Dugma: The Button – Review ***

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Norwegian director Paul Sakaladin Refsdal was once kidnapped by the Taliban and somehow made the best out of it, by converting to Islam and making friends. That is what in part explains the access he got to Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, and particularly to two men on the waiting list to become martyrdom seekers – yes, that’s right, there’s a waiting list in al-Qaeda to blow yourself to pieces. Isn’t that a comforting thought?

Abu Qaswara, 39 years old, with a wife and two kids back in Mecca (one of whom he has never met) happily explains how the explosive devices work in the truck he’s supposed to drive into as many infidels as possible. He seems eager to sacrifice his life for Allah, and we sense that the wait is leaving him impatient. Even his father keeps texting him “So, when are you going to die?” as he awkwardly laughs to the camera and keeps enjoying life (and fried chicken) with his friends, not sure when it will be the last time he’ll be with them. In the meantime, he takes counsel from his superiors, who warn him of the true reasons to become a martyrdom seeker (you can’t be suicidal in nature, as that would taint the sacrifice, for example) and talks with young Abu Ljaman, who seems obsessed with the idea of 72 wives in Paradise. For Abu Basir al-Britani, an ex-Londoner of American-British descendent, it’s way more political than that. This educated man, who makes sarcastic remarks about the American foreign policies, trashes Britain as a “miserable place to live” (a strong remark coming from a man living in the middle of rubble) and stresses al-Qaeda are not criminals and murderers like the rapist, kill-happy Sharia law militants that attack some villages. He sees their mission as divine, and just, against the foreign oppressor. But when his wife gets pregnant, he starts to doubt his suitability for the suicide missions…

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Obviously reminiscent of The Act of Killing, Dugma – The Button makes a great job of, in under an hour, tracing a very human portrait of individuals who are too quickly categorized as crazy extremists. This bunch of fried chicken loving, Pepsi drinking men sound articulate and sane, normal even, angry that they are being told their revolution is not valid, and see themselves as potential heros who must sacrifice themselves for the greater good. While waiting for death with the same calm one would wait for a doctor’s appointment, they banter, talk, and complain about how in Jihad they have to do all the washing (because there are no women around). And yet, where Oppenheimer’s documentary makes you cringe with horror from Human Nature, Dugma – The Button seems to be missing the same kind of pathos, whether because its main characters are not given the space and time to truly horrify us by getting our empathy, or because Refsdal refrains from giving us some political and social context in which their group and mission are explained, or simply, pardon the pun, because it does not end with a bang.

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Still, as a snapshot of an organisation which we know only from their violent acts, Dugma – The Button is invaluable, and deserves to be watched, even if only for the understanding that the Other is not so very different from us.

Dugma – The Button is available on iTunes now after its release on 2nd August 2016.

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.