The Good: Good concept, Rather true and direct documentary
The Bad: Ultimately pointless, Light on supporting citations
The Basics: An interesting documentary that illustrates our preconceptions in the United States about the Muslim world are often at odds with reality.
[Note: This was originally written when the documentary came out, well before Bin Laden was found and killed . . . in Pakistan!]
Like many people, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? never came to theaters in my area. The documentary, released on screen and DVD in 2008, garnered some attention when at one of the major film festivals, the Weinstein brothers bought the movie after the first ten minutes and shut down the showing of it. It was then released in theaters to little fanfare or notice and is now available on DVD.
Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? is the latest documentary from Morgan Spurlock, who made quite a name for himself with Super-Size Me and most recently with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (reviewed here!). Spurlock is a pretty direct documentarian, appearing on camera with a simple question and then pursuing an answer to that question for the ninety minute film that follows. In Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock begins a hunt for the most wanted man in the world and while the film starts out that focused, it quickly becomes a broader discussion on Middle Eastern terrorism and the U.S.'s "War On Terror" before narrowing back to that question in the end. But for those hoping the question will be answered, it doesn't ruin anything to say that Osama Bin Laden is not, in fact, out in the open (which is largely where Spurlock looks in this movie).
Upon learning that his partner Alexandra Jamieson is pregnant, Morgan Spurlock becomes obsessed with the idea of developing into a good parent. He quickly acknowledges a command of being able to take care of a child on the little things, like covering the electrical sockets and not drowning a baby in a tub, but he begins to question what can be done to keep his baby safe from harm outside the home. This leads him to the rather extraordinary leap that in order to bring a baby into the world today, he has to do his part to try to fight international terrorism and, with the best intentions, he sets out to hunt down Osama Bin Laden.
After training and inoculations in the United States, Spurlock heads to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Palestine and Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and finally the Afghanistan/Pakistan border (it's a rather nebulous region and it is not entirely clear if Spurlock crosses into Pakistan). In each place, he asks people he meets if they know where Osama Bin Laden is and what their impression of the United States and the "War On Terror" is. In this fashion, he runs around the Middle East learning about different sects of Islam in various places and discovering that Osama Bin Laden is not hiding in plain sight.
Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? is the natural precursor to Bill Maher's documentary Religulous (reviewed here!) in many ways. Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? pokes around looking for a terrorist in places he clearly is not, but in the process begins to expose the motivations leading to terrorism. Just as watching a documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) made it more difficult for those on the fence to support the Bush-Cheney Administration, this documentary forces the viewer to question who our allies in the world are. Spurlock's interviews in places like Morocco, Palestine, and Egypt tend to go far better than those in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, not from an apparent lack of trying, the only place Spurlock seems to find a "kill all the infidels" type mosque is in Saudi Arabia.
Elsewhere, Spurlock hunts for such reactionaries, but is largely unable to find them. The Palestinians he interviews are far more levelheaded and religiously open-minded than that. Indeed, the only places physical violence is committed on Spurlock and his camera crew are in the Jewish portions of Israel where the most conservative Jews start a mob and physically shove Spurlock, his camera crew, and local law enforcement just for Spurlock asking to talk to some of the people there. This is pretty extraordinary when one considers all Spurlock is doing is asking to talk and the veiled and unveiled women in the malls of predominantly Muslim countries either ignored Spurlock and his crew or actually spoke with him. Similarly, if communication is the way to try to understand people, even the extreme Islamic agitators make a better showing by sitting down and talking with Spurlock and letting their hate-rhetoric get out there. I'm not advocating hate speech at all, but I am commending both the Islamic Extremists (I'm no longer calling them "fundamentalists" because if nothing else, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? clearly debunks the religious - from the text - arguments that Islam is fundamentally violent or dangerous) and Spurlock for talking to one another and airing what was said as opposed to censoring it.
Spurlock's sense of humor throughout the movie keeps it flowing well, though there is whole video game motif that passes through the entire film as Spurlock travels from place to place and opens the movie with a mock-fight between himself and Osama Bin Laden. This is amusing, but does not further the goals or purpose of the movie. Similarly, Spurlock makes assertions about the spread of terrorism in the world that are largely unsupported. He claims that in the past six years there has been a rise in terrorism unlike anything seen in the twenty years before that. I wonder if that actually includes places like Ireland and South Africa because in both of those places (and others) there have been organized resistance and terrorism movements that were very active in the years Spurlock claims were not as violent as the world is now.
Spurlock also makes some assertions that would have been real nice to see backed up with video footage. There is an amusing cartoon of dictators in the world that the U.S. helped establish or prop up in our quest to stop the spread of Communism. Some of those dictators, like Saddam Hussein, are captured on camera with important Americans - like Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld. Not including that sort of thing weakens the movie some.
But what Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? does remarkably well is what most liberals have been preaching for years; the movie illustrates that people are just people, parents tend to have the same, universal goals for their children and - far more than religious - the conflicts in the world are based on skewed interpretations of religion appealing to political and economic radicals or reactionaries to meet an agenda that is not based on faith. Spurlock wisely gives all sorts of people the chance to speak and the unfortunate aspect of the documentary is that for all the hype and what is good about it, it does not focus so much on finding Bin Laden as it does trying to understand where he came from and what made him into the man he became.
Still, it's better than watching one of Bin Laden's videos and this documentary, for all of the humor (the CG Bin Laden dancing to "U Can't Touch This" is absolutely hilarious), does achieve a goal which is to lay a bedrock for opening a dialogue between the different parties. Too bad this movie didn't do so well in the theaters to get that dialogue going quicker.
For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Capitalism: A Love Story
The Cream Will Rise
For other movie reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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