Formally, David Schisgall’s documentary Theo Who Lived breaks fairly little new ground. Taking cues from other documentaries ranging from Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), Schisgall reconstructs the two-year imprisonment of American freelance journalist Theo Padnos by the Al-Nusra Front—the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda—by having him revisit the sites of his capture, torture and eventual rescue so he can reenact them. There’s a chilling sequence near the start of the film where he returns to the apartment in Antakya, Turkey, where he lived before he was kidnapped. He speaks to one of the tenants who promptly produces a stack of Padnos’ abandoned SIM cards.
The movie reaches two apexes of queasy discomfort. The first comes during a scene where Padnos reenacts a mock execution where his captors tricked him into thinking he was about to die: he gets on a stool, puts his neck through a real noose and blithely comments that if he fell he would literally break his neck. The second is when Padnos watches a CNN interview with Matt Schrier, his one-time cell-mate who escaped from their prison and ran away without helping him. Padnos incredulously calls out Schrier’s lies about trying to help him. But the pits of our stomachs don’t truly fall until he points out that while the CNN anchor stoically promised that they would not reveal Padnos’ name out of fear of reprisals, they displayed his name anyway in the onscreen graphics. And while al-Qaeda may not have the New York Times, they do have CNN. It was immediately after this interview that Padnos was tortured for 45 days straight, then locked in a sweat box for 200 more.
I think more than anything else, Padnos himself keeps Theo Who Lived from feeling blandly derivative. There’s a hungered, frightened look about him, an unusual halted manner to his speech that makes him a devastating presence. Again and again Padnos reaffirms his own stupidity for his predicament, and tries to defend his captors as victims themselves of foreign intervention and perpetual warfare. Even now, he volunteers his time helping Syrian refugees who wash up on the shores of Europe, and lecturing student journalists that the only way to stop the chaos in the Middle East is to break the cycle of hatred with an outpouring of love. Quite noble of him. From almost anyone else, I’d assume it was just Kumbaya schmaltz. But it’s easy to see that Padnos truly, truly means it.