Desperately seeking Osama: Morgan Spurlock on his hunt for the world's most wanted man
He risked his health to expose the evils of fast food in 'Super Size Me'. But the subject of Morgan Spurlock's new documentary could have killed him far more efficiently. So what on earth possessed the film-maker to go in search of the world's most wanted man?
Sunday 04 May 2008
For the past seven years, the world has been trying to catch Osama bin Laden. Trying and failing. So I'm not quite sure what made me think one lonely guy like me could manage it. Perhaps it was watching too many big-budget action movies where the one lonely guy always does get his man.
As I searched for him I imagined many times what it would be like to sit face to face with Bin Laden. I'd read that as a youngster in Saudi Arabia he had spent his time riding horses. They were his passion. Well, that's what I'd done as a boy in West Virginia. So perhaps I could break the ice by talking to him about horses. Before getting on to the more important questions.
I couldn't help thinking, too, that it would be a kind of Tiger Woods moment. I meet him and then I'm presented with the cheque for the $25m that is on offer to anyone who tracks him down. Dead or alive.
But, of course, I wanted him alive. So I could get down to the really important stuff. Like asking him how all this craziness that has happened in the world since 9/11 could come to an end. How do we stop it? I hoped I might get a real answer, but I also had this picture in my mind of walking up to him, with my hand outstretched, and him pulling out a sword and cutting it off.
Behind the imagining, though, there were the practicalities. Such as where exactly is he? I never met anyone who handed me an address – "You will find Bin Laden at 432 Main Street." But there were plenty of folks who directed me towards Waziristan in the Tribal Areas, which lie between Pakistan proper and Afghanistan, and which are ' administered by the Pakistan government. So my plan was to pitch up in Waziristan and see where it led me.
I also spoke to those who had previous experience of making contact with the Taliban. And it sounded tough. They had been locked in a room for days on end, strip-searched, forced to change their clothes, hooded and put in the trunk of a car, driven to another house where they repeated the process, all before they got to talk to their man. So, if that was what you had to go through before you got to meet the Taliban, how much tougher was it going to be before I could sit down with Bin Laden?
I tried to prepare myself by finding out as much as I could about him and his background. I travelled from America to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan before finally going to Pakistan. It was in Saudi Arabia that Bin Laden had been brought up, amid great wealth and privilege. I attempted to track down the family firm, but they were having none of it.
What I did find, though, were others there who admired him, and who shared his mentality. From an early age, they had been taught to be anti-Israel and anti-American because America supports Israel. That was what was still going on in the classrooms. I sat down and talked to a group of students, and that is what they said to me – before they called a halt to the interview. They just shut down.
So there is that educational aspect, a generation being corrupted in its attitudes to America, its allies and the West by education. And a generation too believing that the Saudi government has somehow sold out to the West, that it services the US fuel culture and, with the money it makes from oil, buys American weapons. It is a trade-off that many don't agree with. They are with Bin Laden in opposing the fact that the wealth is going to a few at the top.
Bin Laden is, in one sense, railing against his own background. His family were among the thousands of princes who have made a fortune from oil. You could see him as an angry trustafarian.
As well as getting a picture of the man I planned to meet, I discovered much more while on his trail. The net Bin Laden has cast has grown very wide. So there are now youngsters in Morocco buying T-shirts with his picture on in the markets. There are people in Egypt talking about his ideas and agreeing with him. Slowly I started to understand that the idea of Bin Laden is so much bigger than the man himself.
There were other insights and surprises. I encountered, for example, a lot less hostility than I had been led to believe there would be. At its simplest, ordinary people in the Middle East were more willing to talk to me, as an American, than I ever thought they were going to be.
There were, of course, some who were not. Like the female shoppers in the mall in Saudi Arabia who I tried to approach on camera. Or the Hasidic Jews in Israel who ended up attacking me when I tried to engage them in dialogue. The police had to come to the rescue
Elsewhere, though, I was given a genuine chance to open a dialogue. In some ways it was like the process I went through in 2004 when I made Super Size Me. That film was about the fast-food industry. I subjected myself to a steady diet of McDonald's for 30 days, gained 25 pounds, suffered liver dysfunction and depression and then took 14 months to return to my normal weight. Lots of critics at the time said, "So what, who doesn't know that fast food is bad for you?" Well, the success of the film seemed to suggest that there were plenty of people out there who didn't. Why? Because they don't watch the news. They were an audience that we managed to reach through an independent documentary film, released through cinemas.
I hope the same will be true of Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?. You might argue ' that there are no "new" facts in it, but that's not the point. There is plenty in there that plenty of people, in the United States and elsewhere, just aren't hearing. To get through to them, you have to try a new approach.
The subject matter is serious – arguably the most serious subject facing us today – but that doesn't mean you have to address it without humour. It needs to entertain people if they are going to turn up to watch it. And I believe it is through humour that you get to the humanity of a situation.
