The conditions that breed radical Islamic terrorists are observed through the prism of one weary ex-mujahadeen in Mahmoud al Massad’s elegantly conceived “Recycle.” Filmed in the mode of contemporary European docs about major issues and made for the bigscreen, pic demurs on judgments about its subject, instead taking in his life, thoughts and world — a desperately run-down quarter of Zarqa, Jordan’s second-largest city and hometown to many terrorists. Set for a globe-trekking festival run, doc will gain aud support along the way and sell to a few select territories, mostly in Europe.
Heavily bearded father Abu Amar drives his recycling truck, assisted by young son Abu Bakr. At first unremarkable, the hard-working man reveals an astonishing world around him, and then (very likely growing accustomed to al Massad’s doggedly cinema-verite camera) his own life and aspirations.
The Zarqa streets in which he lives and works are those where Abu Massad al-Zarqawi, the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was born and raised. Sipping tea around a table, Abu Amar and his friends note that the terrorist superstar was a mere city hall clerk and completely non-religious before a sudden immersion in Islam. This shift often comes about with alcoholics who turn their lives around with this culture’s only equivalent to AA — regular Friday visits to the local mosque, and devotion to the Koran.
Abu Amar says, almost matter-of-factly, that he worked as a bodyguard for the mujahadeen forces in Afghanistan, though he never explains if he was allied with the Taliban. He remains devoted to jihadist politics and movements, but his poverty and family responsibilities have kept him mired in Zarqa’s glum, depressing environs. Almost as a release, and without any real prospects of ever publishing, he’s writing a book on jihad and Islamic revolution.
Al Massad looks upon Abu Amar’s existence with stunning restraint and sobriety, with a precise, highly professional attitude exuding from every frame that makes pic hugely valuable as a reference point for Western eyes trying to understand the contemporary Arab world. He refuses to inject artificial drama when three devastating Al Qaeda attacks targeting Jordan hotels in 2005 trigger a roundup of suspects, including Abu Amar — even though he’s clearly innocent and the victim of a brutal dragnet.
Nothing prepares the viewer for Abu Amar’s fateful decisions in the final reel, which occur suddenly and with little explanation, but with a poignancy that suggests the mysteries of human desires.
Al Massad’s lensing, which earned a cinematography prize at Sundance, is at once magnificent and raw. Production package matches the best of the world-setting standard of contempo Austrian and French nonfiction filmmaking.