During his two decade career as a CIA agent, Robert Baer spent much of his time in the Middle East. He was around when the Islamic Revolution swept Ayatollah Ruhollah (often spelled slightly differently on American T-shirts of the era) Khomeini into power in Iran in 1979, and had a front-row seat for many of the changes that occurred in its aftermath. Today, Baer no longer works for the CIA, but he is still a man with a mission, to tell the world about the threat represented by suicide bombers, both in the Middle East and abroad.
Baer roundly rejects the stereotypical image of the suicide bomber as a desperate loner or a madman, but sees them instead as part of an orchestrated campaign (or, rather, multiple campaigns) whose actions make more sense when you consider the bombers as indoctrinated members of a growing cult, which is probably why the documentary is called "The Cult of the Suicide Bomber." The cult's origins, according to Baer, begin with Khomeini who employed some of Islam's greatest traditions and myths, as well as the promise of eternal salvation, to encourage martyrdom among the populace.
As you would expect, younger Iranians were most susceptible to this kind of rhetoric, and it's no surprise that Iran's first modern "martyr" was a 13 year old boy named Hossein Fahmideh who, in 1980, killed himself while blowing up a tank during the Iran-Iraq war. He is still a revered figure today. The suicide bomber did not become an effective weapon, however, until the cult was exported abroad, most notably in Lebanon where suicide bombers launched multiple successful attacks, including the bombing of the American embassy in 1983 (where Baer was stationed at the time). After events in Lebanon, the use of suicide bombers quickly spread throughout the region, and several countries have achieved Khomeini's vision of turning martyrdom into a state religion.
The most intense scene in the film comes when Baer visits the family of a suicide bomber who killed several Israelis. Though he maintains the pretense of being an objective reporter, he can barely contain his contempt as he listens to the family members beaming with pride over their beloved martyr's wonderful accomplishment. The documentary cannot fully explain such an apparently divergent view of morality to Western audiences (this movie originally aired as a program on Channel 4 in Britain), but the film does offer at least one interesting insight. The family does not even acknowledge the words "suicide" or "suicide bomber" – it's as if the term doesn't even register in their consciousness. He was a martyr, a soldier who died defending his people. This also explains how some Muslims can reconcile the practice of suicide bombing with Islam's prohibition against suicide – just don't call it suicide. Sound like some twisted reasoning? Bob Dylan said it best: "You never ask questions when God's on your side."
Baer sounds the alarm early and often, so often it becomes downright tedious. This is a cult! It can't be stopped by a wall! This is a cult! And it's going global! Did I mention that this was a cult?!!! I kept waiting for Chuck Heston to show up: "You've gotta tell them! Soylent green is people! We've gotta stop them somehow!" Baer repeatedly sums up the most recently-viewed scene in overwrought terms ("It's people!!!"), giving this poorly-organized documentary more false endings than "Return of the King." However, "Cult of the Suicide Bomber" is worthwhile for the detailed background information it provides, as well as the way it puts actual names and faces to some of the suicide bombers. It is easy to think of suicide bombing in the abstract, especially if you have never witnessed or been directly affected by one, but this documentary renders the growing threat in a concrete fashion that makes it simpler to conceptualize.
The documentary is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The picture quality is clear, and the transfer has no obvious blemishes. The documentary uses a lot of stock video footage which is obviously of much lower quality.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The dialogue is clearly recorded, but the lack of subtitles is a nuisance in a few parts.
None. Not even an insert. This is strictly a barebones release from The Disinformation Company. There isn't even a time code on the DVD, which is a major pet peeve for me.
Robert Baer has attracted some publicity lately because his two books helped inspire the film "Syriana" (2005), and the character George Clooney played in the film is (very) loosely based on Baer. He leverages this popularity, as well as the many Middle Eastern contacts he established during his CIA tenure, into an informative and provocative documentary. "Cult of the Suicide Bomber" is not the most polished or entertaining documentary on the block, but it offers enough fresh information to be worth at least a marginal recommendation.