Hollywood has mostly ignored a vast resource for storytelling ideas — the infidel-hating terrorists.
The industry doles out the occasional film on the subject, like World Trade Center and United 93, but these movies often tread lightly on the terrorists themselves and their thirst for American blood.
Some independent films, like Paradise Now, go so far as to explore the motivations behind suicide bombers.
So it’s rare to see a filmmaker mock the people so eager to cry “Jihad!” at the mere mention of President George W. Bush, the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay.
Kalifornistan, from the co-founder of the Liberty Film Festival, dares to see the average terrorist for what he truly is — a laughably warped soul with a world view shaped by Islamic radicalism — and too many extremist blogs.
And once you meet the terrorist at the heart of the film you’ll wonder why more filmmakers haven’t taken this approach before.
Writer/director Jason Apuzzo’s film follows a terrorist, voiced by Isfahan Jones, hiding in plain sight around Los Angeles Harbor. He intends to bomb California to send a message to Chimpie — one of many insults he calls former President Bush.
The unnamed terrorist, head of the Glorious Jihad of Kalifornistan cell, seethes with rage over Bush’s War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay and, to only a slightly lesser extent, the way the Texan smirks when he talks.
The unfolding plot is captured by hidden cameras, video diaries and surveillance footage tied together into a series of related segments. It’s a different approach than single-cam features like The Blair Witch Project, but the cumulative effect is a bit dizzying even if it sets the film apart from its peers.
This wannabe terrorist isn’t a pawn of Osama bin Laden or his acolytes. He’s disillusioned with bin Laden’s tactics, and Al Queda wants nothing to do with him, either. But his verbal rampages occasionally seem a good fit for MSNBC’s primetime lineup. Suffice to say everything under the sun is Bush’s fault.
The terrorist narrates his video diaries which make up the bulk of Kalifornistan, and for some reason his voice plays at a slightly higher than normal speed. The effect is singularly comic and never wears thin. It helps that we don’t get a good look at the terrorist’s face, which further heightens the comic mood.
The terrorist fears Republicans, “who taser their privates and torture with impunity” and want to convert others into drones who smell of cheap aftershave and wear cufflinks.
“Cufflinks!” he cries. “Never!”
And he doubts the radical Islamic handbook regarding terrorism’s great reward, saying he prefers more experienced sexual partners.
“Seventy-two virgins sounds like a huge headache, if you ask me," he says.
Funny stuff, and as long as Kalifornistan focuses on the crazed terrorist the film clicks as strong, effective satire.
But the would-be killer gets distracted by a lovely American dancer, played by the film’s executive producer, Govindini Murty. The subplot itself is smartly conceived. The media narrative tells us suicide bomber types are driven by poverty and a hatred of western decadence, even though we’ve learned many a terrorist finds aid and comfort at the local strip club.
Apuzzo can’t draw the necessary tension from the terrorist stalking Murty’s character, nor does he build suspense later in the film when we shift from the terrorist’s point of view to that of the dancer and her beau.
Another subplot involving a bounty hunter also fails to complement the main narrative.
We do take in some sharply imagined black and white cinematography, and the unconventional camera angles employed throughout the film keep us on edge. Stephen Greaves’ impressive soundtrack is an added bonus, especially for such a modestly budgeted enterprise.
Last year’s well intentioned flop An American Carol also aimed squarely at a conservative’s funny bone, but the ramblings of this self-proclaimed terrorist prove more humorous — and more insightful.
Like the better screen villains, it’s hard not to attach yourself to this buffoont. He’s a hoot, for starters, and he seems rather pathetic for much of the movie. And his personality shifts, from full-on rage to bemusement over the lack of good “smokes” in Los Angeles, makes him a surprisingly complex persona.
The film ends with what seems like a conventional flourish on the surface. But clearly Apuzzo is making a statement, that even the craziest terrorist, someone who seems incapable of setting so much as a shoe bomb ablaze, is not to be trifled with.
You can order Kalifornistan here.