‘If integrating means letting go of one’s deep-rooted beliefs and culture in favour of an immoral consumer culture then I can understand why people don’t.’
Hamburg Cell, which is based on real events, is a disturbing, visually arresting film, but one which refuses to provide neat reasons for complex ideological shifts. Directed by Antonia Bird and scripted by Ronan Bennett and Alice Perman, it traces the lives of the most prominent of the 9/11 hijackers over the five years leading up to one of the most sinister attacks of all time. At the centre of the group is Mohammed Atta, whose fanaticism is clear from the outset. He is an angry, alienated young man, who wants to make sense of the ‘confusion’ that is the modern world – a world that wants ‘to take God from him’.
The film’s main focus is on the story of Ziad Jarrah, the pilot of the plane that may have been heading for the White House, but instead crashed into a Pennsylvanian field. A Lebanese national from an affluent, secular family, Ziad arrives in Germany a moderate university student. Within weeks, he embarks on two significant relationships – one with his Turkish girlfriend, Aysel, and the other with a radical Islamic group based on campus. What follows is not so much a theorisation of the reasons for his decline, but a presentation of the facts as they are known. Yet the objective approach that sets out to provide viewers with their own interpretative space has the unfortunate result of undermining the realism of the piece.
Ziad’s portrayal is frustrating; it fails to explain his seemingly abrupt conversion into a fanatic, whilst maintaining every semblance of a ‘normal’ life. When I challenge researcher and co-writer Alice about this, she is adamant that this is Ziad as he was – known to most as a likeable, westernised Muslim. To some he was more religious, but he concealed his emerging fanaticism from everyone.
This explanation still doesn’t account for the insipid Ziad who mumbles his way through the film. There is no commitment to a clear depiction of his character; his detached ambivalence is the one consistent feature. His relationship with Aysel never seems as genuinely affectionate as the facts suggest it was. Equally, his newfound religious fervour feels hollow. This is a man who left me cold, even more so than his more openly fanatical counterparts.
Research for Hamburg Cell which spanned just less than three years, arose from the observation that no one had tried to deduce what the 9/11 terrorists were actually like as human beings. The filmmakers wanted to stimulate debate, to try to present the terrorists as people rather than to demonise them as monsters – a brave decision in the current climate. Alice acknowledges that there were gaps in the information they were able to collect, particularly with respect to what motivated the men to embrace extremist ideology. This is unsettling for those of us who want to ‘explain away’ fanaticism. The filmmakers could have made an educated guess, instead they made a conscious decision not to fabricate an explanation whenever faced with a question to which they did not know the answer.
This is not a film about moderate Islam. Yet one of the problems I have with Hamburg Cell is that moderate Islam is barely represented. Nothing is done to highlight the difference between religious, non-fanatical Muslims and extremists. Sure, a few secular Muslims are portrayed – Aysel, Jarrah’s uncle, his cousin – but they do not practise at all. It is all too easy to deduce from the film that most mosque-going Muslims can become fanatics. The lack of explanation for the radicalisation of the 9/11 hijackers seems only to emphasise that any, every Muslim could become a terrorist. We are given no insight into the way these men interacted with secular German society and the impact that this may have had on their development. Only a few passing comments are made about political crises at the time (e.g. Chechnya) that may have contributed to their decline.
Some people will consider the depiction of the 9/11 terrorists in the film to be too neutral. My main concern is that in its refusal be subjective, individuals are left to interpret the film in line with their pre-existing prejudices. Extremists from both sides of the argument will feel vindicated. The rest of us will come away knowing little more about the workings of these men’s minds than when we started.
This film would have done itself more justice as a documentary. It could have stimulated just as much thought without failing to deliver on the promise of a story. Audiences seek more than the bones of a story from a film – they require it to be fleshed out as well. The filmmakers present us with shadowy characters and ask us to believe in them first as men and then as radicals, without providing any means of making the connection between the two. In seeking to portray the 9/11 terrorists without giving an opinion, Hamburg Cell only serves to underline how little we know about any of them.