My review of AFI Docs 2017 for the Washington City Paper
Recruiting for Jihad
Directed by Adel Kahn Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen
Recruiting for Jihad follows Norwegian Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, who is the spokesperson for The Prophet’s Ummah, a Salafi-jihadist group. Hussain is of Pakistani descent, born in Norway and all too aware of the social benefits he enjoys in his position. Speaking to a recruit, he intones, “You will never be at home in Norway.” The native Norwegian recruits seem no more “at home” either—they all lament a life of “meaninglessness” before Islam. That is one of the greatest tensions exposed in the film: the way radical groups like Hussain’s manage to bridge the gap from conversion (or reversion, as it is called here) to jihadism. Two of the native Norwegians have never even been to Syria, yet are eager to fight there. Hussain emerges as magnetic and affable, at first—seemingly only interested in offering people a community. Yet, the uneasy way he responds when probed about his support of terrorist acts and ISIS exposes the fissure behind the façade of radicalism. The film is an enthralling look at the maddening disorientation of modern life—a Norwegian longing to be a part of a war in a place in the world he has never been, a Pakistani whose relationship with Islam is molded by an English imam… culture, identity, religion—all terms shown to be hard to unpack in a global world.
An Insignificant Man
Directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla
An Insignificant Man is the story of the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, “India’s Bernie Sanders,” and his 2013 campaign for Chief Minister of Delhi. That politics are as dirty in India as much as in the West is all too apparent—clientelism, voter bribing, corporate control over government, thuggery. The film is a political thriller in every sense of the word—the stakes are high, with goons assassinating one of the candidates from Kejriwal’s populist Aam Aadmi Party. Missing from the narrative, however, is Kejriwal’s involvement with the Anti-Corruption Law and social activist Anna Hazare; the film picks up when he decides to go from lobbying for the law to turning the movement into a political party. An unassuming (and often far too serious) figure, Kejriwal is hardly the charismatic leader of lore. But his dogged determination shines through, as does his ability to deliver on campaign promises few believe he can—cutting the electricity bills in half and providing free water. Far from a wide-eyed tale about the triumph of populist democracy, An Insignificant Man showcases that even in the muck of politics, incremental changes can truly be momentous.
La Libertad de Diablo
Directed by Everardo González
La Libertad de Diablo riffs a little bit on Tempestad, a film that played in last year’s AFI DOCs, in that it captures the banality of violence in Mexico. The narrative technique is trenchant and unsettling. Director Everardo Gonzales interviews victims and perpetrators of violence. They all wear flesh-colored masks, which make them look ghoulish and eerie, effectively blurring the line between victim and perpetrator, illustrating how truly tenuous that distinction is. The masks preserve the anonymity, yet are stretched thinly enough over the faces to show them wracked by emotion and to see the dampness of tears at the eye holes. Some of the killers earn as little as $10 per kill. A mother talks about finding the sneaker of her dead child. All speak of fear and the pervasiveness of violence at all levels, including the police and government. The masks render the speakers skull-like, as though the living are not too far from the dead.