Obsessing over perception, the power of propaganda

“Obsession” looks at fundamentalist culture and its ties to propaganda

Michael Garberich

In the 1930s, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl directed influential propaganda documentaries commissioned by and valorizing the Nazi party. The most famous of her films, “Triumph of the Will,” received widespread acclaim in Europe as well as landmark recognition in cinema’s history, while remaining largely banned in America.

With globalization redefining concepts of borders and the Internet providing ostensibly unlimited access to information worldwide, the idea of a film confined to its homeland seems incomprehensible.

Yet Wayne Kopping’s 2005 documentary, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West,” illustrates this exact paradox between broad media diffusion and the cloistered audiences whose worldview is contingent upon the information supplied by their native networks.

Its structure is straightforward. Interviews with a former Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist, a former Hitler youth officer, professors in the field and other experts are interspersed with archival footage. The result is a compelling, pertinent thesis on radical Islam’s hostilities toward Israel, the United States and the West at large.

Its trump card, however, is its incorporation of radical Islamic news footage. Clips previously unavailable to American eyes from Al-Majd TV, Palestinian TV, Iqra TV Saudi Arabia and others are saturated with overt anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment.

In one scene, 3 1/2-year-old Basmallah responds to her off-screen interlocutor’s questions about Jews with typical childlike timidity, describing them as “apes and pigs” and professing to having learned this information from “our God (Allah).”

Another young girl on Abu Dhabi TV tells the camera she “hopes Bush dies in flames” and that she wants “to go to Ariel Sharon and kill him with a gun and stab him with a sword.”

From these testaments, deeply rooted ideological hegemonies are revealed in radical Islamic culture.

In a bold counterpoint to these pervasive hegemonies, “Obsession” makes a suggestion that resonates with the rhetoric used by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration last week: Radical Islam’s present day charge against Israel and the West mirrors that of the fascists and Nazi Germany of World War II.

To support this claim, the film’s latter half draws several parallels between the two eras, including Hitler’s youth officers and Radical Islam’s children, propaganda art from both eras and the definitions of jihad and mein kampf (essentially the same).

While the similarities are undeniable, “Obsession” struggles to overcome its greatest critic: itself.

In a film that so adamantly rails the influence of self-sequestered mass media, it ironically ignores the possibility of its own bias and its influence over a public possessing limited, mediated communication with a foreign culture.

With ever-mounting tensions in the Middle East and talks of a third world war reaching the United States, “Obsession” might warrant the attention it demands if not for its own radical disregard for mass media hegemonies.