Lost in the ongoing news from Iraq is the fact that the pursuit of justice in the wake of 9/11 has fallen into obscurity, occasional videos from Osama bin Laden notwithstanding. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, 30 Days) has taken advantage of this opportunity to make his latest movie, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? – though you’d be mistaken if you thought the movie was really about tracking the missing al-Qaida frontman. Where in the World is less about a man and more about the continuing gap of understanding between the average American and the average Muslim.
Spurlock sat down with altmuslim associate editor Wajahat Ali to talk about experiencing life under occupation, struggling to keep up with the Ramadan fast, and finding tears of sympathy for the US in the middle of the Saudi desert.
First of all, I don’t know whether to punch you in the stomach or hug you for Super Size Me…
MORGAN SPURLOCK: (Laughs) There was a guy that I met in Texas who came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I hate you.” I said, “Why do you hate me?” He goes, “Cause every time I go to a fast food restaurant, I gotta buy two big drinks…”
Why don’t you and Eric Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation] just ignore this? Why can’t ignorance be bliss for you guys…
(Laughs) Hey, Eric was first. He came long before I did.
(Voice in background) 30 Days. 30 Days, right? That was you that worked all month in McDonald’s. That’s you!
I did, yeah.
(Voice in the background) Get the fuck outta here!
I’m gonna use that. Now I lost my train of thought.
(Voice in the background) It’s amazing to meet you.
(Laughs) Nice to meet you. Thanks a lot.
He’s got a new movie out.
(Voice in the background) What, “Stay Away from Burger King?”
Well there you go. Case in point. Speaking of masochism, let’s do a Freudian Spurlock-on-Spurlock analysis.
In Super Size Me, you gained 25 pounds, destroyed your health. You also went to jail (in 30 Days) for 25 days. For Where in the World is Osama bin Laden, your new movie, you travel to the most dangerous parts of the world. So what prompts this daredevil journalism?
For me, I think Super Size Me really pushed me on a path that led to 30 Days on [US television network] FX. This idea of being able to look at someone else’s life or go somewhere that most people would never get to go, experience things that most people would never get to experience, and kind of tell a story through that.
What I’m going through, you’re going through, what I’m feeling, you’re feeling, what I learn, you learn. That excited me a lot. It started with Super Size Me and then transcended to 30 Days in a much different way, and grew a lot. What I get out of it, I find to be incredibly gratifying as a filmmaker and as a person, as a human being. Going into a situation and going into these environments makes me have a much better understanding of people who are there. To strip yourself from a lot of the things around you that make you comfortable is a really challenging thing that most of us don’t do or don’t get a chance to do.
You’re this tall, blonde, blue-eye’d white dude. You say, “I’m going to go to a Muslim country and make a documentary called Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”
We were talking about that film [after] the first season of 30 Days. It had started to air when we started talking about what movie we were going to do next. We were already producing a film, What Would Jesus Buy, that I was producing out of my office in New York City. For me, I wanted to try to find something for my next movie that would deal with something that didn’t just affect Americans or that wasn’t just an American film, but dealt with all of us, that touched all of us in some way. So it was 2005. Bush had just been elected to a second term. Some new Osama tape came out and every TV station, every radio station was talking about it, saying, “Why haven’t we found this guy? Where is he? We want justice. Where in the world is Osama bin Laden.”
And I thought, “That’s a great question. I’d like to learn that too.” So that was the jumping off point. I’m going to go look for this guy. I’m going to find out why we haven’t found him and start to give the whole background into the government’s search for him. We raised a little bit of money to start pre-production. About two months into that process was when we found out that Alex [Spurlock’s wife] was pregnant. There was a real “Oh, should we be doing this” moment. This isn’t a smart thing to do. This is a mistake.
She and I talked about it and the more we talked about it, the more she saw why I wanted to make the film and why it was important to me. So she agreed. She didn’t like it, she didn’t think it was the smartest thing to do, but she was incredibly supportive and is a saintly human being for putting up with me and encouraging me to do the things I want to do as a filmmaker.
