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At the Tribeca Film Festival: "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" (It's Like a Movie)

After writing his 2006 book about the origins of Islamic fundamentalism, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, journalist Lawrence Wright penned a one-man stage play, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," to explore questions and moral dilemmas he encountered in the process. The film directed by Alex Gibney, and which is receiving its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is adapted from the play that opened off-Broadway in March of 2007. The stage action, now translated to the motion picture, is properly opened up to include film interviews, news footage, and location shots from many places important to the story – degrading Egyptian prisons, the stunningly beautiful Afghanistan, Saudi Arabian streets, and of course, and horrifically, New York City, with footage of the bombing of the World Trade Center. At the center of the documentary is Wright, a journalist who adheres to the traditions and tenets of objective journalism but who is not always comfortable with them.

At the beginning of the film, Wright confesses to a feeling of guilt as the co-author of "The Siege" (1998), an eerily prophetic action picture about a terrorist attack on New York, the subsequent declaration of martial law, and the restraints on the U.S. Constitution. Before that film's release, terrorists targeted a Planet Hollywood in Cape Town, South Africa, killing two tourists and causing one child to lose a leg. Speculation surfaced that the bombers had targeted Wright’s film for its portrayal of Islamic fundamentalists. While he knows he was not to blame, the writer, taking personally the way people often compared the images of violence to those they had seen in the movies, undertakes a long and difficult journey to understand the origins of extremism. He finds those roots in the demeaning and dehumanizing prison conditions in Egypt and in other situations of degradation and humiliation, urging the audience to understand the Middle Eastern point of view for the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War.

While he nurtures contacts with close associates of Al-Qaeda in his quest to understand the mental construct of extremism, Wright is mindful that he's often conflicted and unsure about his sources. What's clear to him, however, is the lost moment and promise of post-911 America, a time when the country could have found its moral and constitutional balance but instead adopted the same sort of torture practices and limitations on civil liberties practiced by the other side. Both actors in the ancient crusader-infidel drama figuratively and literally unleashed their wild dogs to enact a humiliating revenge.

The film, like the play, depends on Wright. We see him in his office, as he explains the old-fashioned-looking card catalog file containing his type-written notes of nearly nine hundred interviews, as he conducts an interview with a source (legal pads and pen - young journalists, take note), and through images illustrating his long history in the region, first as a teacher in Cairo. Images of the physical and cultural landscape of the Middle East, especially pictures of a cave in Afghanistan, a potent symbol Osama bin Laden constructs to secure his leadership, and a stunning sequence illustrating The Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, strengthen the play’s arguments. Wright's explanation of gender separation in the culture, with the subject prompting one of the film’s rare funny lines, is accompanied by images of veiled women in a shopping mall, one of the few areas of civil society available to them.

If, like Wright explains, the words "humility" and "humiliation" are related words, so, too, are "journalism" and "journey." Wright, with his soft southern accent and strong, inquisitive demeanor, makes a good journeyman. Not every journalist could have pulled off this trip. Aside from the appealing Wright, there are some hard images to look at in "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," but we must. It’s not a movie.

Image: Lawrence Wright in "My Trip to Al-Qaeda." HBO announced this month it has acquired the domestic TV rights for "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" and will show the film in the fall of 2010.





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