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Full Frame Jihad By: Cinnamon Stillwell
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 27, 2004


It is no secret that people with left-leaning political perspectives dominate film festivals, and thus they tend to promote films that reflect their worldview, while shunning those that contradict it.  This is certainly the case when it comes to films about Islam, one of the Left's pet subjects in the post-9/11 world.  If a film does not portray Muslims in a positive light (or as victims), it will inevitably be labeled "propaganda" instead of "art."  Yet strangely enough, actual propaganda is often lauded as "art."

Mohammed Bakri's Jenin Jenin, for instance, advances the myth that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) "massacred" Palestinians during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. [1] Despite being widely discredited, this so-called documentary played at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana this year, [2] as well as various "Palestinian Film Festivals" on college campuses across the country, and it won Best Film at the Carthage International Film Festival. [3] In contrast, Pierre Rehov's Road to Jenin, an expose about how the Palestinians perpetrated a media fraud in Jenin, has played at very few film festivals. [4]

This year the Islam documentary making the rounds is Noble Sacrifice (Thabh-ul-Azim) by Vatche Boulghourjian, an ethnic Armenian born in Kuwait and educated in the United States and Britain. Shot in southern Lebanon, this controversial film, which draws a connection between the Shiite ritual of Ashura (self-flagellation) and the popular mythology of "martyrdom" throughout the Islamic world, recently screened (April 2, 2004) at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina. [5] The film description at the Full Frame website demonstrates a typical moral ambiguity towards Islamic terrorism, saying:

"Noble Sacrifice examines the historical and philosophical implications of Ashura on current socio-political conditions and military theaters. More importantly, it challenges audiences to contemplate the rationality underlying the act and discourse of what has become one of the most controversial topics in contemporary history - suicide bombing - recognized locally as martyrdom operations. [6]"

Unsurprisingly, the documentary's bloody imagery and glorification of suicide bombings were the subject of a heated debate after the screening. What film festival promoters had billed as a "provocative discussion," turned out to be a revealing experience.  Boulghourjian vowed never to show the film "in the United States again," after a Muslim woman in the audience called it "irresponsible for connecting violence to Islam" and someone else labeled it "propaganda". [7] Tellingly, no one commented on the film's celebration of terrorism, only its politically incorrect depiction of Islam.

The Noble Sacrifice panel discussion also shed light on the intersection of film festivals and universities. Panelists included two Duke University professors, Negar Mottahedeh and Miriam Cooke. Both Mottahedeh, a professor of Literature and Film, and Cooke, a professor of Modern Arabic Literature and Culture, have a long history of promoting leftist politics through their work at Duke University. Professor Cooke has also been very active in Duke University's Islamic Studies Department. She is co-director of the university's Center for the Study of Muslim Networks (CSMN), [8] as well as being involved in the 2003-2004 Carolina Seminar on Comparative Islamic Studies. [9] And it turns out that Cooke had crossed paths with Boulghourjian's film once before.

Noble Sacrifice had been set to screen at Full Frame in 2003 (during the liberation of Iraq) but was canceled at the last minute due to "wartime sensitivities." [10] Nancy Buirski, the festival's founder and executive director, was uncomfortable with the film's negative portrayal of Muslims and pulled it in what she called, "the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance." In making her decision, Buirski deferred to Professor Cooke, who was to introduce the documentary. But after viewing it at home the night before, Cooke refused, describing it as "a sensationalistic film that was treating people not as devotees but as fanatics." She labeled the filmmaker "biased" and called his linking of Ashura and suicide bombings "reprehensible."  Cooke maintained that the rituals portrayed in the film represented only a "local, cultish version" of Ashura, and worried that they might "inflame anti-Arab sentiments." [11] In other words, Islam's reputation as a "religion of peace" was at stake and Cooke was not about to aid in its destruction.

In an interview in April of 2003, filmmaker Vatche
Boulghourjian, [12] disputed Cooke's assertions, pointing out that self-flagellation occurs in South Lebanon, "whether Miriam Cooke and other scholars of Islamic or Asian studies like it or not." And he stood by his decision to associate Ashura with suicide bombings.  Boulghourjian cited Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, for making "the connection between Ashura, politics, resistance and self-sacrifice very clear."

The documentary relies on archival footage obtained from Hezbollah officials and includes scenes of suicide bombings, as well as a videotaped "pre-martyrdom message" from Salah Ghandour, the Lebanese suicide bomber who blew himself up near an Israeli base in southern Lebanon in 1993.
Considering all this, Cooke's assertions of bias seem a tad bit misdirected.

