Today sees the release of a new documentary about men who want to blow themselves up. Journalist Paul Refsdal's Dugma: The Button shadows a group of fighters from the Syria-based, al Qaeda–affiliated group al-Nusra Front. These men have all added their names to the so-called martyr list and are waiting to be deployed with bomb-laden trucks in their battle against Assad's regime. Once they get to the front line, they'll press the button and hitch a ride to paradise.
Through Refsdal's camera, we get an unfettered insight into the mindset of these men as they teeter on the cusp of sweet immortality. Central among them are Abu Qaswara, a joker from Saudi Arabia with a love of fried chicken, and Abu Basir, a principled British jihadi who wants to fall in love and have a family.
Last Friday, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed announced that the group is cutting its ties with al Qaeda and changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Seemingly an attempt to legitimatize its operation in the eyes of the West, its battles continue on the ground regardless, and its ultimate aims—defeat of Assad, control of Syria—remain unchanged.
Ahead of its release, Refsdal—whose previous work includes the documentary Behind the Taliban Mask—Skyped me from his home in Norway to chat about martyrs, humanity, kidnapping, and gaining the trust of al Qaeda.
The trailer for 'Dugma: The Button'
VICE: What made you want to make this film? Were you trying to humanize the martyrs-to-be?
Paul Refsdal: The subject of the bombers wasn't even my intention when I first got there. I just wanted to make a portrait of a group of low level al-Nusra fighters. I wanted to follow them for as long as possible and get some kind of grasp of their psychology. So in a way the answer to the question is yes, but I went in with an open mind. If they were to do, say, executions in front of me, I wouldn't have had any problems showing that. I didn't want it to be Sesame Street or something.
How did you go about gaining access?
It was like any job application, really. I had released a documentary about the Taliban in 2010, called Behind the Taliban Mask. In that I presented a more humane side to the Taliban, so of course I mentioned that. I gave references, like a CV. I was also helped by the fact that when the US special forces killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011 they found a lot of letters in his compound. One of those letters was from an al Qaeda media officer and listed some recommended journalists. I was on that.
Did al-Nusra ever put you under any pressure regarding the content of the film?
Not at all. They said, "Do what you want to do." They wanted it to be objective. For instance, there's a scene in the film where the coalition bombs the area near us, and an angry man is shouting, saying they are only bombing civilian houses. But there's a man correcting him, saying, "Please tell the truth," because it was also a military base. That man was a commander from al-Nusra. They could have had the chance to make some propaganda, but they didn't want to do it. I think they just wanted to be honest.
What attracted you to your main subject, Abu Qaswara?
He was exactly the opposite of the stereotype of bomber you would expect. I thought they would be a young person [Abu Qaswara is 32] with little idea of life outside his town, and maybe narrow-minded. But he's totally different. He's from Saudi Arabia, very generous and a nice guy.
One of the most moving parts of the film is when Abu Qaswara reveals that his father will be on the phone to him when he's in the truck.
The thing you might not understand is that his father is pushing a lot. I've heard that's quite common among the Saudis. As a martyr, you reach the highest level of paradise, but you can also ask to bring 70 members of your family. Sometimes the family designate a son to save the family in the afterlife. It's not said outright in the film, but indicated… his father wanted to be on the phone at the time of explosion. He sent him a message saying, "When are you going to die?" So I think his father is pushing him. I'm not so sure he [Abu Qaswara] really wanted to do it.
Not to give too much away, but things don't quite go to plan. Do you think Abu Qaswara is happy the way things worked out?
I got a WhatsApp message from him yesterday. I just told him to stay safe, and he said he would be safe as long as there were chickens in the world. He loves fried chicken.
What about the British guy, Abu Basir al-Britani? Did he lose the respect of his brothers by deciding to come off the list?
Well, it was hard for Abu Basir because he'd told me his highest dream was to complete a martyrdom operation, but I don't think there was a problem because it was normal to change your mind. And it's always part of a bigger operation anyway; they send in the truck with the bomber, he blows it up on the front line, makes a hole, and the main force attacks through that hole. But they always have backup in case the first bomber changes his mind. There are a lot of people on the list, so I don't think there's any stigma for him.
How would you compare your experience with al-Nusra to filming the Taliban for Behind the Taliban Mask?
Oh, it's much easier with al-Nusra—not just because of the language, but the cultural understanding. There are people there who have lived in Gulf states, with university degrees. It was very easy to communicate. In Afghanistan, most of them aren't literate. They didn't have any clue of the risk involved. They were men who may not have ever been out of their own valley—so it's quite different.
Plus, the Taliban kidnapped you while you were making that film.
It was the kind of thing that happens there. The commander wanted to re-marry, so he needed money, so he thought he could just capture this journalist. It was absurd in a way.
You were were kidnapped for a week. Where were you kept?
I was just in a family home with an old man and his sons. I could go out of the compound to the toilet at night, but the translator said if we escaped the kidnappers would punish the family. If I wrote it all as a script people wouldn't believe me. I was handed a loaded Kalashnikov because they were worried another jihadi group would take me. They didn't have enough credit on their mobile phones. In the end, I was the one who managed to call the Norwegian embassy. They tried but didn't get past the switchboard. So I called it and was speaking in Norwegian with the security officer in the embassy and was explaining where the place was, how many people there were and everything. It was like Monty Python's Flying Circus. But that's Afghanistan.
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DUGMA: THE BUTTON is available on iTunes worldwide August 2.