That’s when the movie really shifted for me. It went from being “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden” and what kind of world creates Osama to what kind of world am I bringing a kid into. It took a turn. That became the driving force behind all the questions.
So about the blue-eyed, white guy chilling in the Middle East… there had to be fear…
Oh, of course. I went in with all my preconceived notions that there was going to be a lot of hostility, there was going to be a lot of resentment. And we did encounter some, everywhere we went. We did find people who didn’t like Americans, but the majority of people wanted to talk to us. The majority of people wanted to sit down and have a conversation and tell us how they felt.
The one thing that I did when making this film that my mother would be very proud of was that I actually listened. My mom always used to say, “You’ll be a better kid if you just listen.” So when people would be unhappy or upset, I let them talk and let them vent and then we could have a real conversation. We could really just talk about things. And you hear things that are disheartening as an American, how much people hate your country and what they think of you on the world stage. How they used to idolize your country and look up to it and now they don’t anymore. Like the guy in the film, he says, “we’ve grown to expect a lot more from the United States.” It’s tough to hear.
If you go there as a Muslim, you get treated like everyone else. But as an American, when I go back there, they hate you as an American.
So you get it from both sides? That sucks.
Yeah. A teacher of mine once made this point. He said the best teachers are 75% theatrical, 25% teaching. I noticed this in the movie, you use a lot of video games, a lot of computer graphics and cell animation. Is this the way to make your points more accessible to the mainstream?
Definitely. Absolutely. One of my beliefs as a filmmaker is that if you can make somebody laugh, you can make them listen. With laughter, you can get somebody’s guard down, you can open them up to listening to you. They don’t feel like they’re being preached to or talked down to. I think it helps, it makes really hard to understand information a little more accessible and palatable. And at the end of the day, it makes a movie a little more fun. It doesn’t feel so heavy handed.
Wouldn’t some consider that condescending, this leaning towards infotainment?
Well, these are the same people who said we were making light of a serious issue, that you can’t make a joke about this. Lily Tomlin said something years ago, and I’m paraphrasing, that you have to find humor in everything, because by finding humor, you find humanity. And I think that’s what comes out of this at the end. There’s a tremendous amount of humanity in the film, and it’s obvious. It really does come from the people that you meet, the situations you’re in, and the humor that develops from it.
From me wearing traditional clothing in places where I am a big, tall white guy… the fixers told me, “No, you should wear traditional clothes. It’ll endear you to them. They’ll want to talk to you, they’ll embrace you.” And it’s true. Everywhere we went, the minute I showed up wearing shalwaar kameez or a thobe with a kafiyyeh, people would say, “Oh you look like a Saudi. Look at you!” All these little things really seem to matter.
How did you as one guy travel around the world and get access to, as you said, actual Muslim people. Whereas if CNN, Fox News, and multi-million dollar corporations for the past 6 years have not been able to give this very simple, but real, examination of the Muslim people?
For me, that was one of the big things. We talked to a lot of politicians and we talked to people you usually see in the media. And when you get back and you start putting this movie together, it really became obvious to me that the story was the people, the people that I don’t get to see on two minute sound bites on the news. It painted a portrait of what life is like for a lot of these people around the world. Even in places like Saudi Arabia, there were so many women that were open to talk to us.
Here’s a criticism you’re going to get. This is typical, progressive, knee-jerk, anti-American propaganda, spawned by Hollywood and Spurlock.
For me, I don’t think it’s typical at all. You’d be hard pressed to find my opinion in this movie. What you hear is a lot of other people’s opinions and their outlooks. One of the things I’d like people to really take away at the end of the movie is… how does it affect them? How does it affect you? What do you believe? I don’t tell you what to think. I tell you how things personally affect me, but I’m not telling you what to think. We went into this with the best of intentions and I think those intensions play out over the course of the movie.
