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May 03, 2006

Fugitives from reason

American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan, Jean-Daniel Lafond's (that is, the Governor General's husband's) documentary that has reignited the debate about his appropriateness for Rideau Hall, cannot fairly be called an anti-American film. I have to wonder if its critics have even seen it. It's a film about an American, David Belfield (aka Dawud Salahuddin, aka Hassan Abdulrahman) who fled to Iran in 1980 after murdering the Shah's former press attaché in Maryland, and about other Americans who populate the debate about US involvement (or lack thereof) with the Islamic Revolution. It's not offensive or sympathetic to terrorism. I thought it was pretty good.

For starters, Belfield is an absolutely fascinating subject. Far from wondering whether it was appropriate for Lafond to have made this film, I found myself amazed that I'd never heard the story until recently. (Ira Silverman in the New Yorker provides an excellent overview.) This is an articulate, intelligent African-American living in a bizarre sort of limbo — never quite sure what the Iranian government thinks of him or how long they'll let him keep up his comfortable yet seemingly lonely existence. He is a "former terrorist", once driven to kill by religious and racial fury and now eager to explain his actions. The world would have to be insane not to be interested.

The biggest complaints about the film seem to be that it gives credence to the "October Surprise" theory, and that Lafond is "sympathetic" to Belfield. I don't see how anyone who didn't have a pre-formed opinion about Lafond could possibly come to those conclusions from watching American Fugitive.

In a nutshell, the October Surprise theory holds that during the 1980 presidential campaign, associates of Ronald Reagan secretly offered the Iranians certain rewards, most notably arms, in exchange for holding on to the American hostages in Tehran just long enough to aid Jimmy Carter's defeat. It's believed as gospel by Belfield and author Joseph Trento, but acknowledged as an unprovable conspiracy theory by Jimmy Carter adviser Gary Sick (who believes there is much to it nonetheless).

Some people instinctively believe these theories when they hear them and some people don't, but the movie explicitly identifies it as a conspiracy theory. It does not present it as fact. On similar lines, in Maclean's, Brian Johnson asked Lafond about not challenging Belfield's contention that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were "killed by the state." Lafond responded:

With what power could I challenge them? Their experience is more solid than mine to talk about that. And I'm a filmmaker, someone who treats discourse in an artistic manner and puts it up for debate. It's not up to me to answer the question. I'm not an investigative journalist. I don't want to be a journalist. I'm someone who gives voice to what's being said and challenges it. I'm a spectator working with the same moral offered by Spinoza in the quote at the start of the film: "Neither laugh nor cry, but understand."

That sounds altogether masturbatory, but it's an accurate description of the film. Lafond paints a picture of the world in which these people live. It would have been completely out of place for him to mention that two Congressional investigations found no merit in the October Surprise theory, and it would have been ludicrous for him to point out that government obviously didn't murder Malcolm X or King. If you made a documentary about Ernst Zundel you wouldn't constantly interject with "Uh, but Herr Zundel, the Holocaust did actually happen."

The film doesn't give credence to these theories — it simply presents their proponents and asks the audience to judge them. It says here that all fail miserably in that regard except Sick, whose world-weary countenance belies the tenuousness of what he believes. I didn't detect much sympathy from Lafond at all. His presence in the film is far too understated for that. He's also on record in that Maclean's article saying he's unsympathetic to Belfield, but of course he'd say that, the weasel. This is Canada, damn it, and at all times we must think of the embarrassment factor. Says John Geiger:

It's like U.S. First Lady Laura Bush making a film suggesting that Pierre Trudeau was involved with Fidel Castro and the Chicago mob in the assassination of JFK.

Sure it is. Ali Akbar Tabatabai, the press attaché, is just like Kennedy.

The fact is, Belfield does not come off well in this movie. Near the end of the film, he says that he's willing to stand trial in the US if Carter, George H.W. Bush and any number of other high-ranking officials are also called to testify as to the roles they played in his actions. But he won't even tell us what he thinks those actions were. And then he's off on a jag about state terrorism, how George W. Bush has killed more people than he ever did, and how maybe Bush will one day be "hunted" like he is.

That line drew an appreciative round of applause from maybe a third of the Hot Docs crowd last Saturday night, and I suspect it's really idiots like those that get people upset at films like American Fugitive. For rational viewers, all the wind comes out of Belfield's sails at the point he starts rationalizing what he did against what Bush is doing a quarter century later. This is "The Truth About Hassan" — that he's a pathetic, attention-starved murderer living in a state of Islamic arrested development. It's not Lafond's fault if university students watch his film and conclude that the real villain is Bush despite him not having a damn thing to do with it. University students can come to that conclusion from staring long enough at a ham sandwich.

For much of the film, Belfield comes across as having accepted the madness of his actions. His attempt to explain his shift in consciousness from that of a normal, educated African American to that a murderous radical is amazing in its frankness, and in that he doesn't ask for pity. The assassinations of King and Malcolm X, he says, made him suddenly see what he had considered "dangerous elements" as victims. He blames the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam for using vulnerable, angry young men for their own purposes. It's riveting stuff, and enormously relevant.

We need to learn from people like Belfield if we're ever going to understand what turns unremarkable middle class men and women into terrorists. But with his store-bought anti-Bush silliness laid bare, in the end that's all he really is — potentially useful. Given his painfully obvious desire for attention and the fact that he has totally wasted his life thus far, you'd think he might want to come home. He claims to have been offered a term of just six years in prison. If he flew to Washington tomorrow he could be out and ready to blend in at U of T by his 62nd birthday.

Posted by Chris Selley at May 3, 2006 11:16 PM

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Thanks for the review, Chris. It sounds like an interesting film - it also sounds much more thoughtful than some (Steve Janke, I'm looking at you) would have us understand. I wasn't planning on seeing it, although now I might...

Posted by: DCardno at May 4, 2006 01:56 PM

I missed it, though I did catch Darkon, Fatherland, and Let's Talk About It.

You know, I believe strongly in the possibility of the October Surprise theory. Not because I think Reagan and Bush are evil, but because that's certainly what I would do in their shoes.

Just being honest.

Posted by: Jason at May 4, 2006 05:48 PM

Thanks for the first blog comment that I've read from someone who's actually seen the movie.

Posted by: Cameron at May 5, 2006 08:25 AM

I owe Steve Janke an apology. I might have been looking at him, but I was thinking of "ChuckerCanuck" when I referred to disparaging reviews of the Lafond film.

Posted by: DCardno at May 5, 2006 12:23 PM

Congratulations to Chris on getting the post into the National Post. Interesting how "U of T" (at the end) became "most universities."

Posted by: Adrian at May 6, 2006 09:59 AM


I'm sure you've seen the thoughtful portraits Lafond has painted in the past. So, you can understand why we might recoil at the notion that he's up to his usual "I'm just an artist with no axe to grind" schtick.

Or, are we looking at this film completely oblivious to his filmography? Fair enough. But, you don't ask me to watch a Woody Allen film with Bananas, Husbands & Wives and Mighty Aphordite in my head.

Posted by: chuckercanuck at May 11, 2006 02:08 PM

Chuck - as I understood it, you reviewed the film before you had seen it. If that's not the case, then I misunderstood your comments, and I apologize for that.

Posted by: DCardno at May 12, 2006 07:11 PM


No need to apologize. I need to apologize. I re-read my post and it does seem to suggest I had seen the movie or could attest to its portrayal of the protagonist. Of course, this is not true.

So, I take the stares and glares, because I deserve them!

Posted by: chuckercanuck at May 13, 2006 02:05 PM