Skip to main content

How Hamas Recruits Martyrs.

Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg, at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies Department where they have been visiting professors since 1993. They also lived six years in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip where they studied and researched the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. In their forth coming book, they look at the psychology of the young men in the Hamas movement, by interviewing one of them who survived an attempt at a suicide bombing (to be published by Oxford University Press)


Other segments from the episode on September 16, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 16, 1997: Interview with Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg; Interview with John Powers.


Date: SEPTEMBER 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091601np.217
Head: Hamas
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Two suicide bombing missions in Jerusalem this summer -- one in a market; the other in a pedestrian mall -- killed 18 people and dealt a blow to the peace process. An offshoot of Hamas called "Martyrs for Freeing Prisoners" claimed responsibility for both attacks.

My two guests have studied how Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, recruits young men to become martyrs for the cause. Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg and are visiting scholars at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies. They've spent six years in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. They've collected the Hamas songs, slogans, underground videos, and martyr cards which inspire young men to join suicide squadrons and look forward to death.

Oliver and Steinberg are writing a book to be published by Oxford University Press. It focuses on an action in which three bombers were supposed to blow up an Israeli bus, but the mission failed. Oliver and Steinberg were able to interview the surviving bomber.

I asked Oliver to profile the type of young men recruited for suicide missions.

ANN MARIE OLIVER, PROFESSOR, CENTER FOR MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, there are a number of characteristics they share. Usually, they're youngish -- in their 20s, sometimes in their early 30s, sometimes younger; generally unmarried, and I think this is an important factor to emphasize -- their unmarried and childless state.

Generally, in Palestinian society, there's an uncomfortably prolonged adolescence, and there are usually many males in the family, and each one must be married, and there's a very high dowry that must be paid to the potential wife.

They generally exist on the margins of Palestinian society. The major focus of our book is a young man named Hamsa Abusuror (ph) who -- I suppose we chose him because of his ambivalence. In the Last Will and Testament which he records before he goes out to kill himself, as well as other people, he appears -- he's smiling. He is ecstatic about his upcoming death.

And when you look into the history of Abusuror, you see that he was a highly ambivalent boy. He actually trained as a hairdresser in Israel and worked in Israel, and was probably a collaborator for the Israeli military authority in the West Bank before he converted to Hamas.

GROSS: Paul, what was the mission that Hamsa Abusuror was assigned?

PAUL STEINBERG, PROFESSOR, CENTER FOR MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, ostensibly Hamsa and two of his companions were to take over an Israeli bus in downtown Jerusalem and demand the release of a number of high-profile Hamas prisoners, including the head of the movement Jake Ahadmacin, who has been in prison for a number of years in Israel.

The action, though, was destined in a sense to fail, if you want to call it that. They knew the demands would be rejected and they were carrying, each of them, bags of high explosives and they were prepared to blow up the bus when their demands were not met.

In that sense, it differed from some of the later suicide bombings in which there was no demands made at all, and in fact no one on the bus realized there was anything happening until the bus exploded. This change perhaps came about because Hamsa's and his companion's mission was a failure of sorts because they didn't, indeed, blow up their bombs.

GROSS: Would you describe a little bit of what you know of how the mission took place; how it was staged; what they did to get on the bus and not be noticed?

STEINBERG: The mission was elaborate in its staging. Just as in the latest suicide bombings in downtown Jerusalem, a number of the assailants were dressed as women. So, too, were the three young men. All -- each had their individual disguise.

Hamsa Abusuror, the young man who is featured so prominently in the video we're studying, was dressed as a Israeli soldier -- not just as a Israeli soldier. He was -- said he was going to be dressed as a Russian soldier returning from leave, carrying his bag of possessions.

The young man who actually survived the attack and who we later interviewed was dressed as a businessman carrying a brief case loaded with explosives, of course. And the third young man who sat in the back of the bus was dressed as a student, wearing blue jeans; had his hair cut in a special fashion so he would look like a young Israeli college student.

