'The Three Hikers': Film Review

AFI Docs
A sympathetic but not always involving doc

Natalie Avital's documentary explores the intimate side of a geopolitical incident.

The detention of three American civilians captured on the Iraq-Iran border in 2009 was a terrible trial for their loved ones, became a two-year-plus international incident and may have had a big impact on the current Iran nuclear talks. Making her directing debut, actress Natalie Avital does an uneven job of translating a global waiting game into feature-doc narrative in The Three Hikers, a film whose strong empathy for its subjects is never in doubt. Prospects are best on television, ideally while the issue of Iran-U.S. diplomacy is so much in the news.

Working almost exclusively from interviews with the three captives — Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal — and their families, Avital makes the curious decision not to show the three as they tell of their innocent hiking trip in Kurdistan and of the years of imprisonment (solitary, in Shourd's case) that followed. It's not as if viewers don't know that all three were eventually released; seeing their faces as they tell the tale would take some burden off Avital's reenactments, which sometimes try a bit too hard to convey the psychological pressure of captivity.

While we always feel for those at home who tirelessly kept the trio's imprisonment an issue (as with other similar docs, some viewers will pause to reflect on the countless others who sit in prisons all over the world whose loved ones have no way of helping), we get only a thin sense of what's going on behind the scenes. A closing title card acknowledges media reports that, for almost a year of this ordeal, American and Iranian diplomats engaged in secret face-to-face talks about freeing the prisoners. It's to be expected that anyone involved in such meetings would turn down an interview request given the far weightier negotiations still underway. But Three Hikers would be a much more involving film with that side of things somehow represented.

Production company: Daughter Courage Films

Director-Screenwriter: Natalie Avital

Producers: Natalie Avital, Denise Bohdan, Bobby Field, Christian Johnston, Sara McCabe, Jeremy W. Ward

Executive producers: Jon Callaghan, Skip Klintworth, Stephen Nemeth, Glen Zipper

Editor: Mo Stoebe

Music: Frederik Wiedmann

No rating, 95 minutes