Dir/Scr: Mahmoud al-Massad. Jordan/Netherlands/USA/Germany 2007. 80mins.
Recycle, a portrait of a disillusioned former mujahideen fighter who makes a living collecting scrap cardboard in Zarqa, his Jordanian hometown, is one of those subtle, taciturn, underplayed documentaries that forces its audience to work at teasing out meanings. It's Errol Morris, in other words, rather than Michael Moore.
Unpredictable and open-minded, Mahmoud al-Massad's film is not just a portrait of a conflicted man but a counterweight to overly polarised views of Islamic communities in the Middle East, showing the level of political debate and resistance to conformity that exists in the city that gave birth to al-Zarqawi, Osama Bin Laden's former lieutenant in Iraq.
Travelling to Sundance after its Dubai debut, the mostly HD-shot documentary is too austere and uneventful to see much theatrical action. But it will tour other festivals, and could prove of interest to specialised cable networks.
Abu Amar has the lost and slightly bitter expression of a man who has seen his belief in ideals eroded by the slings and arrows of real life. He has written a book about jihad, but was unable to find a publisher. The camera keeps his face centre frame as we follow him on his cardboard round in a battered VW pickup, He's not exactly destitute (though we learn at one point that he's behind with his rent): he arranges scrap cardboard collections on his mobile phone and leaves most of the hard labour to a couple of young men in the back who may or may not be his sons. He seems more than a little impatient with the questions of the cameraman-director in the passenger seat and at one point he even tells him to hurry up and 'bring those boxes' - airing the possibility of a connection between director and subject that is never explained (though the Dubai festival catalogue reveals that al-Massad too comes from Zarqa).
We learn that Abu Amar had fought in Afghanistan, where he worked as a bodyguard for Islamist political and military leader Rasool Sayaff. It's never made clear how close he was to al-Zaqarwi, or whether he knew him at all; he points out a couple of the terrorist's cousins by the roadside, but it's left to a loquacious, liberal friend of Abu Amar's to pour cold water on the martyr-myth, telling us that in his youth al-Zarqawi never went to the mosque and was heavily into pills and alcohol. Towards the end we see Abu Amar watching a TV news report about al-Zarqawi's death at the hands of coalition forces: he betrays no emotion. We also learn that he was arrested in connection with the 2005 Amman hotel bombings, and later released.
Abu Masr talks reluctantly about the row with his father which led to his bankruptcy. In a shop he used to own he shows us sacks full of tiny strip of paper, each containing a quote from the Koran. He lets his youngest son, Abu Bakr, sit on his knee and drive the van. He disappears off to Iraq for a couple of weeks, apparently to sell some cars. When he comes back, he's beardless: the mechanic who accompanied him tells us that they got a hotel barber to shave them when they were chased by a group of Shiites. A little later, Abu Masr goes to a camel trader to get some milk to cure his mother's bad knee.
Though much of the film is shot digitally, on the hoof, in existing light, the compositions are often painterly (at one point there's a marvellous shot of the dingy suburbs of Zarqa scrolling past in Abu Amar's glasses as he is driven to the airport). A sparing soundtrack adds delicate underscoring via jazzy bass themes and flamenco-like acoustic guitar licks.
The apparent inconsequentiality of much of the film's 'narrative' builds slowly into an intriguing portrait of a man whose disillusionment is plain, but who remains opaque. It's only well after the halfway point that we finally see one of Abu Amar's two wives, wearing a full niqab veil: she tells a doctor that she recently had a miscarriage because of stress. And the mystery is only compounded by the unexpected ending, which leaves us less sure than ever about Abu Amar's real identity and motives.
Production company/world sales
iSee Film (Neth)
+ 31 30 23 81718
Berlin World Cinema Fund
San Sebastian Motion 3