They all boarded the bus at different stops. They didn't speak to each other. They sat at different points of the bus. At the moment -- the predetermined moment -- Hamsa Abusuror stood up intending to take control of the bus; raised his gun in the air. He shot the gun and he said: "this is a kidnapping."

All of a sudden, all hell broke loose on the bus. Israelis had been the victim of numerous suicide bombings before, and in some terrible way, everybody's primed for this moment. Their worst fears are realized. But instead of reacting passively, the people in the bus tried to wrestle these three young men to the ground and to save themselves.

In the confusion, shots were fired. The surviving suicide bomber was felled with a bullet that passed clean through his head. Nobody expected him to live past that moment, of course, which he did. The other two young men, for some reason which is unclear since they were later killed, left the bus. Instead of -- they could've blown the bus up. They didn't. They left the bus. They tried to escape. They kidnapped a woman on the street. They forced her into her car. They drove off.

They were later shot and killed at an Israeli roadblock on the road back to the West Bank; tragically, with the woman they had kidnappeed.

The final denouement of the action is shrouded in -- in, all sorts of unknowns exactly what took place.

GROSS: And they weren't treated as cowards by Hamas -- for the two who fled instead of blowing up the bus?

STEINBERG: When we interviewed the survivor, we were accompanied by a Gazan who could help us, you now, get access. He was very suspicious. He kept peppering this young man who survived with question: "well, why didn't your explode the bus? Why didn't you explode the bus?."

He obviously did not believe the story that the man tried and the explosives failed et cetera, et cetera. In fact, in an odd and sort of eerie moment, the young man's father, who was sitting in the same room, came to the defense of his son and said: "he tried. He tried. He tried. He tried to kill himself. He tried to kill everybody on the bus."

Officially, the action is treated as a success. Officially, most people on the bus were killed. The statement that was released said that the people -- everybody on the bus was killed. In fact, they were not.

GROSS: Did everyone survive, except for the bombers?

STEINBERG: One woman died. The driver, I believe, was seriously injured. It was -- and of course, the woman who they kidnapped died too.

GROSS: You interviewed the survivor of the three. Was he repentant or really glad that he had participated in this? Had he changed politically and, let me say that he was saved by an Israeli doctor after he was shot, and he was shot accidentally by one of his own comrades.

STEINBERG: Probably. What actually transpired on the bus is hard to say.

GROSS: I see; too much chaos to know.

STEINBERG: We think he was shot by his own companion. But yeah, he was ironically saved by an Israeli doctor. He was taken to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, a very well known hospital. And when he came to from his wound, he told us he had lost his -- the ability to speak. The only words that came out of his mouth were "Allaho Achbar, Allaho Achbar" (ph) -- "God is great, God is great."

He was finally put back together, to a degree, although he was seriously wounded and will be seriously crippled for the rest of his life. But he's not repentant in the least. He, in some ways, truly lives out the script of the suicide bomber. He is forever a living martyr. He's, as we said, he's crippled. He has terrible speech impediments. He can't walk. He can't move at all very well.

So he lies in his bed surrounded by his friends and family, and he is revered. He's revered as not only a warrior, but as a living saint. But at the same time, he gets to enjoy some of the fruits of his victory, which is, one would think, denied to most of his companions. He's married. His wife is pregnant. He's going to have children. He's looking forward to that.

GROSS: Was he ever arrested by the Israeli defense forces? I mean, he was treated by an Israeli doctor, and that's how he survived. How come he's free?

OLIVER: He was released from prison, and the reasons are unbeknownst to us.

STEINBERG: He was expected to die, perhaps...

OLIVER: Perhaps.

STEINBERG: ... perhaps he was released because they didn't want another martyr -- somebody who died in prison. The reasons are unclear. A lot of people on the Israeli side express chagrin that he was released.

GROSS: My guests are Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg, and they're both visiting scholars at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University. They're the author of a forthcoming book on the suicide bombers of Hamas.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg, visiting scholars at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, and co-authors of a forthcoming book on the suicide bombers of Hamas, scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press.

