[5 January 2009]
In Cult of the Suicide Bomber 2, retired CIA spook turned intelligence community celeb Robert Baer delivers a stunningly detailed exploration of the practice of suicide bombing and the tactics employed by its practitioners. Sadly, what the film sets out to do is provide a look at the cultural context in which it exists, especially among the new breed of suicide bombers represented by women and middle class men from the affluent West, and in this it fails badly, anchored by the obsessions of it’s narrator and star.
Baer brings an agenda with him, and it’s to his credit that he’s up front about it. But his obsession with suicide bombing makes the film seem more like a propaganda piece than an exploration of the facts at hand. In his omnipresent role as narrator, interviewer and guide, Baer draws his own conclusions about a lot of grey areas brought up in the film, and that’s natural – it seems we’re past the point of expecting our documentarians to be perfectly objective purveyors of capital T ‘Truth’. But his presentation of these conclusions as facts makes one question whether such an obsessed man is really the most reliable source on the subject at hand.
The bulk of the film consists of interviews with chemists and convicts, failed bombers and the families left behind by successful ones. Baer is a good talker, and these interviews are by turns illuminating, sad and frightening.
Baer’s conversations with female prisoners jailed for attempted suicide bombings are especially intriguing. In martyrdom, women achieve a sort of equanimity with their male counterparts, a fact attested to by male planners in a separate interview. One is tempted to suspect that this aura of power and glamour is the lure in societies where equality, however brief, would be a driving force for many female suicide bombers. Viewers are given a glimpse into the minds of frustrated, frightened and yes, terrorized people who are striking out in what seems to them the only way they can.
In speaking with those who have been imprisoned for arranging and assisting suicide bombings as well as those still on the run, Cult of the Suicide Bomber 2 provides very detailed and surprisingly frank depictions of the planning and execution of suicide bombings. Unfortunately, these detailed explanations ultimately stumble into a plodding, go nowhere brand of filmmaking. Baer is so interested in the process behind suicide bombings and spends so much effort fretting over the minutiae of the planning and execution of attacks that little time is left to address the circumstances that drive so many to take innocents with them to this grisly and violent end.
While the procedural aspects will no doubt be interesting for COINTEL wonks and modern warfare buffs, the material won’t hold much interest to the general viewing public. This is less a fault of the subject matter and more of the filmmakers, who seem uninterested in even making a cursory attempt at rendering these exchanges engaging for viewers. It’s a shame more couldn’t be made of this sort of proximity and attention to detail – there’s a great story in there, somewhere.
Visually, Cult of the Suicide Bomber 2 is unimpressive to the point of being soporific. It makes use of a prodigious amount of stock footage, weaving together clips gleaned from TV news shows, security cameras and military checkpoints. The film boasts a number of shocking images, but they often don’t connect to the topics being discussed. Instead, the editing leaves one feeling that the filmmakers are simply using such grisly footage as filler in an effort to evoke an emotional response that the content of the film, remarkably, fails to achieve. It’s a technique that doesn’t make for stimulating filmmaking, especially when the same shots are used time after time, leaving even the few poignant moments seeming lurid and exploitative.
The omission of special features of any sort is a telling one for Cult of the Suicide Bomber 2. The absence of things like deleted scenes or extended interviews suggests that the filmmakers already threw everything they had into the final version of the film. The result is a meandering, often repetitive two and a half hour film that drags in places and moves along according to the whims of the filmmaker rather than the logic dictated by the subject matter. At its heart, that’s the problem with Cult of the Suicide Bomber 2: it’s a documentary made in the interest of reinforcing an existing train of thought rather than positing something new.
While Baer continues trying to get to the bottom of suicide bombings, small groups of well trained extremists hold Mumbai hostage for days. A national security assessment posits that the United States will be hit by a nuclear attack within the next five years. Baer’s obsession has stricken him with tunnel vision, and it seems that as he ponders the mind of the suicide bomber, the rest of the world of terrorism has passed him by.