The Banality of Conversion: "Also Known as Jihadi," directed by Eric Baudelaire, by James Scarborough
Without the context its title provides, Eric Baudelaire’s latest film, Also Known as Jihadi, now showing at Art Basel, would be the cinematic equivalent of a butt-dial; the difference being you accidentally turn on the video camera, not dial the phone. We see passages of what appear to be random, unrehearsed scenes (a nice metaphor for life, by the way). We hear ambient noise - the sound of voices and motor vehicles, but nothing by way of scripted dialogue. Until we read court documents and police records projected on the screen, we don’t realize that, at heart, this film documents Abdel Aziz’s jihadi conversion story, albeit without the aha-moment. What does this jihadi conversion story suggest? That, subsequent acts of terror notwithstanding, conversion is banal and that, by extension, ones give up one’s accustomed life for the one-way ticket of jihadi out of boredom, sheer, utter boredom.
If the film’s title didn’t give its subject away, we’d think it was an impressionist look at the immigrant experience in France and at day-to-day life in the Middle East. Perhaps it is, though, with a title like that, we’d expect something, shall we say, a little more dramatic.
Canny Baudelaire, he confounds expectations to craft a film that is more poetic than casual, that questions whether landscape and geography effect a jihadi conversion. His answer? Perhaps. If no definitive answer is forthcoming, it’s at least instructive to see the world through someone else’s eyes, especially if the someone is a terrorist and the point of view is the same point of view one assumes when one plays a first person shooter video game.
Throughout the story, we don’t confront Aziz. We never hear his voice. We never see his actions, which are consequential enough to get the intelligence services on his trail. The only thing that hints at a narrative are transcripts of bugged phone conversations and interviews with him and known associates. We learn that he got radicalized at some point in France, went to Syria for training and indoctrination, got married, got arrested, and was deported back to France. He was then arrested trying to flee to North Africa. After that, what?
That’s it. A conversion story. His attempts to proselytize his friends failed so miserably that his commander told him no more French recruits. We don’t know what missions he may have been part of, though, by his own admission, we learn that he did something bad.
The striking thing about the film is its banality. Speaking of the long waits for something to happen, TV police remark on the tedium of stakeouts. Same here. We are omniscient but the fruits of this omniscience are circumstantial and unfocused.
The film dares us to wonder if the evil of jihad could come from such ordinary circumstances. We never learn the specifics of the defining moment of Mr. Aziz’s conversion. We never learn what ultimately happened to him, much less to his wife. All we know is that he, like others, come from nowhere. Inflamed by ideology or socioeconomic circumstance, we don’t know. In fact, we know a heck of a lot less about Mr. Aziz going out than coming in. At the beginning, at least, he was a someone. Now, he’s a no one, he’s a ghost.