Reviews Short Documentary

The Search (2019) – 1 star

Director: Christopher Meerdo

Running time:  19mins

The 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by the US military raised a range of questions as to an extra-judicial assassination, beyond the jurisdiction of the US state, the veracity of the account given by the US of the operation, and the subsequent disposal of the corpse.

Because of their clandestine nature, the circumstances around the killing of the world’s most wanted man continue to capture many people’s imaginations. For any readers interested in the case, in 2015, Seymour Hersh, an early figure of what I suppose we will have to call pre-post truth investigative journalism, published an exhaustive account of the episode. Unfortunately, this kind of depth is not something which troubles The Search.

The promotional material accompanying Christopher Meerdo’s short documentarystates that the film explores “the production of knowledge in the post-truth era and the space of speculative knowledge and desire to make visible the narratives (or counter-narratives) of US military efforts” concerning the demise of Mr bin Laden. I was struck by some of the language used in the blurb – references to execution to describe the killing, and to the corpse being thrown into the sea which contrasted with the US government’s account of a respectful burial at sea with appropriate Islamic funerary rites. So, your reviewer was somewhat intrigued as to how this movie was going to work.

The accompanying statement goes on to allege that some months after the killing, Meerdo “came into contact with”a diver and treasure hunter who had come up with the quixotic idea of retrieving Mr bin Laden’s cadaver from its deep-sea grave. To this end, the diver had contacted serving military personnel to try to discover the coordinates of where the US ship had supposedly been when the body had been consigned to the ocean.

Meerdo had become part of the diver’s team charged with filming the expedition and, for reasons never made clear the diver in the film or the accompanying material, had supplied Meerdo with audio tapes of the conspiratorial conversations plus, one assumes for background, footage of their home and clips of their secondary career as a cabaret singer (stylistically – think – the love child of Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump frenetically imitating Frank Sinatra). The entirety of The Search is composed of this found material.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the eponymous search never took place, the expedition was cancelled – so, in a sense, the film is the only extent reification of the diver’s fantastic desires. Strangely, we are never given the full name of the diver. However, a cursory internet search brings up any number of television interviews that they gave in the summer of 2011 including one with the BBC, by this time we were in the UK media’s silly season. His name is Bill Warren.

Meerdo opens with one of the recorded conversations with people claiming to be marines stationed on the aircraft carrier from which the corpse was laid to rest. The recordings are all solely audio – the audience hears the voices and sees a black screen with the conversation picked out in coloured sub-titles. The recordings form the great majority of the film’s running time and, presumably because of the frisson of conspiracy and illegality Meerdo presumed they would make compelling viewing – if so, it is a wrong call, it makes for very tiresome cinema.

Your reviewer is a bit of a neophyte in terms of conspiracy theorising, but the overall impression I had was that our Bill was being spun a line. Whenever he suggests a figure as to a grid or coordinate, the source readily jumps and agrees. As the conversations develop, the claims get more fantastically baroque – we hear of a “friend a Navy SEAL who was on the mission” who tied up Mr bin Laden then questioned him while, at the same time speaking to the President or to ‘Hilary.’ It is worth noting that, keen to cash in on tall tales, the SEALs who undertook the mission have famously told conflicting stories of the events from that night. As a result, even if such a claim did come from one of their friends, we should take it with a heaping helping of salt.

Bill is a little less discerning though. After chasing down an endless, meandering series of rabbit-holes, in the end, he finally has a conversation where the source references the lack of photos or video footage of the corpse. The source then offers the conclusion that the wanted man is not dead – before Bill agrees, and comments unironically, “it’s just like the Bourne Supremacy.”

The acts of ritual humiliation do not end there, though, as audio conversations are cut into with what appears to be randomly selected footage of Bill from home videos. We see Bill showing the camera around his house, interjected with scenes of Bill diving on some of his treasure hunts and of Bill doing his cabaret singer thing. The provenance of the footage is never explained. The overall effect is, and this surely must have been the director’s intention, to paint a picture of Bill as a buffoon.

The scene where Bill shows us photos of his family and of his cat made me particularly queasy. The episode reminded me of Sacha Baron Cohen’s work where Cohen blags himself into the homes of right-wing bigots, in order to expose them to the laughter of Cohen’s liberal audience. I find such a violation of hospitality repugnant, though, and I often start to build a grudging respect for the victim. In Bill’s case, my reaction was OK – he’s a lousy singer, his taste in household furnishing and bric-a-brac is not mine – but he’s a huckster who is at least having a go at life, and not accepting his fate as a ground-down proletarian.

It was a very strange sensation watching the Bill segments – it was as if I were watching someone’s home movie – then the thought occurred – I am watching someone’s home movie. The whole sequence comes across as supremely odd and decidedly awkward. I got the feeling that Meerdo had what he believed to be sensational material – audio tapes which could be used to illustrate the smoke and mirrors world of ‘post-truth’ contemporary statecraft. Yet, I suspect the director did not have the resources or the confidence to shape these into a stand-alone movie, and resorted to using the home video footage to provide local colour and to set up Bill as the useful idiot. Whatever, the result is a spectacularly ludicrous offering.

What Meerdo ultimately serves us is a concoction of bullshit and tedium, mixed into an unappetising cocktail. With The Search, I think we have a category error. Meerdo is no doubt an accomplished artist and they can talk the art talk. The film is sponsored by amongst others, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Hopper Prize, and the Jan van Eyck Académie so this is very much capitalized, bourgeois ART.

I could imagine the piece working reasonably well as part of a backdrop installation to an exhibition on ‘post-truth’ media. But as cinema for viewers beyond the world of vol-au-vents and champagne, The Search definitely does not cut it. It is a smug, non-committal piece of bear-baiting that offers its unsuspecting subjects enough rope to hang themselves, to the delight of chin-stroking elites – making it close to being the worst project I have viewed in my time with Indy Film Library.

My advice to the director for future film projects, if he wishes to reach beyond the comfortable enclaves of the exhibition world, is to think a bit more about the medium and your potential audience. It is not enough, when you have come across some original material on a newsworthy subject, to regurgitate it all up, and expect the audience to be as fascinated as you were by it. Similarly, the mistreatment of your accommodating subject, whatever bizarre belief they might hold, is rarely going to be as amusing as you find it.

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