[23 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Can context really change your opinion? Can the changing cultural or political tide turn one set judgment, especially when the item being discussed seems irretrievably linked to said shifts? Morgan Spurlock must think so. When he offered his intriguing if incomplete dissertation on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror a few months back, it seemed like a silly slapstick take on a very serious subject. Now, in light of an election which seems poised to be decided on issues other than our commitment in Iraq and threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? appears much more lucid and likeable.
The DVD release (from Genus Products and The Weinstein Company) of the title bares this out, especially when looking at the bonus material offered. Spurlock adds a few supporting snippets, including an insightful interview with Shimon Peres. The Israeli President makes it very clear that peace can be brokered, but as with any negotiation, it’s a matter of compromise. And when one side sees itself as totally marginalized within the process (as is the case with the Palestinians), there’s little desire to do anything except fight back. In light of his words, the entire foundation of this film changes. Sure, it’s still a goofy journey through world politics accented by Spurlock’s sunny slacker stance. But one cannot deny the connection to our own Western worries.
It’s clear in the main set-up the movie offers. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. Young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. Again, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead this is what Spurlock learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.
By using the impending birth of this first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing, we see the personal concern and connection and though premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds, Super Size Me (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.
It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where the aforementioned Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad!
Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.
Still, there are times when even these comments seem contradictory. As part of the bonus features, three Saudi girls discuss their concept of freedom within a segregated, paternalistic theocracy. They argue that they have choice (they choose to conform) and they suggest they could drop the Muslim mandated rituals whenever they wanted. When pressed, they admit that the trouble to do so may not warrant the reward. The lack of follow-up remains one of this film’s few stumbles. Spurlock rarely gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Most of the time he offers nothing but passive aggressive acceptance.
Most of the time, he doesn’t even try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Both sides get it good, from party line toting students to Hasidic Jews giving the people of Israel an equally bad name. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor - at least beyond the limited extras offered on this DVD. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.
As the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game grandstanding, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music (and now the DVD) makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.