On Rotten Tomatoes, some of the critics are saying, “You know what, nothing’s resolved in this movie. He doesn’t provide answers. He doesn’t tell us anything that we already don’t know. And he didn’t find Osama.” Well intentioned, but nothing revelatory.
Super Size Me at the time got a lot of the same criticism. But at the same time, Super Size Me reached an audience that didn’t consume news everyday and didn’t know everything that was happening all over the world. I think we’ve unplugged and become very apathetic to a lot of things that are happening. There’s so much going on and we’re sort of disconnected. Even for the people who are already media savvy, who read the New York Times everyday, there’s still something new in here. There’s a great chance for this to sort of bridge a gap.
I spoke to a woman who went to a screening and took her 14 year old son to the movie. And she is a media hound – reads everything, knows everything, watches the news. Her son plays in a rock band with his friends, plays video games everyday, has no clue what’s going on. Afterwards she said, “I want to thank you because I had the first political discussion about what’s happening in the world with my son after seeing your movie.” That’s a fantastic thing to hear.This movie is mainstream entertainment that actually shows Muslims as human beings, not caricatures. And it seemed that the Muslim enemies weren’t devils, didn’t have horns on their heads. They were very opinionated – most of them I didn’t agree with, some of them I did. It seems that the title should be, “Who Cares Where’s Osama.” Am I right?
I think that’s what starts to come out toward the end of the movie.
Why do you think most of the Muslims you interviewed throughout the world just don’t care whether he lives or dies? This could be a heavy discussion in the sense that they say, “Even if he dies, it doesn’t change anything” and “Who cares where he is? It doesn’t matter. That’s not the problem.” And then here we have the video of certain people saying, “Osama, Osama, Zawahiri, Zawahiri,” etc. So what’s the disconnect? Why this feeling?
There’s a great line from the guy in the Palestinian Territories who says, “We all hate Osama bin Laden because he gives a bad name to Islam.” One of the things that I think hasn’t happened is that you haven’t heard from this silent majority. And it is the majority of people that we spoke to over the course of this film. They don’t agree with Osama and hate his guts. They think he does not represent their religion. They believe he misinterpreted it and taken it to a level that none of them think should be happening.
The question is why don’t we hear from them more? Why don’t we see them more? Even in the media, there’s this hard line of news that “if it bleeds, it leads.” If somebody is saying, “We’re all the same. I’m just like you,” that’s nice and all, but that doesn’t sell papers.
The movie focuses, like you said, more on the human side instead of the political…
There’s a lot of political discussions. For me, the best moments are ones when people open up their homes to me. We were shooting during Ramadan, and I was fasting to build a bridge…
How was that like?
I didn’t make it.
It’s the water, right?
That’s the worst part. Here we are, in the middle of the desert shooting in 100 degrees and you can’t drink all day. It’s rough. I made it about 3 weeks. I did alright. I owed 8 days.
That’s still impressive though. There’s this one scene where you as a filmmaker come out with a political side. You show an amusing animation of the Shah of Iran, Saddam was in there, Pinochet, and you have Uncle Sam. For those of us who know American history, we know what this is about. But how many Americans do you think know about this part of our foreign policy history and do you think, when you do it through animation, will it educate them, push them off, all of the above…
Probably all of the above. I think there will be a lot of people who see it who have no idea of the depth of that. I think a lot of us just don’t know. When you show the animation, a lot of people will see it and will be upset (at the content) and others will upset with me that it’s even in there. But just to have a talking head discuss this – it’s very dry, it’s very boring. When you see the Statue of Liberty shaking her groove thing for President Mubarak, it’s a little more amusing.
So why do Muslims hate America?
