists at the time—that the Free Syrian Army was pro-Western, inclined positively towards Americans; that once the Assad regime was lifted, the politics among the people of northern Syria wouldn’t be violently anti-American.
But they were and are, and that was a mistake we made.
It is a meta-story about how easy it is to be fooled by appearances in the Middle East, for us as Americans. It is not so much that he is naïve. It is that our whole country is naïve. He happens to be the least naïve among us about what Syria is like.
He’s like a hippie.
He’s a total hippie!
At the end of the movie, he says, like, ‘Peace and love.’
The odd thing I find about Middle East reportage is that there is no mention of the Sufis.
They didn’t come up in our story.
He is a Sufi, in a sense. He must have read Rumi, Hafez—
Yes, yes, certainly.
And Damascus was a big Sufi center.
I was amazed that after 9/11, the Sufis didn’t stand up and say, ‘We have been practicing non-violence for about 1500 years.’ There was one Sufi in New York, the Ground Zero mosque guy, Abdul Rauf, and his wife…
My research indicates they just didn’t want to get assassinated. They have already been fighting the Salafists since 1806.
One of the reasons the Sufis didn’t come up in our film is that, in areas the Salafists have taken control, the Sufis are high on their list of people to be repressed.
They already left the Middle East, in most places. If you go to Morocco, there are thousands of Sufis and, if you traced back their families, many walked out in 1850, whatever.
It is kind of a tragic story. The Sufis already saved Islam three times—Rumi was the second Islamic Golden age; the Ottomans were very Sufi—but they take their time. They have to figure out how to do it.
Salafism fits very well with anti-imperialism, the way more sophisticated religious doctrines don’t necessarily. I think that is part of the reason. Also, the Salafists have guns.
They are very clean.
Are you a Muslim?
David Schisgall delves into difficult subjects, while remaining positive and quick to laugh. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
No, I am Jewish, but I travelled through Turkey and Iran in the ‘70s.
This is another untold story: Islam was a beautiful, peaceful place where anybody—Jews even, as long you didn’t have an Israeli passport—could travel, hitchhike around.
Yeah. That was Theo’s experience in Damascus before the war. It was a repressive dictatorship but it was livable. The people underneath the [Assad] dictatorship had a very open-minded and ecumenical attitude towards foreigners. That is one of the reasons he was into going to Syria [when he was kidnapped].
What the repressive regime also hid was that there was an equal, or even stronger or more assertive strain of virulent Salafist, anti-American thought. I myself think it is rooted in anti-colonialism.
It started with being anti-Ottoman.
Yes, the prior colonialists were the Turks.
But the hidden story is [the Salafists] were also anti-Sufi. The Sufis became part of the bureaucracy. And Sufis like fetishes; they like graves, memorials. They used to pass the coats of their teachers down through the generations.
Salafism is very clean [with no extra rituals, as with the Sufis]. They don’t even allow graves.
Yeah. The first thing Salafists often do is blow up the Sufi shrines.
There was also a corrupt Sufi [side] the Salafists were legitimately fighting against.
There were also anti-colonialist Sufis. You know the Mahdi Army Churchill fought [as a young man]? They were also repressing music—some Sufis went Salafist. It is a complicated story and no one has bothered to unravel it.
While the corrupt Sufis were doing their business in Egypt and Ataturk outlawed them in Turkey, because they ran the guilds, their brothers were musicians and playing fantastic music.
But those musician brothers didn’t challenge the corruption. Rumi’s son killed his lover, Shams, and the other son started the Whirling Dervishes.
We need the Sufi historians and great writers, which will come, probably in about 50 years.
We definitely need more history.
Our naivete is we know so very little about our own history in the region, the history of the region and the politics of the region.
One of the things Theo says and I hope it comes out in the film—the line is not in the film but I think the idea is:
In the Middle East, the map of what Salafists control, and what moderates control, and what the regimes control, it doesn’t run like lines on a map, it actually runs through individuals.
Individuals are pulled in different directions, just like in the United States.
