Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
Morgan Spurlock, the daredevil documentarian who lived on Big Macs for a month and turned this exercise in "body art" into the 2004 hit Super Size Me, returns — this time expanding his horizons rather than his girth. Paraphrasing the title of a venerable computer game, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? presents Spurlock's fact-finding tour of the Middle East and beyond.
An affable action hero in search of the planet's arch supervillain, Spurlock is less irritating than his obvious model, Michael Moore, but also less politically astute; assuming the role of a faux-naïf stranger in a strange land, he's more benign and not nearly as funny as unacknowledged analogue Sacha Baron Cohen. Actually, Spurlock's trip is something of a charm offensive, and Spurlock himself is a relentless personalizer. His pursuit of bin Laden arose from his new family situation: Mrs. Spurlock — or, as she is characterized in the press notes, "vegan wife Healthy Chef Alexandra Jamieson" — is pregnant. Impending fatherhood has rocked Spurlock's world, stimulating his sudden concern for its perilous state.
A cynic might view Spurlock's seven-month exploration of civilization's cradle as a form of conjugal competition: Operating from a position of feigned total ignorance, the filmmaker, too, must undertake a particular regimen — exercises, self-defense lessons, medical attention — in order to bring something new into being, namely this movie and its published memoir-ization. But Spurlock's own education aside, the real question is whether there is actually anything particularly new to be gleaned from the travelogue that is Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?
Spurlock lands first in Egypt, hoping to interview the uncle of bin Laden's mentor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and thus understand the Al Qaeda mindset. Uncle declines to talk, but Spurlock has no difficulty finding schoolgirls who think America is at war with Egypt, or religious zealots who tell him: "We pray to Heaven to destroy you." Others are more moderate: Spurlock is invited to dinner by a friendly Moroccan family; in the West Bank, he finds Palestinians who reject, and even denounce, bin Laden, as well as an Israeli who foresees a rational settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soon after, Spurlock visits an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood where, rather than respond to his friendly inquiries, the local Haredim push him off the sidewalk and chase away his crew. Surely it couldn't have been his hardball questions.
Theocratic culture shock is even more severe in bin Laden's native Saudi Arabia, which, according to Spurlock, makes every other Arab state seem "progressive by comparison." This sequence is most illuminating precisely because nothing is revealed, whether Spurlock is touring an austere, strictly burqa'd shopping mall, searching for bin Laden's family farm, or interviewing a pair of high school students. Asked how they view the United States, the kids decline to express any opinion at all; when Spurlock switches gears to inquire what they are taught about Israel, the school official who is monitoring the exchange leaps into action: "Stop your camera!" The structuring absence, however, is not Saudi Arabia but Iraq — the never-mentioned realm that the Bush administration and its ideological allies magically transformed into bin Laden's spiritual home. Spurlock knows enough not to look for Osama there.
Where in the World is enlivened by educational animations, snazzy graphics, and mock music videos (OBL merged with MC Hammer, dancing to "U Can't Touch This"). And, unlike the terrorist trading cards that are periodically flashed, there's a War on Terror computer game that has a definite commercial future. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom rules: The Afghans claim bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan; the Pakistanis reveal that the devil is actually in Afghanistan. It's there that Spurlock has his most enjoyable moment, when American troops allow him to fire a rocket launcher into the rubble. It's also amusing to learn he's not the only celebrity opportunist — a local politician hopes to develop Tora Bora as a tourist site.
So, will this all-American self-identified goofball achieve the scoop of the century, penetrate the Forbidden Zone, and track Osama to his lair? Can he make it back to Brooklyn in time for the birth of his child? Not exactly suspenseful, this is a movie where human interest rules: Like a novice teacher staying a lesson plan ahead of his class, Spurlock is prepared for the day he can teach little Laken James Spurlock that people are people wherever you go.
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