I'd like to talk with you about how martyrdom becomes such a kind of exalted experience for these young men. And in your writing, you make it seem like part of the attraction is that they're made into heroes before they even die. And part of the way that they're made into heroes is through videos that they make of themselves posing with their guns; posing with their bombs and grenades. Would you describe one of the videos that you've seen, perhaps from this group of suicide bombers?

OLIVER: Well, the video which we're focusing on, which is the last words of Hamsa Abusuror and his comrades who constitute Force Three of the battalions of Visidine al Kasan (ph). Starts out with Hamsa Abusuror being interviewed by his trainer, and he's ecstatically happy and he talks about meeting the Prophet Mohammed and his companions; and also friends of his who were martyred before him.

The videotape is structured in terms of interviewing all three of the martyrs-to-be. There's also an interview with the trainer, Abu Aziz (ph), in which he tells his trainees and the spectator of the video that there are all kinds of ways to die. You can fall off a donkey and die. You can fall off the roof of your house and die. You can die in a hospital bed and so forth.

But truly, there's a huge difference between one death and another, and that there is only -- then he quotes the martyr Abdul Azam (ph) -- there's only -- truly, there's only one death, so let it be on the path of God. Then what follows in this videotape is a display of weapons. And it's a fairly typical structuring of these videotapes.

GROSS: And who's supposed to see it? What's the purpose?

OLIVER: The purpose is for the tape to be, number one, a recruitment device for young men who would like to follow in the footsteps of Abusuror and his comrades; and second, a general advertisement for Hamas.

STEINBERG: During the whole of Intifada, there was tremendous inter-factional rivalry between Hamas/Infatah (ph); between the different groups within the PLO, over who were the true agents of the Intifada; who were the ones who were -- who are really fighting Israel.

And early on, there was this competition through media; there was competition through graffiti; there was competition through posters. And there was finally competition through these videotapes.

In a sense, Hamas probably won the competition, in that they were the most adept at producing innovative, interesting media. We noticed it very early on in our work that Hamas sort of set the standard, and the other groups would try to play catch up.

Hamas developed this whole, very ritualized cycle of media. So it's important to realize that the video was only one aspect of this whole cycle of meaning which surrounded the person of the martyr.

GROSS: What else is there?

STEINBERG: Well, typically speaking, when he was a fugitive before he had actually done his suicide operation, there were photos taken of him. There was -- these videotapes recorded of him. These were then stored, and after his successful, in quotation marks, "operation," the photos would be distributed throughout the West Bank. The video would be released. Often poems and songs were composed in his honor, which were sung and distributed widely throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps a sub-unit within one of the Hamas bands would be named after him. Giant posters would be constructed of him and put all over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. His family would be given places of honor at giant celebrations. And he, the young man who was ready to set out on the suicide operation, had seen many, perhaps dozens, of these celebrations of these videos before. He knew he was going to get his great moment of fame. This is one of the key motivating factors for the recruitment of the young boys.

GROSS: So, it's almost the equivalent of being like a home-made Hollywood star if you're willing to give your life for it. You become a star after your death.

OLIVER: Yeah, I mean the great name is -- acquiring a great name is definitely a motivating factor in -- for suicide bombers; the suicide bombers of Hamas.

GROSS: The martyrs are aiming for what is described as "death on the path of God." They're told that they'll go to paradise and their victims will go to hell. What image of paradise are they given by Hamas?

OLIVER: The most attractive aspect of paradise is the fact that there are perpetually virginal maidens awaiting the martyr there, usually said to number 70. There are rivers of milk and honey; trees would provide shade. They're very literal renditions of paradise. And what's remarkable about the testimonies of the young men who we study is the very literal rendering of paradise.

In fact, Abusuror and his comrades supposedly spent their last night together discussing these perpetually virginal maidens: who would get how many. You know, they would share them amongst themselves in such and such fashion and so on.

GROSS: My understanding from your writing is that the suicide bombers are told that in paradise, beautiful young virgins await them. But while they're alive and being trained for martyrdom, they're not allowed to have sex and they're not allowed to be employed either.

