Children of the Enemy


Patricio Galvez cuddles his grandson.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Patricio Galvez, Clive Stafford Smith, Alba Galvez, Katalina Galvez, Mio Galvez, Persraw Baker Hussein, Eskandar Saleh, Stefan Åsberg, Isobel Coles, Adam Mattinen, Cecilia Uddén, Terese Cristiansson, Jacek Machula, Simon Sowell, Rena Effendi, Beatrice Eriksson. Directed by Gorki Glaser-Müller

Dostoyevsky wrote that a civilization is judged by how it treats its prisoners. That could also be included as to how it treats its enemies – or their children.

Patricio Galvez, a middle-aged musician who had emigrated to Sweden from Chile, made headlines in Scandinavia in 2018-19 when he attempted to rescue his seven grandchildren from the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. You see, his daughter Amanda had converted to Islam along with her mother (at the time divorced from Patricio) and had an arranged marriage with Michael Skråmo, a notorious ISIS recruiter from Norway. Eventually the two moved to Syria over the objections of Galvez, and taken their four children with them. While in Syria, they kept busy – Amanda had three more children there and was pregnant with an eighth when she was killed in an air strike. A couple of months later, Skråmo died during the fall of the caliphate, shot to death in front of his children.

The children were placed in a refugee camp and as the children of ISIS terrorists, were essentially persona non grata in Sweden. Galvez didn’t see the children of terrorists, however; he just saw his grandchildren and put up a tremendous fight to get them out of the camp. But the clock was ticking; the children were severely malnourished and were growing weaker and more ill with each passing day.

The movie chronicles the ordeal of Galvez, which is mostly down time waiting on bureaucrats to return his call, or for some action or another to be taken. He enlists the aid of humanitarian groups, but they can accomplish later. He begins a media campaign which seems to spur the Swedish government into action. However, the Swedish public is less sanguine about the affair; the social media posts are (predictably) nasty, urging Galvez to return to Chile and pointing out his failures as a father to raise a terrorist, wondering if he would be fit to raise these children as well or would they turn out to be just as radical as Amanda turned out to be?

Galvez is very conflicted. On the one hand, he mourns the loss of his daughter, realizing that she was lost years earlier when she was radicalized. He also mourns the damage done by his son-in-law and ISIS in general, all the lives disrupted, the women used as sex slaves, the children left as orphans. But throughout, he perseveres. He realizes, better than most, that the sins of the father (or the mother) should not be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

It is at times a difficult movie to watch; some of Amanda’s letters to her father from Syria are absolutely chilling, as are the home movies the two sent him of the kids. There are some joyous moments, as when Patricio finally gets a breakthrough from the Swedish diplomatic corps and Glaser-Müller puts down the camera to embrace his friend, who is overcome. The grandmother makes an appearance, further complicating matters.

The children themselves we see little of and when we do see them, their eyes are pixilated so that they can’t be easily identified. They are clearly traumatized but for all that, they are still just kids, innocent victims of parents who had followed a path of evil.

There are some negatives here; we don’t really get a lot of personal background. We aren’t told when and how Patricio’s marriage to Amanda’s mother ended, or how the two women ended up converting to Islam and why. Then again, this isn’t meant to be Amanda’s story, although she looms large throughout. We also aren’t told how Patricio managed to afford staying in the hotel near the Iraq-Syria border for a month and a half, or how he could afford to take off work (or even whether he is employed). We learn almost nothing about the mundane details of Patricio’s life, other than that he is a doting grandfather, a grieving father and a musician. A few more blanks needed to be filled in. The score is a bit on the intrusive side as well.

But that aside, this is a powerful documentary that looks at the war on terror from an entirely different viewpoint. The film is currently playing in a limited run in Los Angeles, as well as available for streaming as part of the DOC NYC festival online (see link below). While there are some questions that can never be answered – how can an apparently well-adjusted person be radicalized to that degree – it at least lets us look at the questions it can answer.

REASONS TO SEE: Patricio is a compelling subject with a warm, engaging smile but still a broken heart. Plays almost like a thriller in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t give us much insight as to who Galvez is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like Galvez, Glaser-Müller is a Chilean-Swede.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mass
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Dean Martin: King of Cool

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

Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back