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Madcap Adventures and Serious Cultural Discussions: Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

by Jessica Mosby

Revealing the ending of a film is downright mean, but it’s obvious that Oscar-nominated director Morgan Spurlock does not find Osama Bin Laden in his latest documentary film Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?. Spurlock’s claim to fame is having exclusively eaten McDonald’s for 30 days in his hit 2004 documentary Super Size Me, so I didn’t initially want to run to the theater when I heard he had made a documentary featuring him trekking around the Middle East on a fruitless search for Osama Bin Laden – despite the clever promotional milk carton with Bin Laden’s missing person photo on it that I received at the Sundance Film Festival. (Quite frankly, at that moment I was more interested in the chocolate inside the milk carton.)

But after seeing the documentary, I have to admit that I enjoyed it, simplistic though it may be. The appeal of the film, which is an inevitable hit now that it’s screening at theaters everywhere, is Spurlock’s style: he’s more of a goofy explorer on a madcap adventure than an award-winning foreign correspondent. Within the first few minutes, the film has a musical number with Osama Bin Laden and his followers dancing to MC Hammer’s early 1990’s hit “U Can’t Touch This.”

Supposedly Spurlock ‘conceives’ the premise for the 93 minute film after learning that his wife is pregnant with their first child. His paternal desire to make the world a safer place zooms right past child-proofing his apartment to tracking down Bin Laden, and in about a minute he is talking about stopping the recent increase in terrorist attacks that could harm his unborn child. The premise of child safety on such an outrageously large scale is ridiculous, but then Spurlock’s entire approach to hunting down a terrorist is ridiculous – and that’s the point.

Spurlock starts his search in Egypt where he walks down the street asking random people, “Do you know where Osama Bin Laden is?” Of course no one has the answer. Once he gets over his Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? shtick (a 1990’s television show whose name the film’s title plays on), Spurlock starts seriously interviewing any Egyptian who will give him the time of day. When asked for their opinions on the United States, many state the unfortunately popular international opinion, “Love the American people; hate the American government.”

His next stop is Morocco, where Spurlock encounters similar sentiments while interviewing people at an outdoor market where Jihad t-shirts are being sold. Morocco has seen a recent increase in suicide bombings and many of the interviewees express their disagreement with these violent terror tactics. Spurlock tries to find out, at least on a superficial level, why young men become suicide bombers. In general, they are recruited from poverty-stricken shanty towns and lured to the fundamentalist Jihad movement by promises of money for their families and an afterlife spent in paradise; as one Moroccan journalist tells Spurlock, “Terrorism nourishes itself from darkness.”

Fortunately much of Spurlock’s traveling is focused on interviewing every day people and understanding the cultural landscape, not on yelling “Osama, are you in there?” into caves all around the Middle East – although he definitely does do that a few times. Since Al Qaeda claims that much of their violence is on behalf of Palestine, Spurlock then travels to Israel and Palestine to gauge the local opinions. While interviewing Palestinians in front of a “Stars and Bucks” coffee shop in the West Bank, people express what is quickly becoming the film’s consensus: no one likes Osama Bin Laden or his violent tactics. One Palestinian even says he disdains the world’s most wanted terrorist “because he likes the blood.”

These comments on America’s damaged reputation and anti-terrorism sentiments in the Middle East are nothing new, but Spurlock is at his best asking regular people (whose American counterparts are his target audience) their opinions on topics usually reserved for pundits and politicians. It seems slightly staged, or at least purposefully edited, that nearly everyone he approaches is friendly and willing to openly discuss their opinions – save for the residents of an Israeli Orthodox neighborhood where people throw water balloons on the crew, yelling “Get Out!”

Spurlock’s desire to express the overall goodness of people through specifically chosen footage does not detract from the film’s strength: he very effectively communicates the point that we need more discussions by regular people in order to truly understand other cultures and points of view. Many viewers, who may be prejudiced against or least ignorant about Islam, will be surprised by the sentiments of the Muslims interviewed – they sound just like Americans. Critics will claim that this is not a revelation; still, that consciences on both sides of the issue share the same opinion of terror bears repeating. That is too frequently forgotten.

By the time he arrives in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Spurlock starts to question the point of his search; he realizes that ending international terrorism is about more than just finding Osama Bin Laden. Spurlock’s search, and in turn America’s determination to find Bin Laden in some remote cave, is misguided because capturing one person won’t stop the already embedded ideology from promoting more violence.

After traveling for months and being repeatedly told that no one knows where Osama Bin Laden is, Spurlock arrives in Afghanistan and suddenly everyone knows where this famous fugitive is – Pakistan. If he is alive, Osama Bin Laden is most likely in Pakistan, being supported by the Taliban. So after visiting Tora Bora and searching the caves where Bin Laden was last seen, Spurlock travels to Pakistan. While no admits to knowing his whereabouts, there are some Pakistanis who express their support for him; one man even tells Spurlock that the world’s most wanted terrorist “is a diamond.”

Near the end of Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock muses that we “need to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in.” Spurlock and many of the people he interviewed across the Middle East want a world that is a safe place to raise their children. This conclusion, extremely simplistic as a thought, is sadly complicated to execute.

Critics claim that many of the film’s assertions, particularly Spurlock’s anti-war and pro-tolerance message, are not ground-breaking – and that’s totally true. Spurlock is not making a somber documentary film about terrorism; it’s not really fair to hold Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? to the standards of solemn political documentaries. It’s obvious that Spurlock wanted to approach a much-discussed topic in an approachable and amusing way, making it accessible to a wider variety of people than those who voraciously consume the news.

Spurlock’s search for the world’s most wanted terrorist may not make a brilliant documentary film, but at least it’s engaging and original. At its worst, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is simplistic and repetitive; at its best you’ll laugh out loud and be genuinely entertained.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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