Three movies that helped me understand terrorism

Brazil, The Green Prince and Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

If movies are empathy machines, can they help us understand the incomprehensible reality of intentional violence against the innocent masses? Veteran film critic Katherine Monk says maybe, and offers a list of titles that helped her gain a better understanding of the big picture.

By Katherine Monk

A drunk man reels backward in a burka as the random thump of a bass drum ricochets through the basement walls, sweating from the heat of writhing humanity. “This one is called Sharia Law in the USA!,” screams the shirtless, bearded man on the mike. “I am an Islamist! I am the Anti-Christ!!”

It’s a scene from the 2009 Omar Majeed documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a film that didn’t make much of an impression the first time I watched it, but something pulled me back to the movie about young, thoroughly westernized Muslim men who found a sense of tribal belonging in a form of vocal and violent rebellion.

In this case, it was more like slam Islam: a fusion of spoken word and Muslim punk music; revolt against the status quo using bass and guitar, not guns and bombs.

There’s a huge difference, obviously, in tactic and ideology — but the film portrayed a mindset, a throbbing need for masculine community and a sense of tribal pride that suddenly feels more relevant than ever in the wake of the Paris attacks, and the revelation the attackers were raised in the West.

Every newscast in the world is popping the same blank round of questions into the air: Why would kids who grew up with access to a Big Mac want to kill innocent human beings? Which Muslims are good and which are bad? What can we do to stop the bloodshed?

After watching Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, those questions are a lot easier to answer because it explores young nihilistic urges on the part of disenfranchised youth. But that’s not the only movie that’s been replaying in my memory since the Eiffel tower went tout Tricolor, because as we struggle to understand each others’ seemingly incomprehensible actions, movies offer endless angles on the human condition. And so, from the twin-dimpled seat of a film critic still processing the tragic events in Paris, I share the lessons of three movies that helped me understand terrorism:





In 2006, an Irish Catholic convert to Islam named Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a novel called The Taqwacores, a completely fictional tale about a bunch of Muslim kids in Buffalo who formed a punk band and headed out on the road. The book resonated for a whole generation of young people weaned on western culture and steeped in Islamic tradition, causing Knight to become a human hub – connecting real kids in different parts of the world. The fiction eventually became a reality and the band hit the road in a big green bus, touring through the U.S. and parts of the Arab world. This documentary chronicles the whole assembly of players, as well as the tour itself – from dingy basement punk parties across North America to a rooftop blowout in Pakistan that made the mullahs very mad.


“Why do you hate me? Why do you hate me?”


All the men in this movie were immersed in western societies, the lead character being a white kid who grew up Catholic and converted to Islam. Most of the men also have a love-hate relationship with religion and are on a quest to release some inner burden. “I have guilt… I’m not sure where it comes from,” says one character with a chronic pot problem. “I think it’s the guilt of having high-achieving immigrant parents.” Without exception, they all feel misunderstood and pushed to the fringe. The only place they feel pride and brotherhood is with each other, and they are willing to take risks in order to express their commitment to their shared cause. In this case, a state of punk rock anarchy.


  • Many young men need to feel a sense of tribal belonging, even if it means surrendering individual will.
  • Some young men express rage with violent gestures aimed at overthrowing “the power” — whatever that may be.
  • Western reportage can often make delicate situations worse by trying to polarize any given story to make it sexier.
  • It’s not about us as people. It’s about the whole system.



BRAZIL (1985)


Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece is a loose take on George Orwell’s 1984, told with a feel for German Expressionism and Russian masters, coupled with Monty Python’s brand of absurdist humour. Jonathan Pryce plays the low man, Lowry, a desk jockey at the bureau of information who daydreams of being a conquering hero. Behind this internal drama lies a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where survivors are stacked in malfunctioning habitats with too many ducts. Bombs go off on a regular basis, instilling fear and paranoia in our central character, and contaminating the entire film with a looming sense of doom.


“What is believed to be behind the terrorist attacks?” asks the newscaster on a television sitting in a blown out store window in the opening scene. “Bad sportsmanship,” answers the minister of information. “A ruthless minority of people have forgotten old-fashioned virtues and can’t stand seeing the other guy win. If they could just play the game, they would get more out of life.”

WHAT IT HELPED ME UNDERSTAND: What does fear to do a society?

The story speaks to universal themes of individual responsibility, and how one’s very feelings may violate the state’s demand for obedience, but more than anything, Brazil creates a completely realized picture of what daily terrorism looks like – and the ambient paranoia it instills.


  • Fear makes everyone seem threatening.
  • The state may exploit terrorism to override human rights.
  • Bureaucrats cover their ass.




OUTLINE: This documentary from Israeli filmmaker Nadav Schirman focuses on the unlikely friendship between Palestinian youth Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, and Israeli Shin Bet agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Thrown into the same room after Mosab was arrested for smuggling guns, the two men start the film as bitter enemies stewing in mutual distrust, but over the course of several years of shared secrets, they begin to see each other in a completely different light — eventually risking their lives for each other, regardless of what their commanders tell them to do.

“Every given second, he needed to lie to somebody. He wasn’t living his life. He was living to process lies,” says Ben Yitzhak “The Shin Bet expected me to handle the situation and go on [using him as an informant regardless of the increasing danger] though as a person you know you have to let him go.”

WHAT IT HELPED ME UNDERSTAND: The calcified layers of Middle East history that assign everyone a side at birth, making real progress and honest negotiation next to impossible.

Mosab and Gonen were taught to loathe each other on principle. Born into a booby-trapped world, they never got the chance to see each other as human beings until they were forced into the same room, and into a shared life of deceit. Both of them did what the world expected them to do as dictated by geography and ideological heritage, but  Schirman’s film proves it is possible to overcome learned hate with enough will to see through culturally cultivated distrust.


  • Our current world order is still defined by ancient tensions, and if there’s any hope for world peace, it has to start with a fresh chapter in the bloody annals of Israeli-Palestinian relations.


THE EX-PRESS, November 24, 2015


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