Despite its promising message, the reviews of Morgan Spurlock's new film, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, opening this week, have not been kind. A.O. Scott, is downright dismissive:
Scott says the film reveals that:
Mr. Spurlock, more so here than in Super Size Me, advances an essentially anti-political view of the world. It's impossible to disagree with much of what he says in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden, but it's also impossible to learn anything about war, terrorism, religion, oil, democracy or any of the other topics a less glib, less self-absorbed filmmaker might want to tackle. (NYT)
I can see why Scott makes this argument. I just think he's cynical. A film about our common humanity is a big deal, especially at a time, when, as Alex Gibney showed in Taxi to the Dark Side (where US soldiers killed Dilawar, an innocent taxi driver and the film's main character, and where other young men were brutally treated, as in making them masturbate for cameras). Given these incidents, Spurlock's effort to bring us back to the table, to common ground is needed.
. . . the things we all have in common, like our children and our families and our desire for a better world. So true! But also, and more to the point: So what?
I recently heard a clergyperson say "we all know how this is going to end." You know, the higher power will take care of things, bring people around to the good. It's hard to believe that seeing how things go these days, between the wars overseas and the testy democratic campaign. But once you get past the cartoonish stuff at the top of the film, i.e. Spurlock wrestling Osama (yes, I know it's bad) with a mustache and turban... you see something one might overlook: 1) This film points us in the direction of peace, how to wage peace and get us more in the direction of the good. And 2) it shows that Osama bin Laden is no longer a person, but an idea, that cannot be destroyed by a war on terror.
Point number 2 is more complicated to explain than number 1. And maybe it's even beyond the grasp of the film and my ability to explain in this blog. Save that for another day. I suspect if you get number one down, number 2 will flow from it.
How do you get more in the direction of the good? Consider your point of view.
Many excellent documentaries about US intervention in the Arab World and the Middle East are propelled forward by know-it-all policy makers and upper crust ruling elites who explain how things work and why things are the way they are. After all, they should know: some play armchair quarterback, justifying decisions made long ago that "no one could have foreseen." And while these docs have their utility (these folks got us into this mess, they should have a chance to explain themselves and peddle their memoirs) Spurlock's point of view is also valid. He takes his camera to the streets.
He talks with regular people. This type of reportage you're probably familiar with: man-on-the-street, "a bomb just exploded!", extreme close up women crying, a crowd of men shouting, hands in the air, "Down with America!" . . . it typically takes an exploitative view. But what Spurlock does, is he breaks bread with the enemy and in doing so, shows a kind of humility and respect that is a path to resolving conflict.
His openness lacks a kind of prejudice and is actually the stuff of good reporting. Spurlock is criticized for being a self-promoting, naïf who asks charming but stupid questions. But can we fault Spurlock-the-artist for being self-involved -- creatives find themselves fascinating, that's why they make stuff. And as for Spurlock's feigned lack of sophistication, can we really make an argument that the average American would do much better overseas? What's the percentage of Americans who carry passports? Would we be able to find Jordan or Gaza on a map? How well would we be able to talk about the frustrations of the youth in Saudi Arabia? Or to describe how stifling life in Afghanistan has become? What might we gain from seeing a (white) man (because most Americans are white) who looks like us, sitting and eating with people who are not white and we think of as our enemies? These are important things to show.
In one scene, Spurlock points out how popular the WWF has become in some parts of the Arab world. A man from the film explains that he likes the WWF because it is "fair." We Americans, of course know that professional wrestling, at least by reputation is fixed, and the knowledge of this - plus hearing this man's yearning for a fair fight, make for a poignant irony. What do we know about our conflict with the other that is not fair? How funny and sad is it that there is this desire for "fairness" from our enemy? How unfair must this man's life be for him to be so enamored with two men fighting with just their body slams and wrestle moves -- or, how much like us is he? Could it be that we all want fairness and respect? Could a change on our mutual path, be as simple as acknowledging that?
The film closes with outtakes from personalities Spurlock encountered. Some simply gaze into the camera. One of the most anti-American Saudis slowly allows a smile to cross his face. He's tentative at first, like it hurts him. He looks pained and then it's like he's aware of how silly he looks and he gives us a real smile. In that smile, we can see our common lot. Like when you've had an argument with someone, and you just want it to end and there's a moment when you see you're wrong or you don't even care who's right anymore and a smile crosses your face. His smile was like that.
Spurlock is just one man (with a hard working band of producers) who took on trekking to these difficult places in the world, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Morocco and (what's often referred to as) Israel/Palestine. He stops short of Pakistan. Recalling Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl's fate there (Pearl, a hard news reporter was on the trail of al Qaeda; his wife was also pregnant at the time) it was probably not an un-wise move, given that Spurlock was a novice in these matters. The film shows how regular people can ferret out simple truths, when our leaders fail to make the effort.