Filming the terror wars: earning hearts, minds and salaries.
Summary: There has been no shortage of film produced about the Middle East and North Africa since the events of September 11, 2001. The ensuing "war on terror" is proving a boon for local and foreign filmmakers, whether bent on entertainment or pedagogy. A couple of weekends ago, for example, "The Losing Bet" premiered in Sanaa.
BEIRUT: There has been no shortage of film produced about the Middle East and North Africa since the events of September 11, 2001. The ensuing "war on terror" is proving a boon for local and foreign filmmakers, whether bent on entertainment or pedagogy. A couple of weekends ago, for example, "The Losing Bet" premiered in Sanaa. The film is part of a new effort on the part of Yemen's political leadership to incorporate film into a broader strategic security plan for fighting terrorism. The state claims to have also published a couple of books disparaging Islamist militancy.
Directed by Fadhel al-Olofi and written by Mohammed al-Hubaishi and Abdul Kareek al-Ashmouri, this 105-minute film portrays how terrorists recruit the poor, the unemployed, and school drop-outs to be potential defenders of the religion and nation - or, as they are known in other circles, "suicide bombers."
At the film's premier, Yemen's English-language press reported, Olofi remarked that one purpose of his film is to "educate people about [terrorism's] ideas that have nothing to do with Islam and Yemeni traditions."
In the film, a 14-year-old Yemeni girl named Shayma befriends a 20-something European tourist named Maria at a Sanaa tourist trap. Like the young actress of the same name who portrays her, Shayma is renowned locally for her language skills - attributed not to her own abilities, but to the tourists with whom she has contact. In the film, her character is forced to become the family bread-winner because her brother joins an armed group, idiosyncratically called "Jihad."
While Maria and Shayma grow closer, her brother and his terrorist pals plot a murderous attack against tourists. Maria loses her father in the attack, and is herself injured, just as Shayma loses her brother, but the relationship between the Yemeni and European females is strengthened by the tragedy.
The film, which cost the state about 10 million Yemeni rials (about $50,250) to make, took three months to shoot. Plans are to show the film in schools and colleges before airing it on television.
"The Losing Bet" is by no means the first example of film (and video) being press-ganged into the service of combatants in the so-called war on terror. Iraqi jihadis in particular have earned notoriety for using the Internet to air snuff videos involving masked men and (often foreign) prisoners, religiously inflected rhetoric, hunting knives and the like.
Perhaps the most multiply-layered application of audio-visual media to a single protagonist in the terror wars came to light in July, at Washington's Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
There, the Pentagon unveiled its self-produced contribution to the oeuvre, a 90-minute documentary called "The Al-Qaeda Plan." It screened before an audience of military jurors at the first Guantanamo war crimes trial, then hearing evidence against Salim Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden.
The film, which introduces some segments with Middle Eastern music, traces the origins and goals of Al-Qaeda, highlighting such milestones as the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa and the attacks of September 11, 2001. It also shows familiar footage of hooded fighters training on a jungle-gym-like apparatus at an Al-Qaeda camp and gruesome images of bodies slain in the East Africa embassy bombings.
The "star" of the show, though, is bin Laden himself - shown firing rifles, giving news conferences from caves and rallying followers, as the film traces his movements from Afghanis-tan to Sudan and back. The film quotes declarations such as his August 1996 statement that "it is a duty now upon every tribe" in the Arabian Peninsula to kill American soldiers.
According to Evan Kohl-mann, a consultant and terrorism expert hired to create the video, the title of the Al-Qaeda video is a tribute to "The Nazi Plan," a film the US used to help convict German officers during the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II.
At the time, prosecutors said they showed the video to underscore that Hamdan was part of a broader plan to attack the US and its allies, even if his role as bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan was a small one. The tribunals' chief prosecutor, US Army Colonel Lawrence Morris, said he planned to show the film at war crimes trials of other detainees as well.
Hamdan's attorneys criticized the video as an inflammatory appeal to jurors' emotions. The deputy chief defense counsel for the Guantanamo tribunals, Michael Berrigan, said it would provide grounds for an appeal if Hamdan were convicted. "You have planes repeatedly flying into buildings, you have explosions that are being cycled through again and again," Berrigan told reporters. "I think it's pretty obvious why a lot of that is prejudicial."
In Hamdan's case, "The Al-Qaeda Plan" didn't have the prosecutor's desired effect. Facing up to life in prison for charges of conspiracy and aiding terrorism, Hamdan was ultimately sentenced to less than five years.
Hamdan's brush with film didn't end there, however, and hasn't ended yet. Shortly after his relatively light sentence, the icon of liberal Hollywood, George Clooney, snapped up the film rights to "The Challenge," the book about Hamdan's detention, written by Jonathan Mahler.
According to entertainment industry newspaper Daily Variety, Clooney could direct, write and star in the film. Though it was not clear what role he would take, it seems Clooney was considering the starring role of idealistic US Navy lawyer Charles Swift, Hamdan's lawyer.
The story doesn't actually focus on Hamdan himself, but on the efforts of Swift and Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal to secure him a fair trial. - The Daily Star, with agencies
Copyright 2008, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.
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