[EDIT: You can stream Making of a Martyr now, for free, from the AOL True Stories site]
Documentaries can be frustrating things. They rarely deal with a fun or happy subject. They give you an incredible amount of information, sear images into your brain and then leave you feeling rather bewildered, wondering what you are supposed to think or do about what you have just seen. Such is The Making of a Martyr. This documentary follows the story of fifteen year old Hussam Abdu, who was apprehended at a Israeli-Palestinian border checkpoint. He was strapped with explosives but voluntarily gave himself up to the Israeli army, and is now serving eight years in Ha-Sharon prison for attempted murder. For this, he was paid the grand total of $20 by his terrorist recruiters.
The Making of a Martyr is less about Hussam than about the disturbing recruitment of children as suicide bombers. What encourages a child to want to strap themselves with explosives? Who recruits them? What of their families? The answers are haunting and unsatisfying. For Palestinian children, martyrs are their version of superheroes and teenage pop idols. Instead of wanting to be Batman, young boys want to be the young male militants they see walking their neighborhood streets with guns. Instead of Britney Spears, girls long to be Wafa, the first female Palestinian suicide bomber. They grow up on a steady diet of hatred and violence. Though the Palestinian media denies encouraging such behavior, all evidence points to the contrary. Children grow up watching Nickelodeon style talk shows, but instead of children chattering about Spongebob, they extol the virtues of martyrdom and express longing for paradise. There are chirpy music videos (“The stone in his hand has turned into a Kalishnikov!”) and anime-style cartoons that end with the child detonating himself. The only word to describe it is sinister. What else is a child supposed to think? And what do you make of the adults willing and eager to sell their young, and yet reluctant to strap a belt on themselves?
There is one unasked question that looms over Martyr—what are they dying for? Martyrdom is the goal. Retaliation. Revenge. Only a handful of the young Palestinians ever speak of a loyalty to their homeland or a cause of freedom. One suspects that conflict itself has lost meaning to the majority of them. This may not actually be the case, but none of the young interviewees ever mention their deaths being in the goal of a free Palestine. Perhaps it was simply assumed on the part of the filmmakers and they were never asked directly. Or the filmmakers assume that it is such general knowledge that they didn’t need to go into it. But assumptions can be sloppy things.
That brings me to my main criticism with the documentary—the filmmakers themselves. I suspect they are being handed awards because of the subject matter, not due to their treatment of it. The Making of a Martyr lacks sophistication and is often diffident when it comes to handling the subject. The biggest flaw is the narration which reads like a sophomore term paper. They never let their images or interviews speak for themselves—and they should have. There is powerful footage in this documentary. But they never seem to have confidence in it or their audience, but insist on pointing out the obvious. The narrator himself (who proudly reveals himself as the cameraman) makes it even worse with his desperately earnest reading. It is a shame that they didn’t find a professional to narrate. One suspects they were too full of their own sincerity to allow anyone else access to their project. For all that sincerity, there is a curious diffidence throughout Martyr. When it comes to criticizing the BIG issues, such as Palestinian media or Israeli occupation, the filmmakers are self-assured and judgmental. But when it comes to their original subject, young Hussam, they are reticent. Whenever they approach him or his family, the documentary verges on extreme sensitivity, as if they fear commenting will make them politically incorrect.
And what of Hussam? He is a sad figure. It seems obvious he is a follower, handicapped either physically or mentally—possibly both. When we meet the boy who recruited him, the handsome and intelligent Nasser, you will understand how a boy like Hussam ended up at that checkpoint. And when you get to know Hussam, you understand why he chose to surrender. It seems clear from the footage presented that Hussam is one of those children cruelly manipulated by Palestinian terrorists. And yet here the filmmakers stumble. For some reason, they want us to see Hussam differently, particularly after he changes his outlook on martyrdom after a year in prison. They try to draw a parallel between Hussam and the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrdom Brigade, who also became radicalized in prison. Martyr wants us to see Hussam as making a conscious and politically educated choice, though we see no evidence to support this. The difference between Hussam and the Al-Aqsa leader could not be plainer. If this is obvious to the audience, how could the filmmakers ignore it? They even go so far as to protest the claims that he is mentally challenged. Why? If he is, there’s nothing wrong with it. It makes him no less innocent, if anything it makes his plight more tragic. If, as Martyr hints, prison plays such a part in Palestinian radicalization, then what of boys like Nasser? Have they become extremists too? Either the filmmakers manipulated facts to fit their thesis, or they made an amateur mistake. Whatever the reason, it is regrettable.
The Making of a Martyr is a must see, particularly in these powder-keg times. Terrorism and suicide bombings have become our daily headlines and it is crucial to see where the origins lie. The scenes of the Palestinian refugee camps (ghettos would be a better term) are haunting and deplorable. It is sadly too easy to see why young men and women are drawn into making such a horrific and extreme choice. But what isn’t easy is finding a way to stem that tide.