Judge Brendan Babish has to admit, the cringe factor's pretty high in this wrenching documentary.
After 9/11 their paths crossed in Pakistan, with tragic consequences.
With untimely deaths, there is a tendency to speak of the deceased in such reverent tones that it's nearly impossible to gleam any true sense of character. I still remember hearing of Daniel Pearl's beheading in 2002—his was the first in a lengthy series of decapitations that seem to have ceased in 2004. The media portrayed Pearl as an intelligent and ambitious reporter; a devout humanist who cared deeply for reconciling the world's warring religions; and a loving family man, whose beautiful wife was five months pregnant at the time of his death. The coverage was so fulsome that I suspected much of it had to be embellished. After watching The Journalist and the Jihadi it seems impossible to overstate what a fine young man Pearl was, and how tragic was our loss on Feb. 1, 2002.
HBO's feature length documentary profiles both Pearl and his assassin, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. The first half of the film presents the upbringing and education of the two men. Both Pearl and Sheikh were raised in upper-middle class families in Western countries—Pearl in Encino, California; Sheikh in London, England. Without any hint of hyperbole, the film is able to present Pearl as an amazingly gifted young man, and Sheikh as deeply troubled.
With family photos and videos, as well as interviews with Pearl's surprisingly composed family, the filmmakers do a thorough job sketching out Pearl's idyllic youth and early accomplishments. He was such a virtuoso violin player (a sample of his performance is provided) he could have been a professional musician. However, he discovered a passion for journalism at Stanford—where he founded a newspaper that is still in circulation today. The clip that most impressed me was footage of a 23-year-old Pearl in the Soviet Union, interviewing Russian dissidents. At 23, I was subsiding off of Ramen noodles and playing video games; Pearl was alerting the world of the evils of Soviet communism.
The filmmakers were not able to compile as thorough a profile of Sheikh. However, with pictures, videos, and interviews there is enough here to shed a tiny amount of light on a diseased and hateful mind. Sheikh's parents were successful Pakistani immigrants, and he was well educated enough to attend the London School of Economics. Of particular interest is footage of a young, scrawny Sheikh arm wresting burly men twice his size—and winning. The look of intensity and determination on the young man's face does not necessary designate evil, but it is certainly arresting.
The second half of the film is a rundown of the events leading to Pearl's murder. Pearl was in Pakistan, attempting to interview the spiritual leader of Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber. Although Pearl's liaison—who is candid almost to the point of indecency—repeatedly warned him that the interview was impossible, Pearl's dogged insistence led him to take unwise risks. Pearl's family, co-workers, and government officials all recount the tense few days between his disappearance the release of the video confirming his execution. As excruciating as those days must have been for those close to Pearl, the filmmakers do an excellent job also showing the international impact of Pearl's kidnapping and death.
Ultimately, The Journalist and the Jihadi succeeds in its two main objectives: profiling Daniel Pearl and explaining the context of his death; this is achieved by presenting a wide range of interview subjects and succinctly recounting the events. As Pearl was such an exceptional person, and his death was an international event that could have toppled the Pakistani government, this is enough to make for a fine documentary. The only minor criticism I have is that there is a clear imbalance between the attention paid to Pearl and Sheikh. For example, at the end of the film, Mariane Pearl mentions that her husband's assassin had a wife and child. This is never discussed in the documentary. So while The Journalist and the Jihadi is an informative and heart-wrenching documentary, there is still much of this story left untold.
Unfortunately, the The Journalist and the Jihadi DVD has absolutely no extras. With so much reportage on the incident—and surely a surfeit of interview footage—it's unfortunate HBO couldn't include some supplemental material for people like me who are still curious about Daniel Pearl and the people and movement that slaughtered him.
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