I don't know what the connection is between the two of them, but those are two things they're prohibited from.

OLIVER: I think ecstasy in any culture is a precious commodity, and one of the primary means by which authorities attempt to bolster themselves in their power is by controlling and channeling ecstasy. And we see that very clearly in the media of Hamas. I mean, what's prohibited is as important as what's, you know, talked about as the thing to do; what's prescribed.

And what's prohibited is pleasure, whether it be in the form of picnics or sexuality or music and dancing, or what have you. This -- all of this pleasure is deferred until paradise.

STEINBERG: What's interesting is that during this period when the young men are known to the authorities and -- but before their actual death -- they are called "living martyrs." They, in a sense, are already dead. They have their foot in paradise already. And during this time, as we talked about a little earlier, they feel this tremendous sense of excitement and exaltation. Every moment seems to them magical.

It's all very, very adolescent. None of the discourse is carried out at a very sophisticated level. It's all the kind of rhetoric that appeals both to the would-be suiciders and also to their -- the most important audience, which is the other young men watching the tapes.

And in fact, the people who make the tapes know the power of the tapes they're making, and almost every tape, without exception -- and we've seen dozens of them -- there's a moment where the suicider talks straight out to his audience and he says: "just because we're doing this, doesn't mean you should rush out -- you the viewer should rush out and follow in our footsteps precipitously. These kind of actions need to be done properly."

Because they realize -- they realize how very -- how very compelling the image they're presenting is to these other young adolescent, post-adolescent young men living in desperate situations; how very compelling that this image is.

GROSS: You said that the Hamas suicide bombers have to rehearse and choreograph their own death. How do they do that?

OLIVER: Well, one of our major arguments is that the media -- the underground media of Hamas function in just this respect, as a means by which these youth could rehearse their deaths and prepare for it. In fact, begin to think of themselves as dead objects. And once you begin to think of yourself as a dead object, then the -- you know, the route to your actual death is quite short.

STEINBERG: What's interesting, and something we didn't expect at first, was that many of the young men who are enlisted and trained for these actions are not taken from the population that we at first expected. We thought we would find very motivated, very religious, very fanatical types. But by and large, they really weren't.

They were, as Ann Marie said, very marginalized young men. And the whole process bore a striking similarity to the cults that we see in our own country, where they take these people from the margins of society -- generally speaking, from very poor families -- and they're brought into this movement where they're given love and acceptance. They're elevated very rapidly to positions of respect and near-sainthood within their own society.

GROSS: You compare the Hamas suicide bombers with people who join cults. When you join Hamas, are you given a new name, a new identity -- something to kind of separate you from the people who love you and don't want you to die?

OLIVER: Yes, almost all of the young men take on nom de guerres. Such as Hamsa Abusuror's nom de guerre was "Father of the Martyr." You take on a new name. You take on a new identity.

STEINBERG: It's also important, though, just to -- just to jump in here. When you speak of "Hamas," we're speaking very loosely here. The young men we're studying and the book we're writing is about the suicide squadrons of Hamas. And Hamas is actually a large movement, which is basically the main opposition political party in Palestine. It embraces many different strands, a lot of them not connected with suicide bombing whatsoever.

So when you join Hamas, you don't necessarily take a nom de guerre. You don't necessarily become a suicide bomber. The theology and the political ideology which is brought forth to justify the killing is not normative in any sense of the word. It's very specialized for -- not just for Hamas, but even for, in particular, for the suicide squadrons of Hamas.

And it postulates a very dualistic, manichean, kind of world system where there are the forces of unbelief who are at war with the forces of belief. And those who are within the camp of the forces of unbelief -- by birth, by avocation -- are legitimate targets, just by their very existence.

In fact, it's interesting that many of these suicide actions, or many of the most spectacular actions, were not accompanied by any demands at all. There's no demands made upon their enemy. It's not meant to affect policy change as much as it is meant to be a spectacular action witnessing the struggle of the sons of light, if you like, against the sons of darkness.

