Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Cinéma mensonge

I don’t very often review movies that go direct to video, bypassing the cinemas completely. But I make the odd exception. For instance, I caught a film, which I found interesting, on television last week, and I thought I might take this occasion to do a review of it.

You may have seen this film yourself. It was on a lot of television channels all over the world. I don’t have a title for it, and maybe there isn’t one. Normally, the lack of a title would be a serious handicap for a movie in the marketplace, but box office numbers are clearly not a priority for the filmmakers. Indeed, the thing is freely available on the internet, and the producers have made no move whatsoever to defend their intellectual property. For all intents and purposes, it is in the public domain.

Technically, the film is made well enough. The production values are surprisingly high. I have seen other films by this fellow before, and they were not nearly so polished. Before he always seemed to be going for a Blair Witch Project kind of look, shooting on video with handheld cameras and choosing dark locations that seemed to be caves. This time, he seemed to be in a proper studio, or maybe in the room of large house or other building. I think this works better. The fewer distractions the better, although the film does risk boring the audience, since it consists entirely of one man talking into the camera for its entire running length. Again, this is the sort of thing that would be the kiss of death for any film aspiring to a widespread audience, but the film gets around this through its compelling subject matter and keeping its running time brief. Again, these were good choices, speaking cinematically.

As for the content, well, this movie definitely falls into the category that I have personally defined as advocacy cinema, in that it is pushing a specific political agenda. There is no question of this and, in fact, the real question is whether anyone on the planet would actually consider this a “documentary.” I don’t think so, thus I don’t think it will be in competition next February with, for example, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for the Academy Award in any of the documentary categories. And, speaking of Michael Moore, more than one critic of this film has made comparisons between it and Fahrenheit 9/11. My first response to hearing this was that it was an awful cheap shot at Moore. And I know a thing or two about taking cheap shots at Michael Moore, having taken one or two myself. But the fact that both films had the apparent aim of undermining the electoral position of George W. Bush in the recent election should not be used to tar Moore with the same brush as this fellow. (His name is Osama.) Truly thoughtful people won’t confuse legitimate dissent with being an enemy of America.

Still, in reading the transcript, I was amazed by what I saw. And, by the way, that’s another problem with Osama’s film. He clearly intends it for the American audience (“People of America this talk of mine is for you,” he says early on), yet the soundtrack is entirely in a language other than English. If he knew his audience, he would realize that a lot of Americans don’t care for reading subtitles. Would it have killed him to read his script in English or at least hire an actor to dub him in the queen’s tongue? Anyway, so I am basing my critique on a translation I got from the Aljazeera web site. And, as I read it, it became clear that it was really true that Osama had indeed seen Fahrenheit 9/11 (or at least had been thoroughly briefed on it) and had been influenced by it. The people who have been saying this were not just making it up or seeing what they wanted to see. Osama talks about the way President Bush kept reading to schoolchildren upon hearing about the attack on the World Trade Center. And he echoes charges in Moore’s film about Bush family dynasty-building, greed for oil, corruption (specifically mentioning Halliburton) and repression via the Patriot Act. Now, this stuff certainly didn’t originate with Moore, and Osama could have picked it up from other sources, but that seems like a long shot to anyone who has seen Fahrenheit 9/11 and has actually read the transcript of Osama’s film. (Osama does not actually mention Moore by name. That particular honor is reserved for Robert Fisk of The Independent in the UK, who has written sympathetically of Osama and is on record as being ashamed of being a British subject.) This leads to one of the most damning criticisms of Osama’s movie on a cinematic level. It is hopelessly derivative. It provides little that is fresh or new.

Delving further into the content, we see more problems with Osama’s film. Its strength is that it sets out to do something that its audience might legitimately be interested in: explaining the history of how Al Qaeda came to attack the U.S. on September 11, 2001, and what it would take to stop Al Qaeda from attempting to do it again. But, in terms of delivering on this promise, it falls short. He blames the attack on America on the fact that America “permitted” Israel to invade Lebanon in 1982. Seeing civilian casualties during that conflict spurred him to inflict civilian casualties in America. This is twisted logic at best. Granted that the U.S. has been supportive of Israel and Israel has been relentless on using force against those that it considers a threat to its security, but attacking civilians in a third country because of a conflict thousands of miles away? I know there are otherwise reasonable people around who actually do see logic in this, but frankly this is not the reasoning of a sound mind.

And how can we avoid further attacks? He helpfully points to Sweden as an example of a freedom-loving country that Al Qaeda has not attacked. In his conclusion, he offers that “every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.” There has been discussion about whether “state” refers to sovereign nations or to U.S. states. Some have interpreted this to mean that states giving their electoral votes to John Kerry would be safe (good news for New York and the District of Columbia, which were targets in 2001), but nowhere does Osama say specifically that he prefers Kerry to Bush. I suppose a preference for Kerry could be inferred from his personal and virulent rants against Bush, but given that the planning for 9/11 was well under way during the Clinton administration and that Kerry had pledged to kill the terrorists, I can’t imagine that Osama really sees any difference between one American political party and another. No, I think this was a plea (disguised as a threat) for America to leave Al Qaeda alone. And while we’re at it, please get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and stop supporting Israel. Clearly, no American president is going to do any of this any time soon.

This is not to say that Al Qaeda wouldn’t have liked to have had an effect on the American election, just as it did on the election in Spain. But it doesn’t bode well for the terrorists that instead of something as spectacular as the Madrid train bombing, the best October surprise they could manage for America was… a video.

Before I finish this film critique, let me just say something to my fellow Americans. A lot of people I care about and respect and even admire are very disappointed with the result of the American election. They are very pessimistic about the direction of the country and what America represents in the world these days. (And don’t even get me started about people here in Europe.) But to those people, please let me, if I can, offer a silver lining for the cloud you have in your hearts right now. I am not suggesting that John Kerry would have been less diligent than George W. Bush in the war against terrorism (something we will now never know), but is there not at least some bit of satisfaction that Osama and his ilk are not feeling that they have achieved some sort of moral victory over America—even if this would have existed only in their own minds? Of course, America is entitled to elect its own leader regardless of what the terrorists want or don’t want. But isn’t there a small bit of relief that right now they don’t even have the illusion of intimidating us? No? Okay, well, I tried.

But back to my movie review. Normally, I am not in favor of gratuitous violence in movies, especially over-the-top, overdone, explosive violence. Yet Osama’s movie is so static and tedious that I think this is one case where a violent scene might have helped the film artistically. In fact, a nice big bomb dropping on him at the end of the movie would have made an absolutely smashing finale. Oh, well. Maybe it will happen in the sequel.

-S.L., 4 November 2004

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