I don’t think Muslims do hate America. I think that’s what we hear and that’s what we believe. I don’t think that’s true. I think most Muslims are incredibly upset with the state of our foreign policy today and the state of the world. Even pre-9/11 to where we are now, post-9/11, I don’t think its just happened in the last seven years, although what has happened hasn’t helped. But there’s a variety of things that upsets people and when you see the clips in the film, you see what people are angry about.
We did an interview with Mike Shoyer, who’s the former head of the Bin Laden unit at the CIA and one of the things that he said that happened is that people realize in the Middle East, rather than attack their own countries, they should attack the protectors of these countries – which is the United States. So that’s when a lot of hatred really began to develop towards the US in the places where we go to – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, you name it. And people look at the regimes that are in power there as being puppet governments that are being supported and backed by the United States. And they look at it as being unfair.
Let’s say Muslims in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or in these countries with puppet governments. What do they want? What do Muslims want? From life, from the world…
I think the one thing we talk about in the film is that people want things to be fair. They want things that we all want. They want to be able to get jobs, they want to be able to provide for their families. They want to be able to have free speech and say what they want and know they’re not going to end up in jail, like a guy that we interviewed in Egypt named Saad Ibrahim – he’s going to be on the DVD, but he’s not in the film – he was in jail for years for speaking out about Mubarak and the election process and he was tortured and jailed. So, these people, they want fairness. That’s it.
They also realize… they’re not blind to the idea that there are still people out there who will act out in a certain way that will potentially damage their own views, which is what has happened.
There’s this Gallup poll that was released about a month ago, the world’s largest poll on Muslims. And what they realized was when they interviewed Americans, 57% of them, when asked the question, “Do you have anything good to say about Muslims or Islam?” they said either “No” or “I don’t know,” compared to Muslims who, when asked the converse question overwhelmingly praised the idea of democracy, free speech, the economy. So why is there this huge disconnect when it comes to this view of the world?
Well when we’re talking to people, they would say, “Look, we don’t hate Americans, but we hate your American government. We hate the American foreign policy.” They make a disconnect between the people and the government. I would explain to them that the people elected the government, they’re people we voted for. And they say, “Yes, but once people get in power, it’s corrupt and we know how government is.” They all know about corruption.
And we only see one side of Muslims and Islam and the majority of what we do get to see is the guy who’s screaming and yelling “Death to America” and burning flags and George Bush in effigy. That’s the lead story. So what’s in the newspaper? Who’s on the front cover? “Muslims caught at this airport, want to kill somebody.” You don’t hear “Muslim saves little girl from burning building.”
Muslim bakes cookie.
Muslim bakes giant cookie, wins contest. Muslim boy scout helps old lady cross the street. The good news vanishes because of the small minority that makes the most noise.
Like a few other movies, the Jimmy Carter movie Man from Plains for example, you show us what life is like in the Occupied Territories, in the West Bank and Gaza in actual footage, which is rare. Carter said that he thinks that if universities in America sent select students to Palestine, and they come back and write a report and disseminate it, our entire perception of the area would change. As a person who actually went there – and it’s shown in the movie – what do you think? Do you think Americans just need to know what’s happening there?
Well, I think people need to see on both sides. Seeing how the people in the Palestinian Territories can’t move around – it’s a maze now, with the wall, the road blocks and everything else. It takes you hours to get from one person’s house to your job or to a friend or even to the hospital if someone’s hurt. Then you go into Israel and see in Tel Aviv, where they have 12-18 bomb threats a day, which are real. It completely disrupts their life. Or Sderot where bombs are falling daily from the sky fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. You’re there and it’s difficult to see and it’s hard to imagine. I think the more people that go there and see this – and go to both sides – it can only help. I don’t think we’ve had the opportunity to do that.
In the movie, you show both sides. It seems the majority of individuals understand that the situation is unsustainable for the future. Is that what you got out of…
…nearly everyone we spoke to. The question is then, well why can’t it change? We did a great interview with a journalist in Israel, who says, “All you need is one thing. As many people could want peace as you could possibly imagine, and all you need is one guy to blow up a bomb in Tel Aviv or one settler to hurt a Palestinian in the territories. And all the work you’ve done towards peace will be over.”