GROSS: Paul Steinberg and Ann Marie Oliver are visiting scholars at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They're writing a book on the suicide squadrons of Hamas, to be published by Oxford University Press. They'll be back with us in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more on the suicide bombers of Hamas. My guests, Paul Steinberg and Ann Marie Oliver, are visiting scholars at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They're writing a book on the suicide squadrons of Hamas and the underground media that Hamas uses to recruit young men and create martyrs for the cause.

Oliver and Steinberg spent six years in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

How are the suicide bombings justified by Islam? By the people who train the bombers? Is the Koran brought in to justify this? Is Islam brought in to...

STEINBERG: Of course it is. Just as with the Jewish terrorists, they would bring in scripture; and Christian terrorists would also bring in scripture. Scripture is wonderful in the sense that it can be used for many, many purposes.

But it -- there is nothing within Islam, of course, per se which justifies these actions.

GROSS: Who decides when a young martyr in training is ready to actually go out and do the job?

STEINBERG: Typically, there's one person, maybe two people, who are responsible for the young men. These are the people with a little more authority within Hamas; generally, very different types, by the way, than the young martyrs-to-be.

Where the young martyrs-to-be or the suicide bombers as we mentioned as drawn from the outside society; they tend to be sort of lost types. The trainers are more the natural leaders; those who are always respected within their community; those who look forward to a life beyond Intifada perhaps.

GROSS: A lot of your study is based not just on the interview you did with the surviving suicide bomber, but also with underground literature and videos that you've collected. How did you get access to that?

OLIVER: Well, we lived in Gaza for six months at the beginning of Intifada. And while there, started noticing the graffiti on the walls, which were these incredibly cryptograms to us at the time. The walls were like palimpsets, you know, messages would come up one day and then they'd be gone the next.

So we began to record these messages and actually collect any kind of street media we could get ahold of. As the Intifada evolved, of course, the media became more sophisticated and we collected everything that came off the street, and now have a collection of -- large collection of underground media, including photographs of graffiti, audio cassettes, videotapes, martyr cards, clocks in which you place a photo of your beloved dead who's now a martyr, and the whole thing's set -- you simply put in the photograph of your family member and then you have a martyr plaque that you can hang in your home.

We collected everything that we could, and oftentimes had to smuggle them out of Gaza, either under the IDF or under the PA.

STEINBERG: Yeah both -- to both the Israelis and to the PLO, the Hamas is an enemy. Hamas is an opposition movement, if you want to call it that. It's a profoundly subversive movement. In some ways, it was more difficult collecting under the Palestinians than it was under the Israelis.

GROSS: You lived in Gaza for about six months. How much popular support do the suicide bombings have there?

OLIVER: Well, it depends on the moment when you ask the question; what's going on in the political arena at that time. I mean, the hard-core of Hamas is very small actually. Even the membership as a whole is probably estimated at about 15 percent. But yes, there is popular sympathy on the street for Hamas and for its suicide bombers in particular, as realizers of these old heroic scripts which we talked about before.

It's difficult to say, you know, to give a percentage to that support, but it's definitely there. There's a great deal of pride taken in these guys.

STEINBERG: And as one would guess, the more desperate the situation becomes, the more these actions are seen as justifiable. It's not uncommon at all to talk to people who say: "we abhor these actions. We abhor the taking of innocent life. But" -- and then the "but" encompasses everything. The "but" encompasses the misery of their daily existence; the "but" encompasses the -- the oppression they feel both under the Israelis and now under the PLO; the "but" encompasses the hopelessness they see.

GROSS: Let me ask you about the impact of studying -- how the suicide bombers prepare to do their work. Do you now feel like you really comprehend how and why somebody would do this? Or are you more mystified than you were when you started.

OLIVER: Yeah, I think both. Yes, you understand more and the more you understand, the less you understand. I think the conditions under which both Palestinians and Israelis live is absolutely intolerable. The level of anxiety and fear is so great that people find it very difficult to simply live. There's this constant primal anxiety in the air.

And that's before I talked about sacrifice and martyrdom as pre-emptive strikes, and I think that's what they are. One scholar has actually called it "deferential self-injury." There's the threat of death constantly in the air; great anxiety about one's well-being, one's security.

