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Brussels Attacks: Egyptian Filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah on Depicting Terrorists in Storytelling

Right after 9/11, I had a long conversation with a friend. The topic was whether it is possible for a filmmaker not to deal with the character of a terrorist. The reason we formulated the problem this way, was a very conscious desire not to deal with the character of a terrorist. A desire motivated partly by an aversion to people incapable of defining themselves other than as victims (of Imperialism, Colonialism, Zionism, dictatorship, poverty et al).

The official narrative is mainly one that situates the terrorist as someone “foreign,” an intruder who hates “our way of life,” someone who is “not like us.” Another way of telling that same narrative is one that stresses the similarities of the terrorist with “us.” Both end up by telling you the stories of societies incapable of assimilating individuals and transforming them into killers. Remember “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Thieves Like Us,” “Badlands?” But the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are long gone. Romantic outlaws are no longer heroes. The arrogance of these narratives is obvious. If “they” are victims, then “we” must be their henchmen. It is either this, or “Yes … We are all victims of our own complacency.”

I remember reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed” in the early ’70s, and being totally fascinated by his depiction of the decadence of a provincial society, and equally appalled by his description of the revolutionaries. Dostoyevsky wrote about nihilists and terrorists in “The Possessed.” But it was hard then to figure out the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary. It probably still is. When a revolution is defeated, its convulsions are terribly terrorist. Some people call it despair.

But, because Dostoyevsky was a genius, he sensed the romanticism of his main character and the mediocrity of his “disciples.” He also understood something very few people attempt to explore: something that Stavrogin (his romantic nihilist) wants to hide.  He has raped an 11-year-old girl and listened as she proceeded to hang herself. His nihilist has a sexuality. One that is guilt-ridden.

Dostoyevsky also understood that most of his characters’ outcome can only be suicide. Strange how a novel written in the middle of the 19th century, is the only work of fiction I can refer to, when trying to figure out our contemporary terrorists.

Our terrorists? Yes, if they are to become characters of a film I still haven’t been able to make. Why did the perpetrators of 9/11 spend the night before the attack in strip clubs, drinking vodka and scoring with hookers? Why is it that one of the Paris-Brussels attackers was seen regularly in gay bars?  Why do so many of the European terrorists have a criminal background? And, needless to stress the fact that so many young persons from immigrant background have never really felt they were accepted as part of the western world.

Why is it that so many upper middle class Egyptians and Arabs are joining ISIS? Taking pictures of themselves, carrying arms and posing like super, superstars? Why these incredible aliases? Abou Whatever and Ibn Whoever? Why this insistence on sexually enslaving non-Muslim women and pre-pubescent boys? And this happens in a context where every form of extra-marital sexuality is criminalized (both legally and religiously).

One thing seems obvious. If you convince yourself that “it is for a just cause,” every taboo can be broken. Every flaw becomes a quality. Your very inadequacy is a virtue. The way the media tells the story, it really depends on where you stand. Violence becomes a point of view. In a world that claims to have gotten over “ideologies,” ideology has never seemed more dominant.

The real challenge for me as a filmmaker is to tell a story about romantic characters, without romanticizing them. Even at the risk making a film that will feel like a video game. Coldly immersive, analytical, with no reference to that tremendous ideological trap we call history. Maybe just another story about a criminal.

(Egyptian auteur Yousry Nasrallah was named Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year in 2012, when his post-Arab Spring drama “After the Battle” competed at the Cannes Film Festival. His upcoming new film, “Brooks, Meadows and Beautiful Faces,” is about a family of cooks who cater a wedding in the countryside.)

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