EURODOK: Two young men are waiting to be called to action as suicide bombers in Syria. Pål Refsdal’s recent documentary depicts a surprisingly intimate portrait.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser is a freelance Norwegian film critic and journalist. He holds an MA in Film Studies from the University of Oslo, as well as a Writer-Director Diploma from the London Film Academy.

Dugma – The Button

Pål Refsdal

Norway 2016, 58 min.

dugmaDugma – The Button paints a surprisingly intimate portrait of two voluntary front fighters waiting their turn on the martyr list to drive a lorry filled with explosives towards the enemy and hit the release button – in Arabic called «dugma». These are 32-year old Saudi Abu Quawara al-Maki and Lucas Kinney, a 26-year old convert from West-London now using the name Abu Basir al-Britani. Refsdal’s most recent film is not only remarkable due to the free access he had to these young men, but also because it depicts them as in parts ordinary and, not least, sympathetic people.

Ransom demand. But firstly, let us make a detour by explaining the director’s work: «I want to thank the authorities, they did a great job which I knew nothing about whilst kidnapped. » This is how Pål Refsdal (according to Nettavisen 16.11.09) introduced a 2009 press conference, in the aftermath of his kidnapping earlier the same month, by a Taliban-allied group, when in Afghanistan making a documentary.  Refsdal was in Afghanistan already as a 21-year old, as he in 1985 participated in the Mujahedin fighting against the Soviet forces. Later, as a journalist, he has frequently visited dangerous conflict areas, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Kosovo and Chechnya. After six days as a Taliban hostage, Refsdal was released. There was speculation whether this was due to him converting to Islam, but it was also claimed that it was he was proven to be a journalist, not a spy. The kidnappers, on their side, seem to have been motivated by ransom money. Their original demand was 50,000 dollar, which Refsdal managed to negotiate down to 20,000 dollar. However, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and the Foreign Office clearly stated that Norwegian authorities on principle would not give in to their random demands. The aforementioned great job by the authorities to free Refsdal, was said to involve 50-odd people. Afterwards, the Foreign Office decided not to Pursue Refsdal for the financial demands, despite being kidnapped in a region the Norwegian embassy in Kabul advised him against travelling to. Among the many involved in the release process was November Film producer Kjetil Johnsen. As Refsdal’s employer, he played a central part, and was, among other things, present during the extradition in Afghanistan.

Hidden recordings. Naturally, nothing came of the film with the working title On the other side, which Refsdal was in Afghanistan to make. At least not in its original form. In October 2010, Brennpunkt-documentary Kidnapped by the Taliban was released, directed by Refsdal and Aksel Storstein, and produced by Johnsen of November Film. The film contained, among other things, secret recordings of conversations between Johnsen and Norwegian authorities, taken during the efforts in trying to release Refsdal, where ransom was discussed a possibility. The Foreign Office appealed to the Press Council (PFU), based on Johnsen’s involvement as Refsdal’s employer and as journalist – and secretly recording the crisis team conversations. In the end, no ransom was paid, something which is presumably also clear in the TV documentary. But this raises questions regarding how necessary it was to make the internal conversations done during this process public.

al-nusra-front-dugma-the-button-paul-refsdal-1470069072There is obviously a danger that sharing such information could limit Norwegian authorities’ ability to solve subsequent kidnapping cases. Additionally, it will obviously have very negative consequences if the impression is given that ransom payments actually do happen, despite the authorities’ official stance on this issue. The Press Council approved the complaint, and felt that the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) broke the press ethical code by screening the documentary (which remains indefinitely available at nrk.no)

Refsdal’s brave efforts have no doubt resulted in a powerful documentary which could not have been made from a safe distance.

Looking back at the way Pål Refsdal thanked the authorities at the aforementioned press conference leaves a bitter after taste, particularly in light of how he and producer Johnsen actually decided to show their gratitude. This contrasts with how Norwegian and international media, without fail, respected the Foreign Office’s call not to describe the kidnapping as long as the release efforts were underway.

al-nusra-front-dugma-the-button-paul-refsdal-body-image-1470071581-size_1000Back in the war zone. The kidnapping does not seem to have dissuaded Refsdal from visiting war zones as a journalist. Which, for tha matter, is a good thing. In his recent documentary Dugma – The Button, he travelled to Syria, currently the world’s most lethal country for someone of Refsdal’s profession (According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, some 91 journalists have been killed in Syria since 2012.) Here he trailed a group of Al Qaida suicide bombers from its Nusra front, during six weeks split between one trip in December 2014 and another in May/June last year. This time, however, Refsdal changed his producer from November Film to the Medieoperatørene, represented by Ingvil Giske, probably a wise choice.

With permission. As Refsdal visited a group considered a terrorist organisation by the USA and the EU, he is naturally at risk of being kidnapped again. However, the Norwegian film maker commented to Newsweek that although Nusra do kidnap or arrest people, these are people who have entered their area without permission. He received, as he terms it, an approved «job application» from Nusra, which enabled him to travel to the rebel-led part of Syria to film the fighters there. Apparently not subjected to any censorship, apart from not filming certain individuals nor exterior shots of the buildings. It has to be pointed out that also in 2009, when Refsdal was invited to visit the Taliban, protection was promised but this did not stop a «cowboy» in the group from kidnapping him. This time around, however, this did not happen, and Refsdal’s brave efforts resulted in a powerful documentary which could not have been made from a safe distance.

This combination of human portrayals coupled with the insight into the fanatical fallacies behind the decision to give their lives to a holy war, which makes Dugma – The Button, an important film.

Foreign fighters. There are several documentaries about people enlisting as foreign fighters, such as Deeyah Kahns JIHAD: A Story of the Others. I would recommend this one, alongside British director Robb Leech’ My Brother, the terrorist, which deals with the director’s own half-brother and his process of radicalisation (earlier also depicted in the film My brother, the Islamist). But, whereas Kahn interviews people in Britain with a Jihadist past which they now condemn, and Leech looks at radicalisation environments in the same country, Dugma – The Button is the odd one out by actually being present in the war zone alongside dedicated suicide bombers.

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Powerful contrasts. Refsdal switches between sequences where the main characters discuss and describe (also in technical detail) the, in their view, sacred tasks they have accepted, and other far more trivial moments where they, for instance, talk about food. This contrast is bolstered further by several scenes where Al-Maki demonstrates a remarkably beautiful singing voice. There is, however, the constant tension of waiting to be called to the final task, which could happen at any time. Al-Maki replicates conversations he had with his parents about his voluntary martyrdom, and the film also shows him being moved by footage of his own child – born after he left for Syria. Al-Britani, in turn, gets married during the period Refsdal followed him, and is further challenged in his calling when she is potentially pregnant. Simultaneously, his religion-based conviction tells him that of course he will be tried, to be able to show himself worthy of a martyr’s death.
It is precisely this combination of human portrayals coupled with the insight into the fanatical fallacies behind the decision to give their lives to a holy war, which makes Dugma – The Button, an important film. And one which shows that Pål Refsdal’s strength is not just his dedication to document armed conflicts from the inside, but also in his gaze at the people who fight these.

Og som viser at Pål Refsdals styrke ikke bare handler om at han dedikerer seg til å dokumentere væpnede konflikter fra innsiden, men også i hans blikk for menneskene som utkjemper dem.

Some of the information relating to Refsdal’s work on Dugma – The Button was taken from the Newsweek article «Inside Al-Qaeda: The Real Lives of Suicide Bombers in Syria» (by Jack Moore, published online 5. February).

Dugma – The Button is screened at the European documentary festival, Eurodok, which is at Oslo’s Cinemateket from 9. to 13. March.

 


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