Large crowds turned out to see a diverse and accomplished array of films this month at The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. Throughout the weekend, however, there was controversy and curiosity about one film that was not screened, a 40-minute Lebanese documentary called Noble Sacrifice that festival officials removed from the schedule the day before the festival began. The film, by 27-year-old Vatche Boulghourjian, an ethnic Armenian who was born in Kuwait and educated in the United States and Britain, is about suicide bombers and the role of martyrdom in Middle East politics.
Instead, festival-goers found flyers inserted into the programs explaining that, "Due to the current conflict in Iraq, we have decided to postpone the showing of Thabh-ul-Azim (Noble Sacrifice). This decision does not reflect on the artistry of the work nor does it reflect any attempt of the festival to question the right of artists to create work that is meaningful to them. Our decision was made in the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance."
The sudden decision was surprising because the festival had made a point of promoting Noble Sacrifice as one of several that would tackle troubling issues concerning the Middle East. Nancy Buirski, the festival's founder and executive director, discussed the film in some detail on WUNC's The State of Things the Monday beforehand. She acknowledged the film's potential for inciting controversy. "We don't necessarily support this practice and in fact, it's a rather small group of Muslims who practice it the way they do in this film. ... There's a certain amount of violence in the film, but we think it's important for people to see it and try to understand it in its proper context." (I was also on the program.)
Buirski noted on the air that the film's content was so sensitive that she had asked Duke University's Miriam Cooke, a scholar of modern Arabic literature and culture, to introduce the film prior to its scheduled Saturday morning screening.
However, the same day as the interview, Cooke was popping a tape of Noble Sacrifice into her VCR for the first time. The next morning, as Buirski related in a telephone interview with The Independent, she received a call from Cooke. "She said 'I won't do this,'" Buirski said. "She described [Noble Sacrifice] as a sensationalistic film that was treating people not as devotees but as fanatics."
Buirski, who was already troubled by the film, bowed to Cooke's expertise and decided to pull Noble Sacrifice. "We were at war with a Muslim state, and there's an enormous Muslim population here," she said. "It was a question of sensitivity and tolerance overriding the free speech issue."
Shortly after the festival, The Independent obtained a videotape copy of Noble Sacrifice. It turns out to be a raw, rather frightening affair that mixes archival footage obtained from Hezbollah officials with original footage of Shiite men parading through city streets, their heads bleeding from voluntarily received razor wounds, which they keep fresh by pounding their heads with their hands. Apparently, these images show a highly unorthodox method of celebrating Ashura, a holiday that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and founder of Shi'a Islam, who was murdered in a seventh century succession dispute.
With its harrowing images and tense, jittery editing, Noble Sacrifice recalls the political urgency of work by Boulghourjian's acknowledged inspiration, Sergei Eisenstein, as well as being suggestive of the work of such 1960s avatars as Costa-Gavras and Pontecorvo. But it's also a graphically violent film, with images that sometimes overwhelm the commentary provided by a Lebanese Islamic scholar. The film contains scenes of suicide bombings, a shot of a lamb being slaughtered, and a videotaped pre-martyrdom message from Salah "The Angel" Ghanjour, a famous Lebanese suicide bomber who in 1993 destroyed the southern Lebanon headquarters of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
It's a lot to absorb in 40 minutes, and the film, if watched inattentively, occasionally has the ghoulish air of a documentary snuff film that could be mistaken for an anti-Arab propaganda screed. Indeed, the carnage of the Ashura ceremony itself is so extreme that Boulghourjian shot much of it through a blood-spattered camera lens.
It was this material that particularly troubled Cooke. When reached by telephone last week, the Oxford-educated professor said that the film's representation of the Ashura procession was a distortion that had the potential to inflame anti-Arab sentiments. "The filmmaker was very clearly biased," she said, calling the film's linking of Ashura and suicide bombings "reprehensible."
In the conventional practice of Ashura, Cooke said, "Men--and they're always men--beat themselves [on their backs] as they walk through the streets. Sometimes they bleed, and sometimes they don't. But in [Noble Sacrifice], guys would go up to an authority figure who would cut their foreheads." Referring to the worshippers in the film as "idiots," Cooke said that, at best, the form of Ashura procession shown in Noble Sacrifice is a "local, cultish version."
The Beirut-based Boulghourjian was reached by telephone and e-mail in Damascus, Syria, where he is working on a new project. In an e-mail, he wrote, "Ashura takes place in South Lebanon and there is plenty of self-flagellation and blood whether Miriam Cooke and other scholars of Islamic or Asian studies like it or not. I didn't hire actors--these are real people."
He wrote further that his film "is foremost about this politicization of a religious ritual, the transformation of ritualistic self-flagellation into political and military action--and how that manifests itself in some cases in the penultimate form of self-sacrifice for a political cause in which members believe."
Although Cooke dismissed the film's link between Ashura and suicide bombings, calling it "reprehensible," Boulghourjian noted that individuals in his film are shown connecting the dots. "Sayyid Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Hezbollah, makes the connection between Ashura, politics, resistance and self-sacrifice very clear," the filmmaker wrote.
The influence of Cooke on Buirski's decision was news to the filmmaker, who said he would like to have an opportunity to sit on a panel with the professor and defend his film. Although Boulghourjian was disappointed that his film was withdrawn, he said there are no hard feelings. Buirski and her staff "were nothing less than courteous," he said. "These are very strange, inordinately unstable times we're living through and I respect their judgment."
Buirski acknowledges that Boulghourjian wasn't consulted about Cooke's interpretation of his film. She says the mere fact that Noble Sacrifice disturbed area academics (UNC history professor Sarah Shields also saw the film and, according to Buirski, advised her to contact Cooke) was enough to suggest the film's potential for inflaming wartime tensions among non-expert audiences.
Buirski acknowledges that she encountered some displeasure from filmgoers. "People said at the festival, 'Let us make the interpretation.' 99.9 percent of the time I would say 'fine,'" Buirski said.
Buirski says that she was bolstered in her decision after she reviewed a statement that she believed Boulghourjian had submitted along with his film. The statement, which Boulghourjian says was actually written by officials at the International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam, suggests that he was less concerned with journalistic realism than with aesthetics and visual poetry.
"The carnival element of Ashura and the rawness of the grotesque are an essential subtext to the whole film. The camera had to capture this equilibrium of elements in order to deliver a danse macabre and to force the viewer to experience the nausea caused by the motion in a sea of blood," the statement said.
"After I read that, I felt more comfortable with my decision," Buirski says.
Though there was confusion about the authorship, Boulghourjian says it reflects his feelings. "The suggestion that my concerns in this film are more aesthetic than political or journalistic is correct," he says.
Buirski is sensitive to the perception that the Full Frame Festival is vulnerable to losing its nerve. "This is not a slippery slope," she says. "The festival will not be checking out political agendas."
Reviewing the selection process, Buirski says that although the festival selection committee didn't have any particular Middle Eastern expertise, they were sufficiently impressed by Boulghourjian's craftsmanship to accept the film on the condition that the screening would be preceded by expert commentary--the role that Cooke was asked to fill.
"In the past, we have sent films [under consideration] out to scholars. We probably should have done this earlier, and I take responsibility for that," Buirski says. "This has been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," she says. "I agonized over it and it haunted me throughout the festival."