[Some] voted for Obama and then they voted for Trump.
One person can have a racist strain, a progressive strain, a corporatist strain, also a revolutionary strain. That is the way it is in the Middle East. You can take a Salafist and that person might also be into Robert De Niro movies.
Theo describes the tiny window from which he attempted to escape in a very similar-looking Syrian room. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
One of them asked Theo, ‘Is De Niro Jewish?”
It reminds me a lot of the movie I’m sure you saw ‘The Green Prince’ [2014, about the son of a Palestinian Hamas leader, who switches sides, see cS article here]
It is a great movie.
Unbelievable. These [people] are, to me, neo-Sufis, philo-Sufis. Within these difficult situations, they are figuring it out and making the right decision, going for the Sufi or humanist ideals.
I love the Green Prince, [the nickname of film’s protagonist]. I am so thankful he got to California.
At the end of the movie. Now it would have been great if he converted to Judaism but that is a little much to hope for. [He converted to Christianity.]
That is the film I am waiting for: The Romeo and Juliet of Israel—of course the Romeo has to be Jewish [since Muslim men long married Jewish women].
I actually know of a wonderful example.
There is a ‘This American Life’-type show in Israel called ‘Israel Story’. They do things in Hebrew and they also do things in English: one of their best-received pod casts/radio shows is precisely about that.
It’s about this gay Palestinian and this gay Israeli, who both live in Jerusalem and meet. [They] have this Romeo and Juliet love story that is made even more fraught by the fact that homosexuality is another big problem—seen very negatively in the Palestinian community.
The Green Prince also points that out. When people say Israel is very repressive I often point out that Jerusalem has had a Gay Day Parade for the last ten years.
And that it is protested by everyone, even the Sufis. I saw a photo of Sufi sheikh with a full headdress at a meeting saying, ‘We have got to stop this.’
I think that only with more movies and books [can progress be made]. The music is quite progressive, out of Mali or wherever, telling these progressive stories.
Theo, at the end of your film, says, ‘No intervention, nothing.’ In a sense he is saying, ‘We have to let Aleppo go.’
He IS saying that. He actually took some fire for that recently. You know what? I understand his point.
First of all, Aleppo is a tragic, tragic situation. But it is not clear that our policy of sending in people—sending Aleppo just enough aid not to lose—made the situation any better. It is unclear what we can do.
One of the things we have learned in the Middle East is that we have a great difficulty when we set out to do ‘X’ to achieve ‘Y.’ We almost never achieve Y. Never! [laughs] Even with our best plans and intentions.
Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz on the promo tour for 'Idiot Brother' (2011) photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
Because of the way the United States is seen in the Middle East, we cannot actually affect outcomes militarily.
So Obama was right, basically?
Basically but, personally, I don’t think Obama took that insight far enough.
It is unclear what we are doing in Afghanistan but we are still at it. What are we trying to achieve in Afghanistan, I don’t know?
I think the most important thing is to keep Kabul alive so that more girls go to school; more women doctors graduate; more films are made.
They have two art schools; they have a music school; and if, after 20 years the Taliban finally take over, at least there will be 50,000 intellectuals who will then move to Germany, etc, but they will be able to preserve Afghan [culture].
But it is a tough game. Mexico, Colombia lived with guerillas for fifty years. You can live with guerillas and keep civic society going.
It is a tough call, the Aleppo thing. I heard a guy on the radio from Aleppo talking about how ‘We are abandoned,’ ‘How can you do this?’ and ‘This is an atrocity.’
I think that without [them] saying, ‘We accept Israel’ and ‘We accept modernism.’ and ‘We reject al Qaeda,’ it is too confusing. Their side is too much of a mess.
If there was a side that said, ‘This is a ridiculous. We are going to side with civilization. AND the first thing we are going to say is the Jewish refugees had a right to come here [in the 1940s] because they used to live here—there were 90,000 living in Jerusalem.
And let’s let the Palestinians become citizens of Jordan—‘
And they would be fully progressive people and we could say ‘We’ll fight to the death for’—
There is no doubt.
