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Articles

Robert Baer: "We have to change course"
By Hannah Eaves
June 20, 2006 - 7:12 AM PDT


"It's futile to try to resist it in a half-hearted way."

Some enterprising cinema fanatic has probably already put together a list of personages whose portrayers have won Academy Awards. On the top of that list might be Robert Baer, whom George Clooney plays (more or less) in Syriana, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor earlier this year. The film itself was loosely based on See No Evil, Baer's memoir of his life as a highly accomplished CIA field officer (inside spy recruiter) in the Middle East from the 1970s up until the mid-90s when he quit in disgust. This was followed by another New York Times bestseller, Sleeping with the Devil, about America's relationship with Saudi Arabia and now, hot off the presses, a novel - Blow the House Down.

Somewhere in between he managed to co-write and act as the on-screen presenter for a documentary, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, which has screened on the UK's Channel 4 and Australia's ABC, but unsurprisingly has not been on television in the US. The film has some flaws, but at its center is an eye-opening portrait of the overwhelming adoration suicide bombers inspire in their communities and families. Baer treats his interviewees with respect as he leads us on a historic path from 13-year-old Hossein Fahmideh, the first contemporary Islamic suicide bomber, whose tactic found support among the Shi'ites, leading to Palestine and Sunni acceptance, and finally beyond the Middle East to random acts of chaos as witnessed in the London bombings. What one gets at the end is an overwhelming sense of futility over the unbroachable gap between Western and Middle Eastern beliefs.

Baer does little to ease that distress. In fact, he thinks we should be worried. Baer is serious, angry, cynical and nice; the bells of doom may sound in most of his statements, but they are tempered by passion and good humor.

Through your two books, you've shown yourself to be concerned with many different issues, and the last non-fiction book was about Saudi Arabia. How did you come to become involved with a film about suicide bombing?

Well, I was fascinated by the bombing of the embassy in Beirut [in April 1983]. It was a mystery to me that someone would get into a car, or a truck in this case, and drive themselves in to blow themselves up. My reaction was that there's got to be some psychological reason with a suicide bomber, like a death wish. And, you know, I never got close to the story. That's the nature of intelligence. I would never get to interview the families as you would on a forensic investigation. I had a lot of unanswered questions over the years, so when Kevin Toolis, the producer, came by and said, "Do you want to do this?" I wanted to, absolutely, but I thought, "Why me?" He said that it would be different to have a non-professional presenter do this, and I said, "Fine, let's go."

Now why did that particular bombing affect you so much? There were so many other, similar, events that happened in that era...

I had been in Beirut in December of 1982. I had been in the embassy, I knew the chief of station, I knew a lot of people in the station, people that were killed. So I took this, in a sense, personally. Beirut is such a beautiful city and it seemed to me that the country had turned a corner. And then overnight the United States went from dictating a peace to redeploying troops on boats. Now there had been an earlier bombing against the Israeli military headquarters in Lebanon that killed a lot of people, but the Israelis at first denied it. There were no really good pictures out of there. It was really pretty remote, psychologically, for me. When you make these things personal, they become much more mysterious.

How have you seen Beirut change over the last twenty years?

The city is restored, not to what it was before 1975, but it is still a country that's been resurrected, and one of the parties, interestingly enough, who's helped resurrect Lebanon is Hezbollah.

How did you get access to the families of the suicide bombers that you were speaking to?

They were approached by the producers. There was some question as to whether I was going to dig up old sources, and I did in a couple of cases, but it was mostly the producers who flew out to Lebanon, got in touch with the families, got them to agree to go on camera. They had the entire film more or less in place before we actually did the filming, in terms of the interviews.

What was it like for you to meet these families? What were they like to talk to?

Fascinating. It was actually fascinating. My views changed overnight. And it was just as interesting to talk to the suicide bombing networks because you're struck by how... is "banal" the word? Or just how ordinary these people are. They weren't evil, they weren't crazy, they had just entered this logic of martyrdom and suicide bombing which I found fascinating. Which I could have never seen had I been in the CIA.

How did it make you feel about the futility of the situation then, to see what these people were really like? The absolute religious reverence they have for suicide bombers, who they don't see as having committed suicide at all...

You can't help, although this film is not about Iraq, seeing how futile the war in Iraq is as long as you have these suicide bombings, this idea of martyrdom, and humiliation, and everything else that leads to what we call terrorism. And it's futile to try to resist it in a half-hearted way. I mean, the Israelis are building a wall because ultimately they can't defeat it. They can't profile suicide bombers. They can't talk them out of it. There are no carrots in this war, so their only salvation is a wall. Which in itself is striking, that they've had to build this thing.

Do you think the wall is going to have success in keeping suicide bombers out of Israel?

Oh, they have, absolutely. The number of suicide bombings in Israel has fallen off enormously since '96 or even the second intifada. There have been a lot fewer bombings.

Hamas miltants

Now, you seem to have no love for either side of that conflict...

You know, the problem in this conflict is something that everybody's afraid to talk about - afraid to talk about in this film or in Syriana or anything else, even in literature, people don't talk about it at all. It's sort of like incest in the family. The existence of Israel is the problem for these people. They look at it as a colony of the United States, the West, Western values, anti-Islamic, and nobody has come up with a solution for how to deal with this. When you go to Israel, your third or fourth generation Israelis don't have anywhere else to live. But it's these irreconcilable factors that keep this thing going and going and going. That problem is connected to everything else. It's connected to the oil, it's connected to Iraq. My sympathy - and this is totally worthless - is that it would have been better to have created an Israeli state somewhere else.

Adding to the feeling of futility are films like Gaza Strip, which highlight children of the Islamic world being born into a climate of hatred towards Israel.

You're talking about films that are almost on the margins. If you look at US markets, it's a subject people don't want to talk about. You can't talk about it on Fox, or on MSNBC, in terms of Iraq or anything else. It's taboo here. I would hope that, with this film, people will reach their own conclusions that may not be drawn in the film.

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Index
"It's futile to try to resist it in a half-hearted way."
"This war was an act of folly. Total folly."

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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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