Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist


The face of a modern barbarian.

2019) Documentary (HBO) Mohammed Emwazi, Richard Verkaik, General David Petraeus, Dr. Emman El-Badawi, Jo Shorter, Claudia Giarusso, Douglas H. Wise, James Foley, Jesse Morton, Nicholas Henin, Federico Motka, Simon McKay, Dr. Mamadou Bacoun, Richard Walton, Steve Warren, Robert Harrison, Diane Foley, Lord David Anderson, Bethany Haines. Directed by Anthony Wonke

 

News junkies will remember the saga of Jihadi John, a member of ISIS who beheaded journalists and aid workers on-camera after forcing them to read documentaries repudiating their home countries. What distinguished him from other terrorists was his accent; he was British and well-educated, nothing like the terrorists we’d come to expect. When he spoke of the United States or his home United Kingdom, it was in a voice dripping with venom and hatred.

Eventually, intelligence agencies identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought to London by his family when he was six. By all accounts through teachers and classmates he was a shy student who was teased about his bad breath and who had a passion for Manchester United, the soccer club. He also liked to drink and watch The Simpsons. What led him to become a brutal terrorist capable of torture and murder, and of making videos so that his savagery could be seen in all its barbarity?

That’s the question that you would think this documentary was posing based on its title but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. We get lots of talking heads – often filmed starkly in pools of white light against black settings not unlike an interrogation – chatting about his upbringing, utilizing school mates and teachers (although no relatives who likely didn’t want to participate). From there we see him as a young man, wanting to travel to Tanzania to go on safari but by that point he was already on a terrorist watch list for his visits to Somalia and for some of his expressions of radical fundamentalist Islam. From there on, we are given the perspective of those chasing him, and those who survived capture (Motka and Henin) and relatives of those who did not (Haines and Diane Foley).

Wonke, a veteran British documentarian, gives us plenty of background behind the formation of ISIS and of the terrible deeds done by the group that elevated them even ahead of Al-Qaeda in the ranks of terrorist organizations. Still, we never really get much insight into how Emwazi became what he did. There are no a’ha moments, no major events that radicalized him. It seems to have been a process, something harder to document. Wonke chooses not to which is what makes this documentary so disappointing.

It’s not that this isn’t a useful film by any means – if you want to look at how ISIS and Emwazi in particular utilized social media to get their radical message across. We are also reminded how these men did unforgivable things in service to their religious message, a warning of the dangers of religion turned radical. This isn’t a film for the squeamish (although they have the decency not to show the actual beheadings but excerpts from the tapes just prior to the crimes) nor is it for the hateful but it is for people who need to be reminded just how warped obsessive belief can make even the most ordinary of people. I just wish that the filmmakers had been more successful in explaining how it was done in this case.

REASONS TO SEE: Utilizes recreated footage very nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really deliver on the promise to explain how he became radicalized.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emwazi attended the University of Westminster where he studied  information systems with business management, eventually securing a degree..
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teacher

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Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil)


Girls on patrol.

(2018) War Drama (Cohen Media Group) Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot, Zübeyde Bulut, Sinama Allevi, Mari Semidovi, Roza Mirzolani, Zinaida Gasolani, Maia Shamoevi, Nia Mirianashvili, Evin Ahmad, Ahmet Zirek, Erol Afsin, Nuka Asatiani, Behi Djanati Atal, Adik Bakoni, Tornike Alievi, Hamid Mirzolin, Farook Fadhil Hussein, Massoud Seydo, Kakha Kupatadze, Nino Osmanovi. Directed by Eva Husson

 

The Middle East has been ripped by conflict for decades now; the incursions of ISIS into Iraq and Syria only the recent chapter in a blood-soaked narrative. In 2015, news stories related the plight of women in Kurdistan who had been captured by ISIS, raped and sold into slavery; some of these escaped their captors and enlisted in the armed forces to fight back against their oppressors.

French journalist Mathilde (Bercot) is grieving for her husband who died in Libya months previously. She is not satisfied with her assignments, feeling they are not really telling the story of the atrocities going on. She hooks up with a platoon of women who have all survived capture by ISIS. They are led by the driven Bahar (Farahani), a former lawyer whose home town of Corduene is about to be the focus of an offensive by Kurdish forces.

Bahar and Mathilde bond as the French woman grows to admire the sisters of the battalion. Bahar is aware that her son (Alievi) remains in captivity in Corduene and looks to liberate him but is frustrated by an overly cautious commander (Zirek) who prefers to wait for the right time, unconcerned that time may be ticking away on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Husson clearly is passionate about the plight of these women and at times that works against her; the dialogue (which she co-wrote) is often bombastic and ponderous, sounding like a Hemingway account of war if it had been ghost-written by Sidney Sheldon. The film could have used a lighter touch but rather hits the audience like a bludgeon, from the overwrought score to the flashbacks which are often confusing.

That aside, there’s plenty to like here. The cinematography is superb and the action sequences are satisfying. More importantly, Farahani proves herself to be an actress with serious potential. Her expressive face often communicates much more than the clunky dialogue does and Farahani displays an excess of screen presence. This might be looked back upon as the film in which Farahani shows star potential. Personally, I can’t wait to see her in more.