One of the most interesting and surreal parts of the movie was this interview with these two children who look so terrified that they can’t even answer a question without getting approval from the principal. Saudi Arabia is such a schizophrenic society…
It’s almost like there’s two societies, there’s this incredibly conservative front. But behind the front, there’s complete Westernization. There’s malls everywhere and people love music, movies. I met guys there who’ve seen Super Size Me and they’ve seen the Muslim episode of 30 Days. You can do pretty much anything you want behind closed doors.
Were you able to ask anyone in Saudi Arabia, very repressive in its policies towards its citizens, yet one of the biggest allies of the United States… are the Muslims and Arabs that you talked to aware of this hypocritical and fascinating relationship?
Oh, yeah. A lot of people that we spoke to said it’s a complete contradiction. They said, “Listen, we want things to change, but we can’t change it overnight.” But how long does it take is the question. They don’t know.
One of my favorite quotes from the movie, because it’s such an ethnic uncle quote, is when you ask an Afghan guy, “What do you think of Bush?” and he goes, “Fuck him…”
And we say, “We’re looking for Osama bin Laden.” And he says, “Who is that?” “That’s the guy who blew up the buildings in America.” And then he goes, “Fuck him and fuck America.”
That is a microcosm, it seems, of the overwhelming sense of dislike or apathy for both.
Especially in Afghanistan where you have a country filled with so many people who had so much hope in 2001 when the United States came there, who were incredibly oppressed by the Taliban. Here came these liberators who came into the country, took Kabul very fast, got rid of the Taliban immediately, and suddenly these people had their lives back. Girls could go to school again. It changed the face of that society. They were like, “We’re going to have electricity and roads and schools.” And now here we are, six or seven years later, and people are like, “We still don’t have those things.” A guy who works in one of the guest lodges there says so little of the aid money hits the ground. Who knows what happens to it.
In the Middle East and third world countries, they say 9/11 was a tragedy, but that tragedy happens on a daily basis for us – Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. They say, “Why are you so bent out of shape when you have one terrorist act when we have so many?” Did 9/11 endear the world community toward us or did they feel we deserved it?
There was an incredible interview we did – there were so many, we had 900 hours of footage for an hour and a half movie – in Saudi Arabia, I met a guy at a gas station. He says, “Come back to my farm.” We sat on the back of his truck and talked in the middle of the desert. He said, “When 9/11 happened, our eyes filled up with tears, we wept for America. Now we weep for America for different reasons.” Countless people we spoke to said we squandered our goodwill.
I don’t know if you did this deliberately, but I think you did. You have these Muslims in the Middle East talking against US foreign policy and US exploitation sitting in Starbucks.
Isn’t that great? It speaks to this Western influence that has gone everywhere. There’s a street where the kids cruise up and down in Riyadh. At one end where they turn around, there’s a Chilli’s and at the other end, it’s a McDonalds. And they’re listening to hip hop. It’s amazing. There’s an underground culture in Saudi Arabia of music, parties, and premarital sex… everything.
If Americans knew most of this world digs our culture, our music, our celebrities, that they speak English, would it make a difference?
It would help. Who knew the common denominator to bringing peace to the world would be professional wrestling?
The movie ends on a hopeful, optimistic note. And you come back, making it back in time for the birth of your son. Is it going to get worse before it gets better? This world you’re bringing your kid in?
I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful. I think what you see in the movie is that there is a vast, silent majority you don’t get to hear from. The more we hear from those people, the more what is happening now can happen the other way, where a small amount of people can make so much noise that it silences [the extremists]. If you turn the tables, you can start to keep those people in check.
“Where in the World is Osama bin Laden” opens in select US theaters April 18 and May 9 in the United Kingdom.
Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.