And suicide bombers are the most spectacular rendering of this fact of getting it over with, and trying to attain some kind of mastery over the inevitable.

STEINBERG: Suicide is also contagious. Suicide, especially among the young, breeds other suicide. And without wanting to sound too alarmist, it's -- it should be kept in mind that the contagion will not necessarily be limited to the Palestinians alone. The conditions exist within certain sectors of Israeli society, too, for other kinds of actions.

Probably not -- probably not exactly the same, but there already have been a number of attacks which were suicide attacks. One can think of Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, who entered the mosque there and opened fire knowing that when his bullets ran out, he would die.

One thinks of the assassin Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzak Rabin in broad view of crowds of people, knowing that he, too, chances are would not survive the bullets of Rabin's bodyguards. He did, of course, survive.

This kind of hysteria is hard -- it's hard to limit.

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us about your study of the suicide bombers of Hamas. Thank you.

STEINBERG: Thank you.

OLIVER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg are visiting scholars at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They're writing a book on the suicide squadrons of Hamas to be published by Oxford University Press.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ann Marie Oliver; Paul Steinberg
High: Ann Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg, at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies Department where they have been visiting professors since 1993. They also lived six years in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip where they studied and researched the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. In their forth coming book, they look at the psychology of the young men in the Hamas movement, by interviewing one of them who survived an attempt at a suicide bombing.
Spec: Middle East; Terrorism; Israel; Palestinian Authority; Hamas
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Hamas
Date: SEPTEMBER 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091602np.217
Head: Toronto Film Festival
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:47

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our film critic John Powers just got back from the Toronto Film Festival, where he got to see many of the films that will be opening this season. We asked him to preview what's in store for us this fall, but first let's find out where Toronto fits in on the film festival circuit.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Well, I think at the moment, the Toronto Film Festival is considered to be the great North American film festival. It got started, I believe, in the late '70s or early '80s -- you know, back when Canada seemed to have a lot of money.

And unlike the United States, the Canadian government has always put a lot of money into cultural things. So in the early days, it was called initially the "Festival of Festivals." And what they would try to do was basically glean the best thing from all the other festivals and show it at one -- in basically, in one city.

So whereas the New York Film Festival will show 25 films, the Toronto Film Festival this year will show 300. And basically, everything that was going to be in the New York film festival will be there, but there also will be 275 other films.

So people come from all over the world, because this may be one of the great places to see the films that have sort of been pre-selected.

GROSS: So, did you see a lot of the films that we'll be seeing in the fall season?

POWERS: Yeah, well they actually this year were showing quite a few, and I think one of the strange things that's happened -- that happened this year in Toronto was that normally when you go to a festival, there are all the kind of arty films which you don't normally get to see, and often they're better than the big commercial films.

This year at Toronto, I think almost everyone's favorite films tended to be the films that are coming out this fall. So "L.A. Confidential," which is being much-hyped these days; a film called "Boogie Nights;" the Anthony Hopkins adventure thrilled "The Edge;" and various other films were all playing at the festival. And pretty much as a rule, those are the films that critics and audiences liked best.

GROSS: Well, we talk about L.A. Confidential later this week. Tell me more about Boogie Nights which you describe as a porno epic. It's a movie about the porn industry?

POWERS: It's -- yes, Boogie Nights is a film about the San Fernando Valley porn industry in the late '70s and early 1980s. And it's basically the story of a young guy who -- whose mother and whose family have told him that he'll never amount to anything. But the one thing that he has going for him are the qualities that make someone a male porn star.

And he gets hooked up in the late '70s with an idealistic porno producer played by Burt Reynolds, in the best that Burt Reynolds has been in years and years and years. And this idealistic porn producer dreams of making a porn film so good that people will stay in the theater all the way through. OK, and he's kind of a utopian porn person.

This guy hooks up, and basically what you get is something like a "Goodfellas" of pornography; where you actually watch a guy's arc, moving into the business, it developing, and then it falling apart. In another way, it's kind of like the Robert Altman film "Short Cuts" because it actually interweaves a whole series of stories.

