The Good Terrorist
Frank van den Engel
«What possesses Muslim fundamentalists who attack innocent civilians?» asks a voice recording from a radio show at the beginning of The Good Terrorist. The film does not give an answer. It does, however, manage to show how, during the 15 years since the Hofstad Group took its first victim, Islamic terrorism has changed European society.
The islamisation of radicalism
In 2004, a member of the Hofstad Group brutally murdered journalist Theo van Gogh. As the majority of the group’s members, including those seen in this film, did not commit the murder themselves, objections have since been raised as to the vague use of the term «terrorist». It has reinforced the knowledge that the present fear of Islam is conditioned by a centuries-long imagining of the Orient as the feared «other» of the West. New professions have proliferated – such as «informers on polarization and radicalization» – a new type of prison architecture has been created, and an individualized prison regime has been developed where contact between inmates is strictly forbidden. The sensibility for cultural difference has increased (Victor Koppen, the group’s lawyer: «I think there is a complete inability in the Netherlands to understand someone else’s point of view») and awareness of human rights importance has risen (Luk Vervaet, the prisoners’ rights activist: «human rights, they don’t apply to you and me. We have them. They apply to people who don’t have those rights»). Carefully outlining these fragments, the film indicates how we might not be dealing with Muslim fundamentalists at all but, in the words of Vervaet, «the Islamisation of radicalism».
We might not agree about what the definition of «Islamic terrorism» is, yet it has structured much of contemporary Western society over the last decade.
All of the above is made visible in condensed form through one scene, where the activists defending the rights of the Hofstad group’s members gather for a meeting, each bringing along food they have prepared. They greet each other, embrace, kiss, smile, circulate, and create a group of their own. We might not agree about what the definition of «Islamic terrorism» is, but it has structured much of contemporary Western society over the last decade.
The film applies rigorously conventional documentarian approach, from the violin-based soundtrack to the talking heads’ type presentation of the interviewed experts with lit faces on the black background. Some of the old-time techniques truly «stand out»: the need to underline the narrative points with additional means, such as the raising vocal singing «I’m in heaven,» and theatrical enactments, for example, the kid shepherd guarding sheep in the mountains of Morocco. Thorough research has been performed for this film, it opens up several new perspectives and condemns stereotyped views, but there are moments when it resorts to the common sense notions. One of such moments is this scene with the sheep in Moroccan mountains, showing that the film sometimes uses stereotypes itself.
As a consequence, The Good Terrorist remains blind toward the «banality of evil», observed by Hannah Arendt after the second world war and the Holocaust. In one of its most revealing moments, we see one of the Hofstad group’s members interviewed in a hotel room. Before coming to the Netherlands, he was a shepherd in Morocco, his grandfather was a farmer, and he lived there with his four brothers. He narrates, smiling. When asked why did he do it, he responds with «What?» The interviewer responds with another question, «Why did you go to prison?» In this scene, the film encounters the limits of its’ approach. The interviewee, still smiling, says, «this is it. I want to go and have some water.» He exits the frame and never reappears. We never get the answer, but it would be too easy to put the blame for this on the young man. By not naming the crime that he committed – not murder, but the whole spectrum between murder and nothing remained unspecified – the interviewers themselves created the space for the loose use of the term terrorism. They also missed the opportunity to learn about what kind of anger was it that made this young man to join the group that was planning to murder people. In this situation, the connection with the sheep in the mountains is all that remains, but this only reinforces the cliches and offers no explanation.
if people smile it does not necessarily make them «good»
There is nothing wrong with the initial question, it is indeed important to know what kind of human being is ready to kill others. Through the proliferation of social media, we have learned about the importance of appearances and, in contact with others, we follow the rules of civil communication – we smile a lot, for example. However, we also know that if people smile it does not necessarily make them «good». To reach beyond pure voyeurism, it is not enough to apply standard documentary filmmaking approaches and hope the truth will show up. The Good Terrorist provides a lot of images about people who were ready to kill others, but the evil in them remains as enigmatic as before.