Among the Bush era’s political docs, something called The Cult of the Suicide Bomber might seem a media redundancy—haven’t we heard enough? No, as it turns out—David Batty and Kevin Toolis’s rough-hewn film, made for British TV, matter-of-factly enters the mosques, homes, shrine rooms, personal spaces, and neighborhoods of Muslim martyrs, probing the suicide bomber paradigm as it grew out of the Iranian Revolution and became a global phenomenon. The remarkable primary instrument in use is Robert Baer, the ex–CIA op–cum- author personified by George Clooney in Syriana. Calm, reasonable, and obviously intimate with Mideast life (no translators are necessary), Baer qualifies as the film’s third auteur: He narrates, controls the investigations, gains access to scores of places and interviews we’ve been led to believe were off-limits to Westerners, and interviews the families of the dead, Hezbollah members, Israeli secret service generals, even imprisoned Hamas soldiers.
Throughout, a precise history is offered mostly from the perspective of Arabs, and the issue of martyrdom as an ideological movement is both scanned thoroughly and illustrated mercilessly with footage often culled from the terrorist organizations themselves. This is not the can’t-we-get-along Arab-Persian world we see in most liberal nonfiction films, but a broader and helplessly apocalyptic view of an entire region crazed with anger, frustration, and bloodlust into objectifying death as a weapon, a cause for cosmic glory, and little else. (Martyrdom is a desirable choice even among the secular Syrian Socialist National Party, which Baer cannot fathom.) Forgive the 60 Minutes–style cutaways to Baer, and the experience of Muslim life knotted by destruction—not a TV pundits’ opinions of such—can be eye-opening. Perhaps only someone with Baer’s experience and gravitational field could strike the film’s refreshing political balance, appalled by the violence but never ignorant of its origins in U.S.-sponsored oppression.
Ignorance is not rare, however. On a strictly experiential level, Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes is remarkable, tactile, and affecting; as a piece of sociopolitical culture with context and ramifications of its own, it’s a worthless ration of war propaganda—ethnocentric, redneck, and enabling. A journalist given clearance for embedment with the New Hampshire National Guard, Scranton instead handed out video cameras to a handful of guardsmen, and her film is an edit of that footage—plus predictable interviews with their families at home, worrying and bucking up. In fact, for all of the firsthand, edge-of-battle immediacy, the upshot of Scranton’s assemblage is concern for the feelings of tremendously sympathetic American grunts as they bulldoze through the Arab landscape and disdainfully observe the indigenous populace from a distance as if they were hyenas on the veld. It’s no surprise that the soldiers are largely prone to mercenary self-regard and care only about getting home, not about where they’ve been, what they’ve done, or why. But what about us? The cinematic equivalent to a ribbon magnet, The War Tapes reaps festival awards while less tunnel-visioned docs (like Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country) go undistributed. So much for dissenting media channels.