They punctuate the evening news like bloody commas - suicide bombings that ravage the Middle East and elsewhere are shocking reminders of just how far individuals will go in the name of belief. Dramatized in last year's searing drama Paradise Now, the methodology, but perhaps more importantly, the psychology of the suicide bomber is at once fascinating and terrifying - the prospect of someone being so utterly committed to a cause/belief system as to willingly martyr oneself is a foreign concept, one that strikes fear deep in the hearts of Westerners.
Despite the DVD case's incessant trumpeting of its tangential connection to the also recently released Syriana (The Cult of the Suicide Bomber is "hosted" by former CIA operative Robert Baer, whose book "See No Evil" and own experiences served as inspiration for Syriana), this 2005 British TV documentary, directed by David Batty and Kevin Toolis, is nowhere near as complex or emotionally involving as Stephen Gaghan's fictional work; the material is inherently compelling, certainly, but it feels very surface; tracing the loose history of martyrdom over the last three decades or so, Baer (who labels the notion of suicide bombings as a "pathological virus"), Batty and Toolis zero in on the stories of several families affected by suicide bombings, as well as the cultural impact these terrorists have had upon life in the Middle East. The filmmakers also chronicle the story of the purported "world's first suicide bomber," 13-year-old Hossein Fahmideh, who killed himself in the Iran-Iraq war and is considered a national hero in Iran.
Neatly condensing difficult subject matter into a concise 90 minutes is no small feat and for those wanting to dig a little deeper into the byzantine world of interlocking, bitterly violent politics that comprise the ever-shifting situation in the Middle East, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber is certainly a worthwhile place to start. There are a few chilling moments where Baer amazingly inserts himself into situations that would get most of us killed (confronting the general of Iran's army, for one, or watching as seemingly hundreds of worshippers chant "Death to America" during an evening religious service) but overall, this documentary lacks the sobering impact of the most immediate films about this blood-soaked piece of our planet.
The newly filmed sequences of The Cult of the Suicide Bomber look crisp and razor-sharp in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer while the copious amounts of vintage video footage looks grainy, noisy or washed out. Aside from the old news reports, this is a perfectly serviceable image.
Being an interview-driven film, the provided Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is more than adequate; dialogue is heard clearly, free of distortion or drop-out and Baer's narration has nice presence. More than once during the feature, I wished for English subtitles for help with some of the thicker accents, but otherwise, what's on board is solid.
Regrettably, there's not a single bonus feature to be found here and this is most definitely a film that would benefit from some contextual supplements.
Robert Baer, former CIA operative in the Middle East and author of "See No Evil," upon which Stephen Gaghan's riveting Syriana is based, serves as a sober guide through the turbulent, bloody world of suicide bombings and unquestioning martyrdom. It's a chilling, if facile document that nevertheless merits a rental spin. Recommended.