What most folks miserably fail to realize is that our wars are no less complicated than world wars, or wars fought to either suppress or liberate a country. The difference is not legality, but cause.
— Sanyika Shakur, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1994)
“As a child, I had this intimate relationship with God. I always talked to God.” Isa Abdullah Ali remembers being lonely as a boy, especially when his family moved to Southwest DC. Before then, he says, “I thought the world was kind and nice, and all of a sudden, we moved into these other neighborhoods, and started finding out that not everybody was of that mindset.” His one friend, he says, was constant: “How can I go wrong with the one who has created all things in the universe?”
Back then, Isa was called Cleven Holt. As he tells his story in American Jihadist: The Life and Times of Isa Abdullah Ali, Isa sounds matter of fact and self-knowing. Winner of the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Documentary Film at this year’s Slamdance Festival and screening in IFC’s “Best of Slamdance” showcase on 8 March, the film traces Isa’s life in and out of war zones, Resisting conclusions and embracing contradictions, Mark Claywell’s documentary has him talking even as others also talk about him.
At first, the film offers images you might expect: Isa as a menacing, hyper-trained soldier, outfitted in camo and dark glasses. Whether target-shooting on vibrant green hillsides or visiting a Bosnian cemetery, Isa appears dedicated and determined, his past shaping his present. Asked to enumerate his experience, he remains vague (“I actually stopped counting in 1981 the numbers of persons I had killed”), as the film cuts to U.S. flags in a slow motion wind. Such conventional devices conjure suspense, or at least pretend to do so: brooding music on the soundtrack, blurry close-ups connoting “mystery.”
But the film is not nearly conventional. It is instead a portrait conceived as a series of shifting impressions. Having survived and inflicted trauma, Isa remembers that his sense of the broader world’s imbalance — beyond his neighborhood or his household (his sister reveals that both she and their mother were abused as girls, adding, “Those issues can color your life for a long time”) — began with John Kennedy’s assassination. Just a few seconds of Zapruder footage expands that realization to a collective memory. To regain a sense of order, he says he vowed to fight oppression, and then sought a structure for doing so.
Though he never details his family chaos, he does say that he moved in with his Uncle Nate Butler, a reverend, when he was 10. In between shots of Butler preaching (“Bitterness is the only poison that destroys its container”), the film shows Isa, who claims that his current home, in Bosnia, is “more comfortable” than DC. Back in the States, he says, “Wherever you turn, you never know who you’re gonna meet. That’s not a way to live, wondering who am I gonna kill today?” His training to kill came courtesy of the U.S. military, he says, which he joined at age 15. While in the army, he converted to Islam. As he fries a couple of eggs, the camera cutting from the pan to his profile, Isa’s off-screen interviewer wonders how his mother felt about his choice. “She had a problem with that,” he says briefly, but still, he felt it was a way to “find out who I am.”
The film presents that search for identity, more or less after the fact. He fought for six years in Lebanon and Bosnia, and now travels between Bosnia (where he has a family) and DC, where he works as a groundskeeper at Howard University (making money to send home). American Jihadits refers briefly to alternate theories of Isa’s status via-a-vis the U.S. (is he working for the CIA or DOD? Is he a terrorist?). It also uses him as an occasion for probing jihadist “psychology” and “meaning” via expert opinions. Dr. Jerrold Post, a CIA profiler, observes that conversions often come in a “moment of crisis.” He continues, “It’s very appealing to have this structure of a faith brought to them, which can give their lives meaning, into which they can subordinate their own individuality.” Such immersion in a “cause larger than themselves” is a familiar description of young terrorists (as well as gang members, a point the film makes plain). Harvard lecturer Jessica Stern reports, “Over time, I met many people who claimed to be killing in the name of God and I realized that they were doing it not really for religious reasons, that they were drawn to violence for one reason or another, perhaps political perhaps psychological.”
Though Stern’s interview doesn’t include how she came to her “realization,” it does underscore the basic argument, that “terrorists” make decisions for diverse reasons, ranging from economic to political to extremely personal. Isa’s commitment to fighting oppression, he says, is premised on his capacity for killing (serving as a sniper in Beirut in 1983, he remembers one target: “I started thinking, ‘This guy’s a family man. They’re gonna miss him.’ I said, ‘Fuck it.’ I put the lead on him and pop, that was it”). At other moments, he’s less mechanical. His move to Bosnia, he says, was a function of seeing a need he could answer. At the same time, he uses some familiar language, asserting his effort to “achieve victory in this life or achieve martyrdom. My life does not end with this world ending.”
In fact, Isa’s own ideology is not rigid. “Does any religion own the truth?” he asks, “Does man truly own the earth?” Now surrounded by his wife (a former Bosnian soldier) and their children, Isa doesn’t look precisely “comfortable.” As he prepares meals for the kids in a cramped kitchen, he putters and smiles, asserting his desire to allow them to make choices in their own futures. “It makes me feel good when they tell me that I’m a good father,” he smiles awkwardly. “Because I’m still learning, you know.” Considering this self-description alongside Isa’s recollection of shooting the likely “family man” reveals the contradictions he embodies. As Isa remains undefined, the documentary resists definitions as well.