Roger L. Simon

Movies on the Edge

Three controversial films were screened at the AFR festival in Hollywood Sunday afternoon – The Full Story (a settler-sympathetic short from Israel), Submission – Part 1 (excerpted scenes from the movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life) and the world premiere of the documentary Islam: What the West Needs to Know. Security was tight because, in these odd times, it is the non-PC films that bring us to the edge of danger in the way movies like Battle of Algiers did in the old days. The VIP lounge and the balcony were closed for these screenings because of unspecified threats. But enough about the perils of movie-going, here’s my take on the films themselves.

The Full Story tells the tale of the supposedly accidental, but actually terrorist motivated, death of a settler mother and child on the West Bank. I am not a supporter of the Israeli settler movement, but I found Yehezkel Laing’s crudely-made first film oddly affecting. Part of the reason is that it contrasted the warm family life of the Orthodox settler dad with the self-involved hedonism of a secular Israeli (an anchorman, no less). A stacked deck, yes, but a passionate one.

I had seen Submission, Theo van Gogh and Aayan Hirsi Ali’s famous attack on the misogyny of Islam, some months ago on the web. But seeing it on screen in a theatre (as it was intended) is a different experience. What surprised me about the excerpt we saw Sunday was the visually-stunning level of the filmmaking (not to mention its star, Ms. Hirsi Ali – I knew that already.) This is the only film of Theo van Gogh’s I have ever seen, but he clearly knew what he was doing with a camera – another reason to lament his hideous premature death. As for Submission itself, the excerpts were too brief to make much comment. I wonder why the festival didn’t show the whole thing. Were they not allowed to or were they simply too anxious under the circumstances?

From what I understand, the makers of Islam: What the West Needs to Know (director: Bryan Daly) were reluctant to screen with Submission because they didn’t want to be associated with the notorious film, which is strange since their documentary is easily as hard on the Islamic faith as van Gogh’s work. The documentary is ninety-five minutes of non-stop recapitulation of the history of the religion, its belief system and political intent narrated by well-known scholars and critics Robert Spencer, Walid Shoebat, Serge Trifkovic and Bat Ye-or. I have read all these people exept Trifkovic and respect them all. Speaking one after another as talking heads on the film (it’s that kind of old-fashioned documentary) they raise the question of our time that few dare speak, at least on any level of serious analysis. Is jihadism the real Islam or is there an actual moderate strain of the religion? Clearly, from its title, it’s obvious this film takes the former view and warns the West to heed the consequences of its dire conclusion.

Does it convince? Not entirely. But I think documentaries – particularly talking-head documentaries – are not ultimately a convincing form. They are too easily subject to manipulation by the filmmaker. The various writers who speak here are more interesting in their books, which develop their arguments at much greater length and depth. Still, this is a necessary film and I hope it finds distribution. Even though I wish its arguments were at least partly wrong, I fear that they are not.

UPDATE; Video of audience reaction to the film at Mondo Hollywood.

CLARIFICATON: I received the following in email from Andrew Leigh of the film festival:

The reason we showed only a clip [of “Submission”] was not because we were afraid to show the whole thing, but rather, the copyright owners refused to allow us to show the entire film (they said it was due to security concerns). We begged them to let us screen the film in its entirety, but alas they said no. We showed as much as they gave us in the hope that this will help to break the “taboo” which appears to be developing against this movie and others like it.