Dugma – The Button
Norway 2016, 58 min.
Dugma – 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.
There 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.