But that is not what the polity is like in Syria. To hope for that is to imagine something that doesn’t exist yet.
I know. I agree with Obama because I am petrified the Salafists will just butcher all the Alawites.
Me, too. I am [also] scared of the Alawites butchering all the Salafists.
In the Arab Middle East, there is a widespread belief that America and Israel are in control of lots of things that they are not in control of. Whether it is ISIS, al-Qaeda, there is this thinking that America has this enormous power that it is using to effect events in the Middle East.
It is all America pulling all the stings.
We look at that and say, ‘It’s ridiculous,’ and it is. BUT, we also have a similar delusion. If we could just pull the strings in the right way—the strings we have, things would come out better. I think that is also a delusion and I think it is a colonialist delusion.
There was a Frontline piece about Syria called ‘Obama’s War’, all about Obama and the mistakes he made in Syria. There is no doubt Obama has made mistakes in Syria. But the idea, which is very ingrained in America, that the history of Syria was significantly determined in the White House, I think, is false.
I think, it is a delusion of our own power, the same way the people in the Middle East have a delusion of our power. It is as if the colonial administrator in Whitehall [London] made some mistakes.
That is not what happened; it is not what should happen; it is delusional.
My next film is going to be a history of Americas involvement in the greater Middle East, based on a book by Andrew Bacevitch [‘America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History’] that was nominated for the national book award last year.
When Tel Aviv locals complained about Curtis's Hezbollah T-Shirt, he explained A) he was doing his laundry, so that's all he had, and B) Hezbollah fought against 'his guys,' is captors, see
. photo: Danna Harman
If you look at just the military history of our wars in the Middle East, you begin to see the delusions of our ability to have an effect there very clearly, throughout all presidents, Obama included.
I think Obama was right intellectually about the Middle East, that we should be trying get out. But we went into Libya; we expanded our war in Afghanistan; we had this Syrian misadventure.
What did we do there [wrong] except for the [ignore the] redline about the chemical attacks?
Well, Obama said at the very beginning of the revolution , ‘Our policy is Assad must go.’ We set out this policy but we had no way of carrying it out.
As goals go, it is noble but as a policy it is, like, ‘Why not Nasrallah [leader of Hezbollah] out?’ ‘Why not Khamenei out [the Iranian Ayatollah]?
It scratches a certain itch but it is not really a policy.
Its effects on the locals are, ‘Well, they are committed to getting this guy out.’
[It gives] false hope, false encouragement to the war, and then we tried—Obama spent a lot of money—to raise up an army in Syria.
Like $5 million per soldier, or something?
I mean in Theo’s case—it was the beginning of the war, when the Free Syrian Army was a much more of a coherent thing. [But] two times [the Free Syrian Army] sent him back to al-Qaeda.
Unbelievable, insane. And the shots in that box [of a cell], talking out the hole [in the door].
I made a documentary about the Holocaust and we went back and did just what you did. I took my daughter into Birkenau at night, so we could feel what it was like, so the viewer can feel what it was like—it was not a reenactment.
It is a visit.
I didn’t think of these [scenes in ‘Theo Who Lived’] as reenactments. He is telling a story and we are [illustrating it]. One of the things I am really proud of in this movie is the sets.
With the exception of the prison [box], the cinderblock prison, that we built in four hours, the places were he does these ‘reenactments,’ there is nothing in these rooms.
It is amazing.
And he really brings it alive.
He is an incredible guy, incredible symbol. Presumably, they will see it over there. They are going to have to be somewhat taken by his equanimity, his balance, especially when he talks about making tea for al-Qaeda.
He was their house boy. I hope that Americans will by taken by that as well. We have a tendency to see the Salafists as these seven-foot tall monsters. They are not. But, more importantly, that is how they want us to see them.
The main strategic goal of an organization like ISIS is to appear much stronger, more committed, more ruthless than, in fact, they are. I hope this film is a bit of antidote to that.
