The movie that led to the death of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh lasts 11 minutes and is unlikely to influence anyone’s views on its subject — the treatment of women in traditional Islamic society. As fatwa triggers go, Submission: Part 1 is no Satanic Verses, and its laziness as both art and protest is precisely what gives this short its unsettling, unwitting power. It’s depressing to think that this morsel of glib effrontery could pass as a serious critique of conservative Islam — and horrifying to realize that it provoked someone to murder.
Van Gogh, who was shot and mutilated on an Amsterdam street November 2, made occasional appearances on the festival circuit, where most knew him simply as the great-great-grand-nephew of Vincent van Gogh. (His only U.S. release remains 1994’s quirky phone-sex drama 1-900.) At home, he was most famous for being a radical-libertarian loudmouth. A political columnist who got fired from almost every newspaper in the country, he delighted in blurring the line between free speech and hatemongering — he insisted on calling conservative Muslims “goatfuckers.”
For what became his best-known work, van Gogh teamed with another polarizing figure, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a glamorous Somali-born refugee who was elected to the Dutch parliament last year. A self-proclaimed “ex-Muslim,” Ali has had round-the-clock protection since denouncing the prophet Muhammad as a “pervert.” Given its makers’ pedigree, it’s no surprise that Submission is hardly subtle: As a burka-clad woman begins to pray, a shock cut reveals that the fabric draping her body is see-through; Koranic verses are inked on her skin, Pillow Book-style. It’s chilling to absorb these images with the knowledge that van Gogh’s killer, a Dutch Moroccan man, devised his own grisly version of bodily calligraphy, impaling his victim’s corpse with death threats.
Submission‘s narrator fleetingly assumes the roles of a woman punished for adultery, a woman forced into arranged marriage, a woman beaten by her husband, a woman raped by an uncle. Ali’s writing is alternately abstract and florid, even lapsing into dear-diary swoon: “On a sunny day, while at the souk, my eyes were caught by those of Rahman.” There’s a taunting late-night-Cinemax flash to the filmmaking — kinetic camerawork, emphatic cutting, and on the soundtrack, muezzin crescendos and a lashing whip (matched with close-ups of bruises and scars).
Artists from Abbas Kiarostami to Shirin Neshat to Ousmane Sembene have confronted the misogyny of conservative Islam in ways that are at once more damning and less willfully profane. Van Gogh’s film, which aired on Dutch TV in August, plainly hopes to inspire not argument but anger. Submission and its dire aftermath are symptomatic of a contradictory culture where the official myth of multiculturalism has finally collapsed under the weight of street-level racism and long-simmering hatreds on the part of both the white and non-white populations. As a cycle of retaliatory attacks on mosques and churches rages on in the Netherlands, American neocons, smugly gleeful at the so-called war on terror’s decisive entrenchment on European soil, are clamoring to install van Gogh as a martyr. (Weirdly enough, his last completed work was a biopic of his fellow anti-immigration advocate, the assassinated libertarian leader Pim Fortuyn.) In death, van Gogh is a painful symbol for what he so stridently called for in life: the end of tolerance.