The Full Frame Festival was by no means professor Cooke's first brush with notoriety.  She gained attention in 2003 for co-organizing Duke University's "Axis of Evil" film festival, along with professor Mottahedeh. [13] The series was dubbed "Reel Evil" and featured films from Iran, Iraq and North Korea, as well as rogue states Syria, Libya, and Cuba. The timing of the festival coincided with the advent of the war in Iraq, which made it essentially a platform for anti-war sentiment. Considering Cooke and several of her students attended an anti-war rally in Washington D.C. the same year, this was hardly surprising. [14]

Of course, the real target of the festival was President Bush and his famous "axis of evil" phrase in the 2002 State of the Union address.  As Cooke said at the time, the festival was an "opportunity to see the kind of work, cultural work, that people are doing in the countries that our government has labeled evil." [15] The fact that the film from North Korea, Pulgasari, was produced by Dictator Kim Jung Il and featured an actress and director who had been kidnapped from South Korea and forced to work on the project, didn't seem to factor into Cooke's reasoning.

Why professor Cooke, Buirski, and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival brought Noble Sacrifice back a year later remains something of a mystery. Buirski had promised the film would resurface and with the war in Iraq no longer a new development, she may have considered the timing better. [16] Or it could be that organizers decided to take the film festival's motto to heart: "How much reality can you handle?"  How much indeed.

Notes:

[1] Lee Kaplan, "PLO Propaganda Film 'Jenin, Jenin,'" February 20, 2004. FrontPageMagazine.com:
http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=12276

[2] Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, 2004 Official Selections,
HighPlainsFilms.org:
http://highplainsfilms.org/festival/selections.htm

[3] Eric J. Greenberg, "Mapping a Controversy," The Jewish Week, January 31,
2003:
http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/newscontent.php3?artid=7324&print=yes

[4] Greg Myre, "Battle for Jenin camp flares anew on TV," New York Times,
April 3, 2004.  SunSentinal.com:
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/lifestyle/sfl-jenin-nytapr03,0,6103335.
story?coll=sfla-features-headlines

[5] Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: http://www.fullframefest.org/

[6] Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Panels:
http://www.fullframefest.org/2004panels.cfm

[7] Holly Hickman, "Full Frame airs 'Noble Sacrifice,' pulled from 2003
festival," Associated Press, April 2, 2004.  NewsObserver.com:
http://newsobserver.com/nc24hour/ncnews/story/3472785p-3085343c.html

[8] Holly Hickman, "Full Frame airs 'Noble Sacrifice,' pulled from 2003
festival," Associated Press, April 2, 2004.  NewsObserver.com:
http://newsobserver.com/nc24hour/ncnews/story/3472785p-3085343c.html

[9] Center for the Study of Muslim Networks, Duke University:
http://www.duke.edu/web/muslimnets/csmn_about.html

[9] Carolina Seminar on Comparative Islamic Studies, Upcoming Events on the
Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, 2003-2004:
http://www.unc.edu/depts/islamsem/2004.htm

[10] David Fellerath, "Confronting Reality From Home and Abroad; the 2003
Full Frame Doc Fest," Independent Weekly, On the Scene:
http://www.indiewire.com/onthescene/onthescene_030421full.html

[11] David Fellerath, "Nausea on a sea of blood: Why did the Full Frame
Festival yank Noble Sacrifice?" Independent Weekly, April 23, 2003.
IndyWeek.com: 
http://indyweek.com/durham/2003-04-23/movie.html

[12] David Fellerath, "Confronting Reality From Home and Abroad; the 2003
Full Frame Doc Fest,"Independent Weekly, On the Scene, April. 2003:
http://www.indiewire.com/onthescene/onthescene_030421full.html

[13] David M. Lewkowict, "Staff, Students 'Duke' It Out Over Film Festival,"
FoxNews.com, March 12, 2003:
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,80849,00.html

[14] Arts & Sciences and Trinity College News, Miriam Cooke:
http://www.aas.duke.edu/news/faculty/cooke.php

[15] David M. Lewkowict, "Staff, Students 'Duke' It Out Over Film Festival,"
FoxNews.com, March 12, 2003:
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,80849,00.html

[16] David Fellerath, "Noble Sacrifice," The Independent Weekly, March 31,
2004. IndyWeek.com:
http://indyweek.com/durham/current/movie4.html


Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at stillwell@meforum.org.



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