Theo Padnos’s writing career wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. He was a self-proclaimed “homeless journalist" and “dumb American,” traveling around the world with a satchel full of SIM cards, temporarily based in a room in Turkey for which he was paying $20 a month. He had plans to travel south to Syria and write an article for the New Republic about the state of the refugee camps. He arranged to meet people he believed were university students who said they would accompany him across the border. “It’s just two days, and I’m not that much of a chicken,” he recalled.
Hours later, Padnos was kidnapped and held hostage by a faction of Al-Qaeda for almost two years. Shortly after he was taken, another American journalist, James Foley, was captured in Syria. Eventually, Foley was beheaded, and people all around the world watched the video of his death. David Schisgall’s documentary about Padnos’s ordeal is aptly titled Theo Who Lived.
In the film, Padnos sits and paces in Syrian jail cells and living rooms that resemble the places in which he was imprisoned. He tells stories and re-creates scenes. He stands on a chair with a noose around his neck and imitates his former captor telling him, “This is the last time you’ll see the sun.” He lies on the floor with his hands behind his back to show exactly how they beat him. He returns to the street where his (untried) kidnappers lived, defiantly making his presence known. He tells the camera, “It would be nice to have some reckoning.”
Padnos is sometimes calm and philosophical, sometimes impassioned and enraged. He speaks candidly about his complicated and fraught relationship with his former cellmate, American war photographer Matt Schrier, who successfully escaped while leaving Padnos behind. The re-creations aren’t overly dramatic, and there are only occasional clips of news footage or scenery. The filmmakers don’t need much, besides Padnos’s ability to speak at length about his experience with great urgency.
At home in Vermont, sitting next to his cousin on the couch, he’s torn up by the effect this has had on his mother—but still pauses to reflect on his captors’ perspectives. “What they did to me was nothing compared to what American bombs have done to Iraqi and Syrian families now. And how do you respond to that?” Padnos’s response: insatiable curiosity paired with an informed take on the conflict in Syria.
He came out miraculously alive. He got his story—in fact, he got hundreds of them, some funny and each one fascinating. Watch Theo Who Lived to find out their price.
Theo Who Lived plays Wednesday, November 16, 7:30 p.m. at Northwest Film Forum. After the screening, I will lead a conversation with Theo Padnos about his experience in captivity, the conflict in Syria, and the state of the nation under president-elect Trump.