So it actually -- in some sense, it's a film of epic scope about all these people who are involved in the pornography business in the kind of idealistic days of the '70s. And then when things got nastier and nastier in the '80s, when drugs started hitting more, the bottom fell out of the business, because you could no longer shoot on film because it was much cheaper to shoot on video. And all of a sudden, the whole thing got cheesier and nastier.

It was made by a young guy by the name of Paul Thomas Anderson (ph), who earlier this year had a film called "Hard Eight." (ph). But this is a film that I think will do for him what "Pulp Fiction" did for Quentin Tarantino. I think once this film comes out, he will be one of the young filmmakers -- maybe the young filmmaker -- that all the young filmmakers who are, let's say, 16 to 22 want to be. I mean, it's that kind of film.

GROSS: Hard Eight was terrific.

POWERS: Well, Hard Eight is terrific, and if you take the talent that was there and simply expand it out and realize that he was telling something in a small story very well. He's now telling a huge story. And it doesn't always work. It must be said that he's so ambitious in this film that there's probably too much stuff in it. There are too many story lines; too many twists; too much excitement.

Yet when you're watching it, you can tell you're in the presence of this major talent.

GROSS: Do you know when it's opening here?

POWERS: It's opening in the middle of October, and it's a movie that I think people will argue about. Some people really can't stand it. Most people seem to like it quite a lot.

GROSS: What else did you find really good and surprising at the festival?

POWERS: Well actually, there -- the film that -- David Mamet wrote a script for an adventure story called The Edge which I liked quite a lot. I mean, Anthony Hopkins plays a multibillionaire reader who gets involved in a plane crash in Alaska, along with Alec Baldwin who he thinks is maybe trying to kill him in order to steal his wife and his money.

And basically it's about civilized guys in the Alaskan wilderness having to do battle against the elements in order to survive. And you know, what's interesting about it is this is really a classic intellectual sort of fantasy, because the Anthony Hopkins character is able to survive because he's read all these books that teach you how to survive in the wilderness.

And I remember like when I was, you know, growing up a fat, you know, 12 or 13-year-old, nothing would have appealed to me more in the world than the idea of having read all these books which would make me more of a man than someone like Alec Baldwin.

GROSS: And Mamet knows about braving the elements 'cause he lives in Vermont part of the year.

POWERS: Yes, exactly. There have been times -- he's been in weather so bad the wind has ripped the beret from his head. He really does know about the roughness of the elements. And you can actually tell this is a -- this is clearly Mamet's boy's own -- sort of "Boy's Life" version of himself in the Anthony Hopkins character.

And what's actually nice about it is that Anthony Hopkins is often a wonderful actor, but sometimes -- but I think he's never more wonderful than when he's doing good, pop-culture stuff.

GROSS: Oh, as opposed to the big roles like...

POWERS: Yes, yes -- somehow him -- I don't -- Anthony Hopkins is less fun as Pablo Picasso...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

POWERS: ... than he is as a multibillionaire who has to seem smarter than everybody else in the movie. Because one of the things Hopkins is really good at is underplaying in a very powerful way; that, you know, he's a guy whose power always seems hidden. And in a film like this, you don't -- he doesn't have -- I mean, Alec Baldwin is all braggadocio and Hopkins is able to just sort of look at him. But there's so much pressure behind the eyes when Hopkins is acting well that you realize that he's actually tougher.

GROSS: So, when is this Mamet movie opening?

POWERS: It, too, is opening in early October. It's actually a real treat to be able to say that there are all these good movies coming out.

GROSS: What were the big disappointments at the Toronto Film Festival?

POWERS: Well, I think, you know, perhaps -- maybe the big disappointment was the year -- the film "Seven Years in Tibet" with Brad Pitt which, you know, was at the very end of the festival and people were really revved up to see it. And you know, Brad was going to come, and you know, that, you know, since stars are what people love, you know, and Brad is one of the big stars. You know, he's "Brad" -- he's not Brad Pitt.

