Monday, December 14, 2020

The Last Sermon: Life After the Mike’s Place Bombing

This is a relatively rare documentary sequel, sort of. Back in 2003, Jack Baxter was filming a doc about the Tel Aviv blues club Mike's Place, when he was seriously injured by a suicide bombing attack. If any filmmaker is entitled to take Islamist terrorism personally, it would be him. Instead, he set off on an extended mission to understand the radicalization process. The result is a very personal investigation that is frequently complicated by his own emotions that Baxter documents with his previous production partner, Joshua Faudem, in The Last Sermon, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Mike’s Place was an oasis of good music and good cheer that was ripped apart by two British-born Hamas terrorists on April 30, 2003, while Baxter was filming in the club. He was seriously injured in the attack, so local crew-member Faudem finished the film that ultimately became
Blues by the Beach. Baxter still carries a cane and pieces of organic shrapnel as a result of the bombing. He also lost good friends, so he could not simply walk away, emotionally or intellectually.

With Faudem on-board as his producer and Sancho Panza-sounding board, Baxter visits various refugee shelters and mosques throughout Europe seeking to understand the root causes of fundamentalist radicalization. Their ultimate goal was to score interviews of the British family members of the Mike’s Place terrorists, who were criminally prosecuted for not revealing their terrorist plans.

However, Baxter is not a very probing interviewer, because he is so prone to be led by his emotions. Initially, he largely accepts the answers he gets from imams, social workers, and refugee musicians at face-value. That gives the film a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde effect when he and Faudem arrive in Manchester in the days following the 2019 Arena bombing. Suddenly, the same Baxter who broke bread and jammed with displaced musicians gets spitting mad at anyone unwilling to take the war directly to Daesh (ISIS).

Yet, as the film progresses, it maybe inadvertently illustrates how complicated and often disappointing the world is when you approach it with Baxter’s appealing humanist embrace. Some people will reach back, but others will take advantage of openness to commit atrocities. Baxter is a charismatic guy with a fascinating backstory of his own, but he could have used a foil to ask tough questions like: “do countries have a right to control their own borders?” and “why is Islam so predisposed to this kind of radicalization?” Some of Baxter’s old friends from Mike’s Place, who express skepticism regarding the project, could have filled that role effectively.

Indeed, every Muslim authority interviewed by Baxter agrees Islamist terrorism contradicts the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad’s
Last Sermon (for which the film is titled), so why do so many fanatics get it wrong? Indeed, isn’t that really the root question Baxter is trying to get at?

Blues By the Beach
is a great doc because it shows the human suffering caused by terrorism and the suddenness with which it strikes in Israel. Last Sermon is a messy coda. It was made by good people with the best of intentions, but it is painfully clear the results are not what they hoped. De-radicalization is a worthy goal, but it runs deeper than addressing mere economic frustrations.

Still, just by bringing music (which is prohibited by Daesh and the Taliban) to refugee centers, Baxter and Faudem might help forestall the process in some cases. Regardless, their second documentary collaboration has many compelling moments, but the takeaway is a decidedly mixed message. Blues By the Beach is highly recommended for all viewers, whereas The Last Sermon is mostly recommended for those who want to follow their continuing story, when it releases tomorrow (11/15) on VOD.