The story the film is trying to tell is an important one and a tragic one. It’s really hard to understand how any religion can justify the treatment of other human beings this way. I guess I’m just an ignorant infidel but certainly there are moments that will get any reasonably feeling audience member’s blood boiling. I wish that the story had been handled with a lot more finesse, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Farahani delivers a triumphant performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker comes on too strong with the portents of doom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and some disturbing images, a bit of profanity and off-screen rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Husson became interested in the film after reading accounts of captive women escaping and taking up arms against ISIS. Because she had forged some strong relationships with Kurdish actors she’d toured with previously, the story resonated with her particularly.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Biggest Little Farm

City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

The Dark Wind (Reseba)


Purity is hard to come by.

(2016) Drama (Mitosfilm) Rekish Shahbaz, Dimen Zandi, Maryam Boobani, Adil Abdulrahman, Abdullah Tarhan, Nalin Kobani, Imad Bakuri, Hassan Hussein Hassan, Helket Idris, Mesud Arif, Sherzad Abdullah, Shahin Kivork, Heider Bamerni, Berfin Emektar, Mame Cheto. Directed by Hussein Hassan Ali

Genocide is a condition that has often been imposed on the Yazidi, a tribe of people living in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Because they are not Muslims, they have become targets of ISIS who in 2014 invaded their region and began murdering them and selling their women in street side slave markets.

Reko (Shahbaz) and Pero (Zandi) are an attractive couple who have just become engaged when ISIS arrives. In the confusion, Pero hides with a group of village women only to become discovered by ISIS fighters; eventually she is sold off to the highest bidder. Reko, who works as a security guard at an American oilfield (early on in the film, one of Reko’s co-workers jokes “All of Kurdistan is an oilfield.” He arrives too late to save his fiancée but he does see some action with the Peshmerga resistance. In between fire fights, he searches for his intended, finally locating her in Syria and bringing her home.

Pero is almost a zombie by the time she returns home, staring straight ahead most times with a catatonic gaze, dissolving into screams when something reminds her of her horrific ordeal. When it is discovered that she is pregnant, life is turned upside down for both families – Ghazal (Boobani), the faithful and loving mother of Pero, knows that it will mean the end of her engagement. Reso (Abdulrahman) who is her father cannot bear to look at his shamed daughter. As for Reko’s father Hadi (Tarhan) it is his opinion that Pero is damaged goods who cannot marry his son, despite Reko’s obvious love for her.

The movie is shot simply but effectively and was given leave to shoot in the actual Yazidi refugee camp which houses nearly half a million of those who have fled their homeland. We get a sense of the desolation and despair that comes from being forced from one’s home, of being the target of a fanatical and powerful group that wants them wiped from the face of the Earth. However, as one elder shrugs, “this is the 73rd attempt at genocide” for this beleaguered people and they seem content to endure and continue. That they can trace their lineage back to ancient Mesopotamia is impressive especially considering how they have continually been the target for genocide over the millennia.

Zandi delivers a performance that is absolutely incredible. Possessed of an external beauty that is otherworldly – and a much better world than this one at that. She is the very picture of a dutiful and demure young woman who wants nothing more than to be with the man she loves. The horrors that are inflicted on her occur entirely off-screen; we only see the results of them, largely in Zandi’s eyes and her body language. We often think of the real carnage of war is limited to the battlefield but one viewing of this film will certainly set the viewer straight on that score – what the women endure in terms of rape, sexual slavery, abduction and forced breeding is absolutely unthinkable.

The film has generated some controversy – elements of the Yazidi were upset at how their culture was portrayed as backwards and intolerant. I didn’t especially agree with that but certainly there are individuals portrayed here that were certainly intolerant but there were also many who were not. As for being backwards, the Yazidi have a pretty desolate part of the world to live in and there isn’t a lot of room for luxuries to make things easier. Life for them isn’t easy and while I wouldn’t say they are backwards, they have a lifestyle that we Westerners would be hard-pressed to emulate but it is clear that they, like most of us, are tied to the place they live in ways that go beyond how easy it is to live there.

This is a powerful and moving film that reminds us that what ISIS is doing is not happening in a theoretical way; there is an actual human face to the victims of their brutality and consequences of their heinous acts. Ali should be applauded for shining a light on the deprivations of an ancient people and those who think that ISIS is just misunderstood should watch this one with an open mind. This film has no U.S. distribution yet which hopefully will change once it has been on the festival circuit for awhile; at film festivals in the Middle East it has already won some prestigious awards. This is a movie that deserves to be seen by a whole lot of people.

REASONS TO GO: The performance of Dimen Zandi is absolutely mesmerizing. The genocide of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq is not getting much coverage. Some of the scenes are powerful indeed.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally the cinematography looks like it was taken on a home video camera. At times the cast seems disconnected with what they are doing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali intended to appear at the North American premiere at the Miami Film Festival but President Trump’s travel ban was, he felt, too much of a risk so he withdrew his application for a visa.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Syrian Bride
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Toni Erdmann