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.
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.
Back 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.
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