Marcq My Son the Terrorist/Toomistu Soviet Hippies

Around three weeks ago I had a pleasure attending Leipzig Networking Days, a much anticipated annual pitching event brought about by Documentary Campus in the framework of its development workshop Masterschool. It was my third time at the event and I always see it as a wonderful opportunity to get informed about the up and coming films that are still in the making. Since I no longer work for Documentary Campus, nor do I partake in the selection process of Masterschool projects, I was pleasantly surprised to see it venture out the beaten path. Besides classical documentaries of human interest and social issues, this year’s programme perked up with a couple of nature/wildlife documentaries (“Killing Bambi” and “Scarface”), occasional thematic amalgams (“Sex and Oysters” and its transdisciplinary ‘food/sex/science’ bend), and projects of a cross-media nature (“Dressed To Kill”).

Since Masterschool is a development workshop that presents its projects to the public in the form of a conventional 8-minute pitch, I feel in no position to offer an exhaustive review of the films’ dramaturgy or their visual approaches. Nevertheless, I would not want to miss an opportunity to introduce you to two of the pitched projects that I personally consider compelling. The first and one of my personal favorites is the project “My Son, The Terrorist” by a UK-based production company Latimer Films. “My Son, The Terrorist” is directed by Nick Marcq, the person behind the BAFTA-nominated film The Real Notting Hill (which, as I have learned, was his first feature) and produced by the former Channel Four commissioning editor Tamara Abood and Matthew Hay, whose name some might recollect thanks to his rather polemical “Going To The Dogs” for the Cutting Edge documentary strand on Channel Four.

As the title explicitly suggests, the film recounts a story of “radicalization through the prism of the mothers” whose sons had sunk into the cycle of on-going brutality and ravaging. The statement borrowed from the film’s synopsis that goes, “Behind every horror is a perpetrator and behind every perpetrator – a mother,” seems to propel the film. Set against

the backdrop of the fast approaching 15th anniversary of 9/11 and ISIS expansion that has recently “flooded our airwaves,” the film brings a human face to an incognito war. However, it is not the faces of the perpetrators that the film primarily sheds light on, it is the faces of their mothers who are struggling to come to terms with the horrors their sons had committed while carrying on with their daily lives cognizant of the fact that their sons had been complicit in the death of thousands. In exploring this struggle, the film draws its inspiration from the 2011 Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin” which too tells a story of a mother who is trying to reconcile with the gruesome actions of her son. In “My Son, The Terrorist” that mother is Aicha Moussaoui, the nurturer of Zacharias, the so-called 20th bomber and the only person convicted of the 9/11 attacks. Zacharias’ journey into violent extremism dates back to 1990 when he departed for London to “perfect his English.” Zacharias’ mother is not alone who is desperately trying to rewind the tape and trace back the sprouts of her son’s radicalization from the time when he was just a public school boy who “love[d] laughing, love[d] joking, love[d] living” to the time when he became an atrocious part of the public narrative and collective memories. The story of his descent into violent extremism is explored in the frame of a larger process of the global jihad recruitment. In the end, if the film remains faithful to its plan to fuse observational documentary, family archive/home video footage, online content, and social media, it might accomplish something more than chronicling the journey of radicalization of juvenile students of Islam as seen through the eyes of their mothers – it might lay bare an inbred phenomenon of today’s violent extremism, which some Western security experts have informally termed as “jihad cool”, a practice employed by the social media savvy terrorist organizations that have shifted their recruitment operations from the secret terror cells and closed membership forums to publicly available social networking platforms that utilize a mainstream format appealing to the MTV generation in order to convert hundreds of bedroom radicals into the sojourners of the “holy” war. Now I am well aware that the latter might be a topic of a whole new film, which was likely not what Marcq was going for. Nevertheless, I am delighted about the manifold routes that the film can take in seeking humanity in the place where it has never been sought before.

The second project of my choice, a dramatically different film in the manner it treats its theme, is “Soviet Hippies” (photo) by an Estonian filmmaker Terje Toomistu. Previously a multidisciplinary video-exhibition, “Soviet Hippies” was launched in the spring of 2013 at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu. The exhibition hosted over 12 000 visitors before moving to Vancouver, Malmö, and Uppsala. From the outset, Toomistu’s artistic interest in the project has been lying across the queer realities and cultural memory, as she herself put it. The trailer presented at Leipzig pitch sketched the film’s visual approach, intercutting what one might expect from such a film – an archival footage and interviews. What is particular to this film is the use of animations. Toomistu noted that in her film she wanted to make use of animations and illustrations to “bring to focus the extraordinary visual archives unknown to Western audiences.” She explained her approach by stating that under the Soviet rule the sole means to express a distinct feel of the era was through animations and children’s book illustrations. Personally, the idea of interlacing the varied imagery seems not only visually stimulating, but also thematically symbiotic as it might trigger tensions between subjective and objective truths born in a “systema” of the Soviet hippies that had to reside within the overbearing totalitarian system. The film aspires to unearth traces of the past with a patchwork of interviews generously given by the first Soviet hippies from Estonia. Aare was one of the first: then an 18-year old school boy in Tallin, he was joined by his friends, a magician Wiedemann turned into a London business consultant and a “funny tailor” Dormidontov who during the Soviet times sewed the caught on bell-bottoms made of curtain fabrics, “the only available colorful cloth in the black and white Soviet world.” The vivid personal stories are then canvassed against wider socio-historical contexts and seasoned with the relish of the bygone era. And what might be greater than a character-driven film that comes off to capture a moment in time? The film calls to mind the contentious yet fascinating generation of the “artists, musicians, freaks and vagabonds” who auspiciously constituted a paramount creative resistance against the grinding system that regarded any outlying cultural influence a poison that “infected” the Soviet youth.















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Sevara Pan
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