Once upon a time, not too long ago, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock made us all fear McDonalds with his award-winning film “Super Size Me”. If you recall, Spurlock spent 30 days eating nothing but McDonalds for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and documented his deteriorating health on film, in between scenes of his journey through the American fast food industry. This time, his journey takes him a bit farther than the 50 states.
Spurlock decided to go looking for the most wanted man on the planet: Osama Bin Laden. With a baby on the way, Spurlock rationalized the journey as wanting to be able to secure a safer world for his kid: perhaps a noble and fatherly pursuit. With this in mind the film starts off with his preparations: from what seems like at least 20 vaccinations and shots, to bordering on the absurd safety-training that taught him how to determine where a sniper is located based on the blood splatter of a nearby victim. The production and most notably, the film’s intro, is fairly big budget, and far removed from the traditional documentary-style we’ve grown accustomed to and which I prefer. It’s filled with Spurlock’s sense of humor and even an animation of a computer game where he battles Osama mano-e-mano.
Soon enough (thankfully), Spurlock sets off on his journey where he heads to Egypt first. Talking to a relative of Ayman Zawahiri, Spurlock’s interaction with Egyptians only validates the underlying point that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims have when it comes to America and Osama Bin Laden, points that can be summed up as follows: one. we love Americans but we hate American foreign policy in the region. Two. We hate Osama Bin Laden because he tarnishes Islam and kills innocents. Three. The US oppresses us (by supporting our direct oppressors).
Practically every conversation Spurlock had with average people in the Arab world consisted of those answers to all his questions. In Egypt, he presents a reality unknown to most Americans: a country with little to no civil liberties; a reality supported financially and politically by the US government. This is put in a historical context, tracing America’s legacy of doing the exact same thing all over the world (and this region) for over half a century.
He then journeys to Morocco, who like Jordan, Egypt and other Arab countries, was subject to terrorist attacks by Al-Queda. In Palestine and Israel he is faced with another reality. Walls and occupation. His approach here is to get the views of the average Palestinian and how they feel about Osama and Al-Queda who claim they are fighting for the Palestinian cause (amongst other things). The reaction on the street, in both Palestine and Israel, is unexpected for him. In Jordan, he talks to Father Nabil about what it’s like being a Christian minority in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is a whole other universe for Spurlock, and truth be told, for most Arabs and Muslims in this region, Saudi Arabia is admittedly a whole other universe for us as well. His depiction of the country is fairly accurate, although not completely demonstrating the contrast between the more moderate and open Jeddah and western parts of the country.
And then it’s off to the badlands. Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The documentary is designed for western audiences and I wish a lot of them will get to see it, and not just Americans with liberal orientations. It is an attempt to capture what the average Arab and the average Muslim thinks. Their thoughts on the US. Their thoughts on religion. How they live. Their concerns. The fact that at the end of the day, most just want to put food on their table and get their kids a good education, to keep them out of life in the gutter, and thus away from the extremist elements in their society that tend to lurk there.
It is interesting to see a more funny-driven Spurlock who goes for the easy jokes, transform a bit along the way. He’s advised to grow a beard in the beginning to “blend in”. As his beard grows, and as he continues to meet more and more people, and as he continues to receive phone calls from his pregnant wife in the US, Spurlock grows a bit more serene. You can see disappointment at the realities our part of the world faces, and at the same time a bit of enlightenment as he grows to understand the raw deal we’ve been dealt. It is a search for the “root causes”; another term that the people he meets along the way often tell him.
The fact that he doesn’t find Osama Bin Laden is quite obvious, but it is the journey that is really the most interesting part. For me, his transformation into a more enlightened American was more fascinating than seeing him gain weight in “Super Size Me”. I don’t think the documentary attempts to analyze the complexities of this region with all of the historic and political undertones, but it does try to present a human face that I think most people in the west never get to see, at least not on their screens.