Things I Don't See
I was struck by the story of a girl who had lunch in a cafe before blowing it up, another girl who backed out when the organizers asked her to wear crop-top that exposed her belly, still another girl who, on her way to ramming a truck bomb into a Russian army convoy, stopped at the market to buy some bananas. In some ways, the film is about “the bananas.”
—Julia Loktev, indieWire (10 May 2007)
There is no difference between the occupied and occupier.
—Suha (Lubna Azabal), Paradise Now (2005)
The unnamed protagonist (Luisa Williams) of Day Night Day Night first appears in silhouetted profile. She’s riding a bus, her short ponytail almost girlish, as she whispers to herself the many ways that someone might die. “Some people fall from a window and die. Others die when an air conditioner falls from the window and hits them,” she says. “Some people are driving and hit something and die. Some people just get hit by a car and die. Some people are knifed to death, some are shot, some are strangled. Some are beaten to death with bare hands. Some people die when a neighbor is smoking and sets off a fire. Some people just die from smoking. Some die from lung cancer, colon cancer, stomach cancer…” Her list goes on for another minute, and then she ends, declaring that she has chosen how and when she will die. “I have only one death,” she says, I want my death to be for you.” And with that, she steps off the bus, her sneakers gleaming white in the sunlight.
It’s a pointedly abstract opening for Julia Loktev’s film, which follows the 19-year-old, called “She” in the closing credits, as she prepares to carry a bomb in backpack into Times Square and blow herself up. She is provided no context, no pained relationship with parents, no ideological fervor, not even a place where she’s from. She never explains the “you” of her prayer.
At this early moment in the film, the camera retains a certain distance from her. You see her shoes, her skirt, her hands clutching a badminton racket to her chest. As she walks through the bus terminal, you follow, closely, her shadowy form emerging at last into a brighter space, crowded and loud. Her cell phone rings and you see her face: eyes dark-circled and cheeks hollow, expression less anxious than expectant. Instructed to step outside and find her ride, she travels with a driver (Tschi Hun Kim) to a Chinese restaurant, where they sit opposite one another, slurping noodles. Following more instructions, he deposits her in a New Jersey motel room, whereupon her cell phone rings again. She’s instructed not to open the curtain or show her face at the window. When she does step briefly onto the balcony, the cell phone rings jarringly: the man on the other end tells her to get back inside: “Please don’t go outside again.”
His strained politeness has nothing on hers, however. She says “please” and “thank you” at every opportunity, and apologizes for asking a reasonable question of one of the ski-masked handlers who eventually show up at the room: “I want to do everything right, but why would I do it if no one’s around?” The girl shows an intense focus on her task, the mechanics of it, if not the consequences. She assiduously memorizes a new identity (address, date of birth, astrological sign), apparently in case she’s stopped on the sidewalk, practices pushing the button on her detonator, and repeats her instructions in careful monotone (“I will wait for the red light to turn green”).
The evening before her mission, she scrubs herself in the tub (the water slapping loudly), eats pizza (inviting her still ski-masked handlers to share it, almost pleading, “I don’t like to eat alone”), and brushes her teeth with an electric toothbrush—fiercely. Following a restless, plainly lonely night, she wakes to wait for the men again, perched on the side of the tub, the camera angled awkwardly from above, as if in surveillance.
The men in ski masks bring clothes, asking her to model a pink jacket and then a blue one, try on, then remove a wide plastic belt on her low-riding jeans. They set her up to film a “martyr’s video,” for “your parents,” they suggest. “My parents are dead, she says flatly. The video staging includes a (real) prop gun, an ammunition belt, and a backdrop logo (a generic protesting fist), as well as a prepared script. “Do you think I could have a Kleenex?” she asks, softly. “I feel like my nose is getting shiny.” Who is this girl?
After long minutes of preparation for the video, the film cuts straight on to the next scene. You don’t watch her perform, never know whether the script says anything about their cause or hers. “How can I be sure if my motives are pure?” she asks, alone, praying again. “You’ll see right through me. What if you see things I don’t see?”
This is exactly the question, the things she doesn’t—or you don’t—see. Belief allows you to act without seeing everything, no matter your tactic or your cause (democracy, jihad, revenge, justice). Day Night Day Night examines such desire to act, the faith involved and, strangely more compelling, the material reality, the bananas.
Once she is outfitted with a yellow backpack filled with explosives and nails, instructed for brief moments on how to operate the switch that resembles a walkman, the girl is dropped off at Port Authority. The camera stays close on her face once she’s outside the motel room, but the focus becomes most intense when she’s cast among the crowd on the sidewalk. Here the blending noise of traffic, conversations, and even music from passing cars becomes almost overwhelming. The girl takes precious moments to indulge herself: she wolfs down pretzels with mustard and a gigantic red candy apple as if… well, as if there is no tomorrow.
While you learn she has a little brother and living parents (whom she calls briefly, collect, from a pay phone, though she doesn’t speak to them), the girl remains isolated and waiflike. Because she’s a girl, she’s at once emblematic of a shift in suicide bomber strategy (as 3 May’s Time magazine reports, women are increasingly serving as bombers, for a range of reasons, from personal to political). And because she’s a girl, she’s unknowable and so, frightening: when she falls down on the sidewalk, New Yorkers offer help and concern. She picks herself up, resisting their sympathy as she resists yours.
And yet, you feel for her. She’s a cipher, but also familiar (if only because she’s on camera throughout the film). Her determination and ingenuity when faced with trouble are combined with an appealing clumsiness and confusion. She’s sure and not sure, she’s transparent and unreadable. Quite brilliantly, Loktev’s movie never explains her or makes her strange in order to ease your own mind. Rather, it makes you nervous both for and about her.