Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Auteur Theory of the Mujahideen Hostage Video

Courtesy of expat writer and game designer Allen Varney, dig this very interesting bit of film criticism of the latest underground video from the Baghdad underworld -- from the Washington Post:

Iraq Militants' Skillful Video Colors Perception Of the Enemy

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007; Page C01

If it's been a while since you checked in with the videos emerging from insurgent groups in Iraq, the advance of professionalism continues, now to the level of tone, drama and pacing. When a new video showing what appears to be the planning and execution of an attack on American forces surfaced yesterday, most news accounts focused on the final moments, in which the personal effects of two soldiers are shown. Given the video's claims that the two men have been killed, the footage was combed for any evidence about their fate.

But this latest bit of Internet propaganda has disturbing power beyond the immediate concern over the soldiers' well-being. It is a compelling visual document, with an argument to make, and it sets up a stark series of oppositions that transcend linguistic and national barriers: occupation vs. resistance, outsiders vs. locals, dilapidated cities vs. green leafy bowers.

The video, released by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for militant groups, saves for last the details on which the American media focused. In the final 40 seconds, there are grainy, dark images of a credit card, a stack of U.S. currency, a white cross that seems to glow in the dark, and then two military identification cards, showing the faces of Army Pvt. Byron W. Fouty and Spec. Alex R. Jimenez, both missing since an attack on American forces May 12. A U.S. military official said the documents and the video seemed to be authentic.

Like another video that is circulating (showing a series of brash attacks on American vehicles by men throwing devastating grenades), the new piece focuses on what might be called fighters in repose. Recurring throughout both videos are scenes of insurgent forces underneath a canopy of trees. In the newest, there is a man standing over a handful of fighters crouched beneath a tree. With the antenna of his satellite phone or walkie-talkie, he points to a detailed map that seems to be hanging in the branches that surround him.

The scene throws into confusion the deeply ingrained, unconscious sense that terrorism is an urban phenomenon. By moving some of the most lengthy passages of the video into the outdoors -- a particularly inviting, peaceful place -- the video attempts to undermine the notion that what is happening is a terrorist attack. These fighters look more like what we would call partisans, part of a long tradition of men who have taken to the hills, or the forests, or the jungles, to fight an alien enemy.


The most recent video emphasizes images of U.S. forces on patrol in urban environments, Americans with guns and helicopters overhead. Unlike the insurgents quietly planning their attack in a bucolic place, the Americans are bristling with tension. There is a nervous, wary energy to their movements.

And then a stunning bit of montage: President Bush is seen directing an orchestra, waving his arms a bit awkwardly, more like a drum major than a conductor (images taken from a presidential visit to Jamestown last month). The intercutting is a devastating bit of message tailoring: Bush, whose conducting is set against a roiling screen of red flames, is presented as remote from the action, not quite real -- dangerous and ridiculous at the same time.

Never mind what it says about the attention with which insurgents and their propagandists are following American media and gathering imagery to use in their own cause. The more discomfiting lesson is the pitch-perfect sense of humor, drama and pacing that these images demonstrate.


The final images, the ones that will haunt Americans because they show two young men who are at best in grave peril, and quite possibly dead, play more than a forensic or trophy function in the context of the whole video. American soldiers are identified by money, credit cards and a cross. The bar codes -- so objectifying and so industrial -- on their military identification cards stand in stark contrast to the masked fighters seen earlier. This is the final iteration of the attacker as corrupt (materialist, living on credit) or alien (Christian).


Click through for a link to an excerpt; free prize to anyone who can produce a link to this thing in its entirety.

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