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By Brandon Wee
There’s something telling about the subject index that is sometimes found in the back pages of a film festival’s catalogue or in its publicity materials. Perpetually overstuffed, festivals often offer help to both the seasoned viewer and casual visitor by breaking down the vastness of its content into broad fields of interest. Not just a convenience, these directories also provide indications as to the ethical philosophy of their respective events: in the case of Hot Docs, a dependable, if sometimes vague liberal humanism. Yet, the curious thing about any subject index is that its limitations are as fascinating as its practicality is evident. What’s present across the range of topics can only be as fascinating as what’s absent.
Take this year’s crosslisted “War & Conflict” and “Terrorism & The War On Terror” sections, which, while practically obliged to include at least one entry on the continued US presence in Iraq, left an impression less of insight than of tired, masochistic spectacle. In Standard Operating Procedure, one of the higher-profile entries in the latter section (covered extensively in Cinema Scope 34), Errol Morris deals with the fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which saw the torture of Iraqi captives at the hands of US military personnel. If this incident represents one of the many systemic symptoms of the administration’s handling of the war, Morris’ treatment of it only reinforces the notion that Abu Ghraib was a mere contretemps of military occupation; magnifying this episode makes the invasion itself recede into the distance. What do such films about the particularities of war, conceived as either investigative exposés or intellectual dissections, tell us about the hypocrisy of US foreign policy that we don’t already know, or couldn’t guess?
Despite the best of intentions, many documentaries about war risk giving conflict the skein of legitimacy its architects and proponents desperately need—witness Morris’ use of a professional interrogator as one of his voices of reason, criticizing the “unprofessionalism” of the Abu Ghraib incident while neglecting to mention the circumstances that had placed US soldiers there in the first place. While Morris relies on unpleasant images and hot-button topics to harness a diffuse criticism of rank and power in the US military, in comparison, the most relevant and disturbing films on war, conflict, and terror at Hot Docs this year were concerned primarily with the past. Departing from familiar headlines, these films illuminated lessons that went unheeded and focused upon certain individuals who tried to bridge some of humanity’s most bitter divides, but whose efforts went to waste when betrayed by human folly.
Tucked under the “Religion and Spirituality” section but speaking pertinently to the estrangement between Islam and the West today, Georg Misch’s A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad traces the varied career of its eponymous subject, a convert from Judaism to Islam who grew to become a discerning interpreter and translator of the Qur’an. Born Leopold Weiss in what is now the Ukraine, a stint as a journalist in Europe not only allowed him to develop his intellectual curiosity, but also provided him with an opportunity to travel. After a trip to the Middle East, coupled with various personal epiphanies, Weiss became convinced that Islam was his calling; never having been a devout Jew, he converted and set out on Islam’s most holy sojourn, the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Chronicling the anecdotal and impressionistic facets of Asad’s life through interviews and beautiful, impressionistically shot tours of the many places he lived and visited, Misch proves less interested in his subject as a cult or heroic figure—even though some of Asad’s achievements, like his part in the forming of the modern Pakistani state, do bear the hallmarks of heroism—than as someone whose critical and lucid passion for Islam could have laid a foundation for amity between Muslims and non-Muslims. Although the reconciliation Asad attempted to effect between Islam and the West (not least through his translation of the Qur’an into English) may seem a noble failure in light of today’s state of things, the abuse and victimization of Islam by its adherents and enemies both is less a matter of irreconcilability than one of mutual self-interest. While those who blindly embrace Islam have largely been unable to understand it as a progressive religion, thus giving it the image of a regressive sect, other groups have predictably exploited that image for smear campaigns. The paradox of Asad’s life is that even though he may have been one of Islam’s more unique figures, his identity has remained invisible beyond the Islamic world, despite his roots in Western intellectual culture—a situation that says much about the non-Islamic world’s lack of desire to engage with a religion that it deems, and effectively makes, threatening.
While Asad’s neglected past provides potential lessons for peace in the present, another all-too-familiar figure provides the linchpin for a speculative future on the same theme. Koji Masutani’s Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived, a “War & Conflict” offering, proffers the argument that had Kennedy lived and been re-elected, he would have avoided committing the US to war and escalating the conflict in Indochina—a move that his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, later ordered with dire consequences. A self-evident parable of the US’s troubled conscience in recent times, Masutani’s monochromatic work failed to attract much attention during the festival, though its fortunes look set to reverse when the big top goes up for the US presidential circus in a few months.
Apart from a formal introduction and narrative voice throughout, Virtual JFK is composed entirely of archival material sewn together by title cards. Part of a trilogy of texts (alongside a book and teaching guide) designed to advise future US foreign policy, Masutani’s carefully selected found footage is based on research conducted by two Brown University academics, Jim Blight and Janet Lang, who investigated newly declassified information revealing how Kennedy and Johnson respectively responded to matters related to the US’s imbroglio with Vietnam. On the strength of Kennedy’s handling of several dicey international incidents between 1961-63 (twice in both Cuba and Vietnam, once in Germany, and once in Laos), during which he consistently resisted pressure from his advisers to go to war, Blight, Lang and Masutani are convinced that had fate not intervened, Kennedy would have erred on the side of caution in Vietnam, and in doing so possibly changed the course of world history.
The filmmakers’ method of “virtual history,” a means of evaluating the merits of “what if” scenarios based on reasoning and deduction, establishes a refreshing approach to documentary narrative. By grounding its speculation strictly in the documentary record, the film avoids two potential traps: first, framing Kennedy as a pacifist, which he was not; and, second, implying a link between his reluctance to go to war and his assassination. Masutani’s film is inspiring not only for the substance of its ideas, but for its woe in light of those paths not taken. To believe that Kennedy would have eschewed war had he been able to is poignant enough. To realize that not even that disastrous war could deter the desire for more in the future is plain sad.