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Yemeni director combats terrorism with propaganda

Government filmmaker Fadhel al-Olofi's 2008 hit, 'The Losing Bet,' seeks to show the follies of the terrorists' ways, articulating the battle within Islam between moderates and radicals.

December 26, 2009|By Jeffrey Fleishman

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — Al Qaeda is toast, roll the credits.

If you can't annihilate the enemy on the battlefield, take the battle to a new dimension, complete with rousing music, saluting children, waving flags and soldiers so heroic you keep looking for pedestals beneath their boots.

Good prevails in the scripts of Fadhel al-Olofi, a producer and film director for the Yemeni government, which lends him helicopters and ammo to destroy whatever bad guy haunts the imagination of a country stuck in a real-life civil war and bloodied by attacks by Islamic extremists.

Olofi creates unapologetic propaganda to comfort Yemenis craving repose and a story line that doesn't end with a funeral.

What's wrong with that?

Enter Jamal Jubran al-Thawi, brooding journalist and critic. (Wait, let's keep him stewing in the wings a bit longer.)

"The Losing Bet" is Olofi's challenge to Al Qaeda and militant networks seeking to exploit Yemen's poverty, unrest and political chaos. The 2008 hit film is a morality tale of enlightened security officials and reformed extremists bringing to heel a band of bearded men with rippling eyebrows who clasp Kalashnikovs and mutter lines such as "strike with an iron hand" and "cunning atheists."

Oh, those cunning atheists. They're tourists with cameras, the target of a suicide bomber. But on Olofi's screen, at least, this young nation's good and stoic citizens will not stand for the perversion of Islam by prophets of jihad. So he kills the hardened ones and brings those less committed back to the righteous fold, the folly of their ways laid bare by wise old men:

"Is this jihad?" asks a father of his zealous son, who appears amid gnashing string instruments. "Your thoughts are neither religion nor Islam."

Like other Arab countries, Yemen is "suffering from terrorism," said Olofi, who is busy these days producing patriotic public service announcements for television. "It's destroying our national economy and infecting our youth. . . . Art has a great message. It can be more powerful than weapons."

What unfolds on screen crudely articulates the struggle within Islam between moderates and fundamentalists. The film's mission is to turn the lens inward to show that extremism is not only a futile strike against the West, but a damaging blow to the future of Muslim societies.

Never mind that the movie doesn't examine the corruption and authoritarian governments across the Middle East that breed radicalism; the director is concerned with the more opaque question of who is truer to the Koran.

The soap-opera aura of the film angered religious conservatives, who apparently prefer shades of gray in their art. They criticize Olofi's work for stereotyping Islamists with robotic dialogue and sinister asides, and of misinterpreting and manipulating the Koran to placate Western liberalism

"The fundamentalists accused me of damaging Islam," Olofi said. "But I was silent. These people don't have minds."

Ahem. Fidget.

(The wings can no longer contain Mr. Thawi.)

"The government couldn't defeat Al Qaeda in reality, so they did it in a fantasy film," said the critic, an intense man with wiry hair who slips into the role of beleaguered intellectual. "It's dangerous propaganda and the product of the nation's security agencies. The irony is, Al Qaeda doesn't even watch movies."

(He is quite exasperated.)

"Terrorism is more complex. In Yemen, the most intense fundamentalists don't have beards. They wear suits and teach in the university. They're much scarier than the men with beards."

Yemen's problems, he says, are too deep for melodrama and slogans. A rebel Shiite sect is fighting government troops in the northern mountains, a secession movement is intensifying in the south, and Al Qaeda and other radical groups have launched numerous attacks in recent years, including two on the U.S. Embassy. Yemeni security forces, which are receiving U.S. financial support, say they have killed about 60 militants over the last week.

"The whole thing was ridiculous. The film's opening was attended by the ministers of defense and interior, but not by the minister of culture," said Thawi, whose criticism of the government has cost him his university teacher's salary and a scholarship to France. "It's been shown in classrooms, military camps and on TV."

Olofi is anything but deterred. His production company is writing new scripts, including a TV comedy series.

The other day he sat draped in a shawl chewing khat, the narcotic-like plant that gives Yemenis their ritual afternoon buzz. His editor worked at a computer finishing the latest project, a public service announcement that depicts a boy wandering out of a bombed house and into an empty, bullet-pocked school. The child is confused and in despair. Words bleed ominously out of the blackboard: "Terrorism. Insurgency. Rebellion. Hate."

The boy attacks them with an eraser and, as is common with so many heroes, writes his own story. Cue swelling music, a fluttering Yemeni flag. The youth steps back and salutes a blackboard that reads: "God. Homeland. Revolution. Unity."

The music fades. The screen goes blank. Olofi smiles. There's a half-bag of khat left and another montage to watch, this one with terrorists hiding in the mountains to ambush a company of soldiers, virtuous in their fatigues. He leans back. Action.

Who will win?

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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