Cult of the Suicide Bomber
Directed by David Batty & Kevin Toolis
The War Tapes
Directed by Deborah Scranton
In the 96-minute documentary, Cult of the Suicide Bomber, former CIA agent Robert Baer presents his thesis about how world events and fundamentalist Islamic leaders have converted the 400-year-old traditional Shia Muslim belief in the sacred nature of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (Sunni Muslims slaughtered him in 680 AD) into an ever-spreading army of believers—Shia and Sunni—who are eager to become suicide bombers in the jihad against non-Islamic peoples and ideas.
While walking audiences through Middle Eastern locales, former operative Baer (who was the basis of George Clooney’s character in Syriana) shows that the cult of suicide bombers originated in 1980, when Hussein Farmideh, a 13-year-old Iranian Shia soldier, strapped on explosives and blew himself up along with an advancing tank driven by Iraqi Sunni soldiers. Farmideh’s family, interviewed in the film, obviously miss Hussein’s presence, but are very proud of his self-sacrificial act. They firmly deny that he committed suicide—although his action guaranteed his death. Suicide, they say, is an act of desperation—not heroism or martyrdom or shihada, which is rewarded by an eternal place in Heaven.
As Baer interviews Islamic religious and secular leaders, and the families of those who’ve taken the suicide bomber’s road to heaven, the distinction between suicide and shihada is reiterated repeatedly. It’s an important notion that Baer obviously wants us to grasp fully—perhaps because we Americans regard self-immolation, for whatever reason and by whatever means, in such a completely different way.
Baer substantiates his Middle Eastern history lesson with never-before-seen footage (he never indicates where/how he acquired it—must be that CIA mindset) of bombing incidents, bombed sites, wounded victims, religious meetings with political overtones, territories where terrorists trained, dangerous and restricted border-crossing areas and more.
I admit the footage is fascinating; the thesis is intriguing. But the relevance of neither rests, really, on the credibility of Baer—or on whatever his personal agenda might be. Bottom line: Cult of the Suicide Bomber is a must-see on a need-to-know basis. The film culminates in the explosive events of 9/11, leaving you with an urgent sense of foreboding. What’s next?
Fast segue to American forces in Iraq. Not next, but almost. Of the several Iraq war documentaries in the pipeline, The War Tapes features a uniquely potent flow in the form of footage shot by U.S. National Guardsman—members of C Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry (MOUNTAIN) Regiment of New Hampshire—who were given video cameras to chronicle their deployment as freedom fighters. Talk about imbedded. This foxhole footage outfoxes any news coverage to date.
The film interweaves the backstories, active duty details and post-Iraq realizations of guardsmen Sergeant Steve Pink, Specialist Mike Moriarty and Sergeant Zack Bazzi. Although some of the film’s footage was shot by other guardsmen (credited at the end of the film), first-time feature director Deborah Scranton’s focus on these three bright, spirited and likeable guys—each with unique family circumstances, personal ambitions and attitudes—makes for a riveting cinematic experience.
C Company’s mission is to escort KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root, a Halliburton subsidiary) truck convoys delivering supplies—food, paper, fuel and other essentials—to outlying posts. Ultimately, neither Pink, Moriarty nor Bazzi is convinced this job is worth the loss of American lives. We witness their intensifying anxiety, anger and adrenalin outbursts as they’re attacked by and retaliate against the enemy—a force whose specific identity is undefined, excepted that they’re called “hajis,” a term of respect in the Muslim world that American forces apply to Iraqis the way “gook” was used in Vietnam.
The footage is galvanizing. There are close-ups of the guardsmen philosophizing into the camera, and what they say is surprisingly and always—yes, always—engaging.
Many of the images aren’t pretty: blood stains in the sand, bits of charred flesh, explosions, gunfire exchanges, bombed out buildings. You don’t see any American injured or dead, but at one point there are shouts that Sergeant Smith is down, and it’s quite disturbing that you never do find out what happened to him.
Meeting Steve’s girlfriend, Mike’s wife and Zack’s mom—in interviews conducted outside the imbedded video framework—adds emotional depth. Steve James and Leslie Simmer’s artful editing adds impact. For example: There’s a camera pan of silhouettes of dead bodies slumped against a barbed wire fence, then a cut to a hand playfully creating a shadow animal against the sand.
Ultimately, the film presents a balanced point of view. The guardsmen and their loved ones are suffering from having been a part of the war, but they don’t disapprove of it—although they come to think that it’s really all about oil and making money rather than putting an end to terrorism. Their observations are honest, challenging and in your face: plenty of ammunition so that you can take a shot at making up your own mind about Operation Iraqi Freedom.