It is. It is an inside look. It is probably the best inside look we have had except for some of the Salafists, like that the young boy who came across from ISIS about a year ago.
Is his book going to be published?
I hope so. There is no plans, yet. I have read some of it. It is pretty good. It is a crazy, crazy novel, but I like it.
It is fascinating when he says, ‘Of course sex is involved’ [in the book] and, ‘in Islam, sex involves punishment. So, in my book, that is involved, too.'
A lot of his little asides were incredibly revealing.
So now where is he?
He is based in Paris and he is spending a lot of time talking to people in Syria on line. He is writing his memoire; he is finishing his novel, and he has written a play, a one-man show that he is going to perform in Berlin soon.
[It is about] Syria before war and its popular culture, which was often government sponsored and very revealing. Popular culture in Syria before the war is very similar to popular culture now, which is to say: lots of violence, in the way it spoke.
I read an article about six years ago, which said [Syrian culture] was flourishing. They created a lot of the TV shows for Ramadan [the fast month when families watch a lot of TV], which showed all over.
What insight or incredible thing did he reveal but that you couldn’t show in the film or didn’t have a good sound bite?
Hmm, that is a good question. Nothing comes to mind. There is a lot more to say but I think we go all the good stuff.
Matt [Schrier, another American journalist who was incarcerated with Theo but who escapes and leaves Theo], what an asshole!
Did he ever meet him again?
No, he never did and he doesn’t want to. And Matt doesn’t want to. Matt is Matt. I think he was a lot like that before he went in.
So Theo was there [trying to escape], stuck in this little window. [Matt didn’t help him] and he had to wriggle back in.
Then he claims [to his captors] that he was banging on the door the whole time [warning] them that Matt was escaping. They must have known that he was lying but they must have liked him.
I don’t know if they knew he was lying. I think they did like him.
I think, you know, it was in their interest. It was unthinkable that this guy [Matt] would leave this other dude [Theo] there. If [Matt] could have gotten out Theo could have gotten out—they are the same size. It just made lot more sense than what actually happened—‘This guy left you here?’
The thing about humans in general, but Arabs a little more, is that they are very personality-based. They pretend to follow ideologies but deep down they follow their feelings.
I think the hippie quality Theo had helped make his time less awful than it could have been—even though it was really awful. There is no doubt that he was able to engage his captors with a sense of his own humanity.
That is really what the movie is about.
That is fabulous thing. It shows that even in the worst of times, you have to keep [positive]. That is why the ending, I would imagine, might be confusing for people.
People get it. Some people hate the ending but I like it.
How did you meet Theo?
He was actually my wife’s brother’s childhood friend.
I never met him. When he went missing, I felt like I had done that work so it could have been me. I followed his story and when he got back I reached out to him—as did many people—and we really hit it off.
He is, like, a return of the hippies.
In Afghanistan, our hippie bus would pull in and the hoteliers would come out, saying ‘Touristas, touristas,’ waving their hands. I played guitar at a party in Kabul and the hotel boys were dancing joyously.
Of course, we were polluting their culture and some objected, but those were the positives and negatives.
Yup. What could be better than a bunch of people from another country coming to visit you?
Buying hash, clothing. Of course the hotel guys were—
They were having the time of their lives, playing rock and roll [on their tape decks]. Of course, they were the first to be attacked by the Taliban.
Or some of them became the Taliban. It’s not either or in the Middle East. It is both.
That is the confusing thing, like the parable of the Scorpion and the Frog. Nevertheless, in the Sufis, there is a great tradition of fighting for love.
For sure. Islam is like Christianity or Judaism. It is a tradition that can be turned towards the highest goals of humanity or to justify the lowest behavior of humanity.
Now they are going through their 16th century Puritan stage, almost right on schedule, since they started six centuries later—
Thank you for your great work and thanks to Theo, for his work.
It is great that these ‘hippies’ go into these war zones and give us their views. Looking at it from the view of a CIA-trained operative, it is going to be pretty distorted.
I think so too.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 20, 2016 - 10:50 PM