Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- In the wake of Sept. 11, we still are seeking to comprehend the minds of our enemies. Slogans about an axis of evil are less enlightening than deeper investigations of the roots of fanaticism in the Middle East.

"Recycle," one of the documentaries in the world competition at Sundance, makes a valiant attempt to add to our understanding. While the film might not have much potential in American theaters, it will find a receptive home at other festivals.

Filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad grew up in Zarqa, the second-largest city in Jordan. The city also was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, Abu Musa al Zarqawi, who was killed in 2005 by American troops in Iraq. Massad returned to Jordan to try to gain insight into what might have motivated a man like al Zarqawi to turn into a terrorist.

Massad interviews relatives and acquaintances of al Zarqawi, who discuss his undistinguished background and his radical transformation. But the main focus of the film is a junk dealer named Abu Anmar, who ekes out a living recycling cardboard boxes and trash. While detailing the daily struggles of this ordinary man, Massad means to tell us something about the poverty and discontent that play a part in the radicalization of the disaffected everywhere.

As a piece of portraiture, however, the film is not fully satisfying. It's possible that some members of Anmar's family refused to cooperate with the filmmaker. Msasad refers to Anmar's fractured relationship with his father, but we never learn the reasons for the rift. We do get the impression that Anmar's hectoring relationship with his own sons mirrors his own upbringing, but the film doesn't probe deeply enough into the family dynamic.

Similarly, we learn late in the film that Anmar has been married twice, and his children are from a first marriage. But this domestic history is left too sketchy, perhaps because of Arab prohibitions of allowing women to appear on camera. (His current wife appears briefly in one scene in a medical clinic, in full burka.)

Yet it's fascinating to see scenes of daily life in a part of the world rarely exposed to American audiences. Massad shot the film himself and gives us a vivid sense of life in Zarqa. It also is intriguing to eavesdrop on conversations in which the Jordanians give their impressions of our leaders as well as their own.

There are many telling details in the film, even if it ultimately raises more questions than it can possibly answer.

Isee Film
Director-screenwriter-producer: Mahmoud al Massad
Executive producers: Paul Augusteijn, Alexander Goekjian
Director of photography: Mahmoud al Massad
Co-producers: Irit Neidhardt, Omar Massad, Sabine Groenewegen
Editors: Ali Hammad, Sammy Chekhes
Running time -- 78 minutes
No MPAA rating