Dugma- The Button is essential viewing. Director Paul Refsdal’s award winning new doc immediately enthrals by offering an insight into the daily lives of Al-Qaeda and Taliban members. It examines their faith, humanity and the enormity of their decision to wage jihad and achieve martyrdom through suicide bombing. While it in no way endorses the actions of the 2 soldiers at the heart of this film, it successfully and without judgment gives them a voice.
Refsdal previously directed Taliban Behind the Masks behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. Having spent time in various conflict zones over the last 30 years, it’s unsurprising that Refsdal has gained this level of access to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Dugma begins this tour on “the other side” with 32 year old Abu Qaswara, who talks us through the mechanics of his explosive filled truck, the button or ‘dugma‘ that ignites the bomb, and the purpose of a successful martyrdom operation. Abu is a family man and a man of the community. His love for his young son and daughter are powerfully evident in video footage he watches of them playing from home while he awaits his turn on the ‘martyr list’. He is good humoured, sentimental and has a beautiful singing voice. Mostly though, Abu is a man of faith in Allah, and in death the certainty of his arrival at the highest level of paradise. Affirmation from Abu that ‘Everything will be erased, with Allah’s permission I will send them all to hell’ are less terrifying, and somehow easier to empathise with. This is a deeply entrenched, specific, unshakable belief at the core of this flesh and blood man with faults, doubts and anxieties.
On the front-lines of the conflict, amid a backdrop of US air raids, 26-year-old white British convert from London, Abu Basir al Britani, engages in some intimate conversations about Islam and the current situation. You get a partial sense of Abu’s past and the events that may have led him down this road. He describes Britain as ‘a miserable place to live. Always raining… and the people!’ We’re constantly reminded of the very real danger for Abu and his 2 Syrian companions as sniper bullets continually strike their base. They all appear both unfazed and desensitised by the possibility of sudden death.
This is indeed a difficult topic from every possible angle. Refsdal isn’t interested in offering any answers nor any commentary on the situation as it is, merely the men on the other side of the conflict depicted as they are in reality. 2 heart-wrenching confessionals from Abu Basir provide the films 2 greatest moments. In the first he attempts to answer the question of how his new wife will feel about the news of his impending sacrifice. His face betrays his words, and he is nothing but regret. Shortly after, he has a complete u-turn of opinion about being on the martyr-list. Clinging to life for the sake of his wife and theoretical future children, he claims the importance of being ‘a shepherd to his family’, but this is solely about fear of his own death.
Death is the theme. Both Abu’s have celebratory attitudes about their own deaths and the certainty of what awaits them after. They aim to cause the death of as many faceless ‘unbelievers’ as possible with the certainty of the paradise and forgiveness that awaits them. By the end of the film they cling to life, and the real truth of the immediate now and hopeful future, their love, their children and their community.
Dugma is an unbiased and compassionate work that should be seen by everybody.