Billed together at this year’s Hot Docs festival, it was convenient viewing both The Successor, and Dugma, two documentary films that deal not just with war, but how human elements change under pressure.
From a young director (Mattia Epifani) moved by newspaper reports of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, The Successor looks back in order to move ahead. It journals a while with Vito Alfieri Fontana, the son of a arms manufacturer who is weighed down by attempts to atone for the violent separations caused by his company’s engineering savvy.
Which codes guide, and which oppress? And do all lead to our fulfillment of purpose?
Is it really possible to atone for the sins of your father? Should you spend any time regretting the past? Or should you actively and creatively try to right the wrongs as you find them? These questions occurred to me after watching this documentary.
A steel thread seems to run through Fontana, albeit weakened. It allows him to take steps to mitigate harm from land mines manufactured by his family’s business. This thread is weaker for his internalization of the struggle. He could use his abilities, as an engineer who is driven to improve things, to not only do justice for others, but also prevent his obvious hollowing. For instance, wouldn’t it do double duty if he developed a means to more quickly uncover land mines and disable them. There is still that opportunity open to someone who wants to do right, and prevent the loss of life he knows is possible if these buried land mines explode inadvertently.
Fontana, with his first-hand account of how he came to realize the dangers of his family business appears sincere, if naive. But what could be a dull story of redemption is filled with tension that builds as the film progresses, owing to the gravity of the situation, a sadness, and an energy, which comes from people making a future amidst the danger of buried land mines. Unearthing these bombs is a soul-sucking procedure. Life is changed by these devices into something precarious, even in peace time.
The film mixes images past and present, and if you are unfamiliar with the landscape or the war, this can throw you off; however, the goal seemed to be to blend themes of survival, resilience and fraternity, which ultimately combine and show a way forward.
The music. It is an element in the story, and not just a backdrop in The Successor. Composed specifically for the film, it is jarring, likely to reflect the prevailing mood, and thought-provoking, like the film is overall.
Dugma — The Button
At some point everyone has an opportunity to perform some sacrifice. It may be out of duty, or despair; but it doesn’t have to involve bloodshed, unless of course you are convinced paradise demands bloodshed.
The latter is the case in the documentary film, Dugma, translated as, the button, and directed by Paul S. Refsdal. This button is central to the lives of a few fundamentalist Muslim men who join a suicide list, and whom we observe as they wait to be sacrificed.
Living in Syria, they refer to themselves as jihadists. And while their struggle has spiritual elements, there are also strong political elements. Among the men featured, two stories stand out: One, Abu Qusawara, a son who wants to die so his father will go to paradise, believing his death is a sacrifice for them both: father gives up a son to Allah, and son gives his own life for dearly held Islamic beliefs. The other participant, Abu Basir, is from Britain, and has disengaged from that society in which he felt alienated. These two jihadists are foreigners in Syria to fight Bashar al Assad’s regime, but are arguably there because they are missing a peaceful yet exhilarating and unifying purpose?
It is not easy to write them off as crazy, death cultists. They are clearly vulnerable, brave, desperate, attention-seeking, and committed at least in part to family and to their religious beliefs.
The two men also betray an obvious love for life despite their enlistment to die, which suggests that if offered a compelling purpose other than to seek death, as is explained, to attain women, purity, and glory, these men would choose life, and forsake “the button,” which would end it. Watching them struggle with the communal and moral aspects of life and the list, the invisible wrestle between heart and mind is almost visible.
In zeroing in on this internal and external struggle, the film is able to level divisions normally erected by those with conflicting belief systems, and even bravado, to reveal a need for family and community discussion, this being one way to intervene and save vulnerable young people.
The partisan religious leaders who authorized this film want Westerners as an audience because, as the director explained, he “applied” to do this film and was accepted in part because of his other film that showed the human side of this band of people who talk up the advantages of jihad and increasing the number of dead who count as their enemies, but do not demonstrate an understanding of the flawed and zero-sum game they play. After all, once Assad is no longer the enemy, other non-believers inevitably will fall into their cross-hairs.