One of the things I see happening in America is that fewer and fewer people control what we see, read and hear about in the media, and they don't seem to have an interest in putting out challenging material. That is why these independent documentary films, such as mine and Michael Moore's [Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Bowling for Columbine] have made such an impact. They offer a medium where you can challenge audiences to look at things in a different way.
You don't need to start off being an expert. In Super Size Me, I didn't set myself up as a scientist. This time, I'm not a politician. But I do believe that if you go into something with good intentions, something good will come out of it.
Its been suggested that there is a link between the popularity of these films and the presidency of George Bush. I always say that I hope there isn't, or soon I'll be out of a job. But I believe it is about something more than audiences wanting to get behind the picture of the world out there that our president is giving us. The problems we face now are bigger than any presidency. And they're not going to go away because we elect a new president, whoever it is, later this year.
So, as it went on, my search became about something other than why we haven't found Bin Laden. When I finally got to Peshawar in the Tribal Areas, and to a sign saying "No foreigners beyond this point", I felt able to turn back. To go on would have been dangerous. But I'd always known and accepted that. What I had learnt was that it would also be pointless. It was no good risking my life for nothing. The important thing now is to tackle the spread of the Bin Laden ideology.
We in the West have to reach beyond the vocal minority who burn effigies of the US president, and hear instead the voices of the majority in the Middle East who don't hate America. They don't really care about America.
And it cuts both ways, because in America at present, the driving forces in news coverage about the outside world are conflict and controversy. That's what gets ratings; it is that cynical and commercial. By contrast, when I am in Europe, I can turn to the BBC at prime time and watch a news documentary or something that gives an in-depth view.
You never see that in the States. Despite the attention it attracted, Super Size Me [nominated for an Oscar in 2004 and a prize-winner at various film festivals] was never shown on mainstream channels. Only on cable and in cinemas.
I'd like to see this new movie encourage us to change – by pushing people around the world into a dialogue. We've got to take it out of politicians' hands. There isn't one of the current candidates for president that I want to throw my lot in with yet. We need to establish a consensus beyond political lines. I'd like to see, for example, more Americans, not less, travelling to the Middle East; more students exchanging classrooms around the world, between different cultures; and more meetings going on on the internet. We now have the technology to make that possible. We need to use it for positive ends.
On my flight back to New York at the end of filming, when I thought again about not having found Osama bin Laden, I didn't feel bad. I knew now I never had to. The place to look for Osama – or at least the spirit that created him – wasn't in some cave in Afghanistan or the mountains of Pakistan, but in the hearts and actions of peoples everywhere whose lives he's had such a huge impact on. One way or another, I'd found Osama everywhere I'd gone.
'Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?' is released in UK cinemas on 9 May. The book of the same title by Morgan Spurlock is available from Harvill Secker at £11.99 He was talking to Peter Stanford
They seek him here...
By Andrew Buncombe
For any sort of certainty about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, one has to go back quite some time. In December 2001, as US forces were breaking the Taliban's control of Afghanistan and pursuing al-Qa'ida, a group of fighters holed up in the mountains of Tora Bora, a remote location that Bin Laden had long used as a base. As B52 bombers were sent in to obliterate the cave systems, US commanders decided to block the mountain passes not with American troops, but Afghan militia.
It was a huge error. At some point in early December, Bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora towards the border with Pakistan, six hours away. An intercepted radio message, believed with "reasonable certainty" to be Bin Laden, heard him urging his men to fight to the death. Then on 8 December came the report of a group of Arab fighters and their leader stopping for supplies at the village of Tangi, next to the border. And then he was gone.
Except, of course, he was not, for he has since appeared on several video tapes and numerous audio recordings, berating the West. He even weighed in just before the 2004 US election, telling the American public that George Bush was "deceiving" them. But where was that video – and the most recent one, released in September 2007 – recorded? Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Yemen? All these and more have been listed as possibilities.
The likeliest location, according to a Washington-based intelligence analyst is the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. These are nominally controlled by the Pakistan government, but in reality are governed by tribal leaders and, increasingly, Taliban militants.
Under President Pervez Musharraf – long supported and financed by the West – Pakistan has taken some measures against the militants, and the US has occasionally struck with missiles fired from unmanned drones. But domestic political concerns, allied with questions about the effectiveness of some Pakistani troops, have limited operations. This too, might be a reflection that for all his iconic status, capturing Bin Laden may be less important to the West than the wider effort against extremism.
There are alternative theories as the shadow-chasing continues. After Bin Laden's most recent video was aired, the former White House security official Richard Clarke pointed out that his beard looked fake. He claimed it was possible Bin Laden had trimmed his own, previously grey beard, because he was now living in southeast Asia. "One place where a beard would stand out would be southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia. That is an environment where most men, Muslim men, don't have beards," he said.
What seems clear is that however vital the hunt for Bin Laden may once have been, officials now believe there are more pressing priorities. "[There is] only modest effort towards Bin Laden because it is a wild goose chase," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert in Washington. "But if we ever think we know where he is, a lot of effort will, of course, be devoted quickly to it."
Buncombe is The Independent's Asia correspondent
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