Essay: Geoff Dembicki - Embedded with Extremists

Essay: Geoff Dembicki - Embedded with Extremists

Embedded with Extremists was curated by Geoff Dembicki. Read his essay below and learn more about the screenings and events here.

The question hovering above three films about violent extremism in this year’s DOXA Festival is both timeless and urgently topical: Why do people believe things that are obviously not true? Each film provides intimate access to a dangerous fantasy. Of Fathers and Sons follows an Al-Nusra Front fighter in Syria who sees brutal violence as spiritual salvation. No Man’s Land embeds itself with armed white ranchers in Oregon who think they are a persecuted minority. And Golden Dawn Girls tracks the rise of a neo-Nazi political party in Greece that insists it has zero links to Hitler. Together the films hint at something transcendent—that even the most delusional beliefs can have real-life benefits for the people who hold them.

This includes basic survival. Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki spent two years with a jihadist family in northwest Syria by claiming to be a sympathetic photojournalist. The world that Al-Nusra fighter Abu Osama and his eight adoring sons inhabit in Of Fathers and Sons is a nightmare. “The country is completely destroyed,” Abu Osama says to Derki as they drive past blocks of bombed buildings. Meanwhile, a voice on the radio declares: “Start the beheading and prepare to die, bastards.” Abu Osama likens what’s happening in Syria to an apocalyptic standoff between good and evil. “The Muslims set off to fight the Antichrist,” he says. “And then the Mahdi appears and kills the Antichrist. He replaces all the tyranny in the world with justice.”

Abu Osama sees no contradiction between this vision of peace and the violence he inflicts on other people. “He fell off his motorbike, Allah is great!” Abu Osama yells after firing from his snipers rifle. And his children casually reference another act of violence when explaining how they killed a small bird: “We put his head down and cut it off, like how you did it, father, to that man.” Derki provides little commentary during such moments. He fully immerses viewers in the logic of Abu Osama’s world. “It’s God’s will, my son, don’t be sad,” Abu Osama groans after coming home injured from battle. It’s a necessary denial of reality, passed down from one generation to the next. His family, viewers plainly see, is living in the midst of absolute chaos.

The armed ranchers filmmaker David Byars embedded himself with also believe they’re on a holy crusade. “This is Armageddon now, [the government] might kill us,” says one of the militiamen involved in a 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Reserve. In No Man’s Land, Byars combines intimate footage of the standoff with illuminating interviews. A sheriff compares the militia to the “domestic threat” he saw as an army medic in Afghanistan and Somalia, while journalist Hal Herring suggests the occupation’s leaders are fixated on persecution that may only exist in their heads. “I could not understand given my experience in, say, Mexico or Central America, how these people could feel they were being tyrannized,” Herring says.

The protest is ostensibly about federal restrictions on ranching. But it turns into something larger. The plumbers and fast-food workers who show up with machine guns at the refuge want an explanation for setbacks in their lives. And ranchers like Levoy Finnigan are eager to provide it: the U.S. government has betrayed them. “Candidates always promise to stand up for freedom,” he claims. “What have they done? Nothing.” Byars shows how media help legitimize this fantasy. The militia stages “scripted press events to keep them in the news [and] to help try to control the agenda,” says journalist Les Kaitz. Ultimately it works. None of the occupiers receive serious criminal sentences. “We win,” exclaims one of their supporters.

A depressingly similar story unfolds in director Håvard Bustnes’ Golden Dawn Girls. The film begins in the aftermath of Greece’s 2012 election, when a neo-Nazi party named Golden Dawn won more than 400,000 votes. “One day, total outsiders, the next, 18 members of parliament,” Bustnes explains. He films three women associated with Golden Dawn (the founder’s daughter, an MP’s mother, and another MP’s wife) as they campaign for the 2015 election. Bustnes’ Scandinavian background helps his crew gain access to party headquarters. “It won’t air on Greek TV?” one man asks. “Of course not,” replies Jenny, one of the film’s subjects, “They are Norwegians.”

Bustnes is not a quiet observer. He attempts to get Jenny and the other women to admit something obvious: that a party whose members claim racial superiority and use violence against minorities is operating in a Nazi tradition. “I have nothing to say about that,” states the founder’s 26-year-old daughter Ourania. Bustnes plays video of Golden Dawn members terrorizing immigrants and assaulting women. At one point he confronts Ourania with a picture of her dad in front of a swastika. “I don’t think now, in his sixties, that he’s a Nazi,” she shrugs. Golden Dawn has given her political power. It’s given her an identity. She loses those things by admitting what she’s doing is evil. No amount of fact-checking by Bustnes will change that.

That’s the scary reality of our times. We live in an era of climate change denial, conspiracy theories, dog-whistle racism, fake news, filter bubbles, and alternative facts. “Truth” has never felt so up for debate. Vox writer David Roberts describes what’s happening as an “epistemic free-for-all” between competing political and social tribes. “Information,” he argues in an important 2017 essay, “is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.” It’s hard to say where it all leads.

But the three films provide clues to how we got here. They show that fractured societies breed violent fantasies. Delusional ideas are legitimized by an uncritical media. And not even the most fastidious fact-checking can dislodge lies crucial to someone’s identity. We’ve been here before. In 1939, 20,000 people gathered for a Nazi rally in New York. Filmmaker Marshall Curry assembled forgotten footage of the event to create A Night at The Garden, a short film showing along with No Man’s Land. “In the end, America pulled away from the cliff,” Curry recently told Field of Vision. Our society may be once more charging towards it. “We can see it already, leaders who harness the energy of our dissatisfactions,” says Herring in No Man’s Land. “And if you get enough people who’ve lost faith in reality… we all go over.”