June 18, 2017
‘Recruiting For Jihad’ Takes A Surface Level Look At A Complex Issue [AFI DOCS Review]
Gather together a bunch of disparate documentaries into their own festival and it becomes clear that there is an endless array of subject matter and stylistic approaches to non-fiction filmmaking. These docs can be expository or minimalist, intimate or grandiose, roughshod or highly formalist. Certainly, many documentarians are turning their interrogative camera towards topical subjects, particularly the conflicts in the Middle East and the ensuing tensions with Western nations.
Unspooling at AFI DOCS is the extended international version of “Recruiting for Jihad,” by directors Adil Khan Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen (a shorter television cut was previously featured at Toronto’s Hot Docs fest earlier in the summer). Taking on the style of investigative journalism, Farooq and Rolfsen follow a Norwegian-born Muslim man recruiting for the cause of the Islamic State. Unfortunately, “Recruiting for Jihad” falls short of its ambition, offering up a didactic, surface-level study of a complex issue.
“Recruiting for Jihad” kicks off with a compelling hook: a documentarian is in a car with central figure Ubaydullah Hussain, en route to arrange passage of an ethnically Norwegian youth to Syria. It becomes clear that is the only the midpoint of the filmmakers’ journey, which began in January of 2014 and terminates in April of 2017, shortly before the film’s festival debut. Significant terrorist attacks in Western European countries, such as the attack on the “Charlie Hebdo” office in January of 2015, are used to mark time and illustrate Hussain’s perspective through his controversial responses.
Early in “Recruiting for Jihad,” journalist and co-director Adil Khan Farooq inserts himself into the proceedings as the self-appointed chronicler of Hussain and his efforts to convert young Norwegians to Islamic fundamentalism. This introduction gets down to the nuts and bolts of the development of the film, which includes bringing on more experienced filmmaker Rolfsen to aid in the basic mechanics of filmmaking. Farooq and Rolfsen’s thesis hinges on a certain transparency, particularly in the third act as they themselves move to the center of the film’s drama.
It’s hard not to recall an early shot of Rolfsen instructing Farooq on lens lengths and how to adjust focus in the numerous shots where the lighting levels visibly adjust. While “Recruiting for Jihad” can stake a claim to the importance of what it documents, the “how” of this recording is, for better or worse, less polished than YouTube journalism. The amateurish photography proffers an unusual aesthetic quality on the documentary, a particular miss considering how much time Farooq and Hussain spend together, in many instances even acknowledging the presence or permissibility of the camera.
How, then, do Farooq and Rolfsen justify the theatrical venue for an investigative, television-style doc? The answer is problematically bundled up in a move towards self-aggrandizement. In an unexpected (to the filmmakers) series of events, ten hours’ worth of footage is seized as evidence from Rolfsen by the Norwegian authorities. At this point, the primary narrative involving Hussain’s recruitment campaign is set aside, in part because communication ceases but more as a reaction to the emerging debate around free speech and protection of the media that the filmmaking process has triggered.
Farooq states outright in first act of the film that he is driven by opposition to religious fundamentalism and his belief in the freedom of the press. As such, the directors of “Recruiting for Jihad” don’t pause to consider the position of the government (the translation “secret police” used throughout is telling of the film’s position on institutions) nor do they acknowledge the dubious ethics of their own film, maintaining that access to a connected figure like Hussain is of greater import than intervening in terrorist schemes. This lack of balance is further exacerbated by their characterization of the recruiter. Despite working with two years and hundreds of hours worth of footage, Farooq and Rolfsen fail to capture Hussain’s charisma or, more fundamentally, convey how the man is able to recruit Muslims or convince ethnic Norwegians to convert (in their own words, “revert”) to Islam.
The central figure merely occupies the status of villain, and the filmmakers’ campaign to offer this man a stage in the interests of knowledge leaves the major contradictions off the table. Recent fiction films to tackle this increasingly prescient phenomenon, such as Thomas Bidegain’s “Les Cowboys” or the women-centered “Layla M.” by Dutch filmmaker Mijke de Jong are far more convincing as a result of their focus on the personal and emotional impetus behind converting to Islam. It’s clear that the directors invested a great deal into “Recruiting for Jihad,” evidenced by Farooq’s eighteen months of intimacy with Hussain and how Rolfsen’s creative freedom — extrapolated to the whole of Norwegian media — found itself at the mercy of a verdict by the Norwegian Supreme Court. Ultimately, their collaboration amounts to little more than a record of history and the filmmakers’ convictions, and one that requires more deft editorial hands to mine for additional insight. [C]