And so people were really revved up. Then people saw the film, they thought: hmm. It's made by this French guy, Jean Jacques Annon (ph). He still can't direct very well. And well, Brad, you know, he's very kind of fashion-conscious, teacher of the Dalai Lama. And people began making fun of it, and they were saying: "oh, we know -- really, Brad can't quite do the Austrian accent, really, can he?"

And you know, by the end, it went from being this kind of big thing to something that kind of deflated, which is the risk of a festival. I know that one of the things that happens periodically at Toronto is that there'll be a film that no one in the world has seen, and the producers have taken the big risk of bringing it into the Toronto audience, figuring that the Toronto audience will love it, and then the distributors will see this and it will increase its market value.

There were a couple of films it happened with this year. One is a film called "The Apostle," made by Robert Duvall, which is about a preacher. And there's another one called "Mr. Jealousy" made by a young guy by the name of Noah Baumback (ph). And the risk they are taking is that the audience will love it.

Now in previous years, I've actually been there when people have brought films in, and the audience didn't love it. And you watch them go from standing on the stage introducing their film, thinking: "we're going to make millions and millions and millions of dollars;" to sort of cringing in the corner at the end, realizing they'll be lucky to have a distributor; that this may be one of the rare showings of the film in the world.

You know, so it's a very high-stakes thing to do.

And you know, this year the Robert Duvall film was acquired almost immediately after it screened for quite a lot of money. And I believe the same thing will happen with the film Mr. Jealousy. They were films that clearly played well with the Toronto audience, and people snapped up.

And it's exciting to be in a screening room, somehow, when you're there and probably 90 percent of the people who were there are just ordinary people. But the other 10 percent are all the people who have the money to decide who's going to distribute the film. And they kind of huddle with one another. You can see them huddling before the screening. You see them sort of whispering.

And then afterwards, they sort of like get in a little kind of clutches of people, once again whispering to one another. And they're passing messages to the filmmaker: "I'd like to meet so and so in my hotel room." And you know, it all seems very glamorous.

And you realize that for them, this is the sexiest part of their business; that for film distributors, the idea that you're all sitting in the same room and, to some extent, sort of wooing the same lover; and that this is your chance to win, is for them like the highlight of their lives.

You can actually -- their faces are kind of -- have that kind of shine of people who are a little bit excited, you know. And they both are louder than usual and quieter than usual. It's actually very fun to be in -- watching the process.

GROSS: I know there's a couple of Henry James movies that are opening this season. Have you seen them?

POWERS: Yes I have, actually. It's funny to realize that, you know, that we're now in the midst of the Henry James boom, following the Jane Austen boom. And these films are quite different. One is basically a "Washington Square," which has been made a lot of times, as really "The Heiress." This stars Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of the young woman with the bullying father, who falls in love with someone, and then the father doesn't want her to be involved with it.

This has always been a story that's rather easy to do dramatically. Unlike a lot of Henry James' things, it's rather straightforward and it's easy to dramatize.

Quite a few people liked that film, although I wasn't wild about it. I was actually more interested in a film -- the film version of "The Wings of the Dove," which I think for most people would be, well, you know, one of those Henry James novels they find completely unreadable.

I think actually if I can just say parenthetically: one of the funny things that you're gonna look for -- you can look forward to when the film comes out in November are a bunch of film critics who wouldn't have been caught dead reading Wings of the Dove attacking this film version of Wings of the Dove...


... as if they would ever read Henry James unless they were being paid to do it. But what's interesting about this is this is one of the most refined and almost effete of the James novels; where the action is described in such abstract language that you can sort of read it over and over again and think: "what's really going on here?"

This has been pared down until it's something like "Dangerous Liaisons;" about a pair of lovers and a young American heiress, and more or less how they're trying to manipulate her so they can stay together, but get her money.

And it's actually even got things that are very un-Henry James-like, such as an extended nude scene. And I know the James people are going to go berserk when they see the film. It will actually be worth -- I look forward to reading the op/ed piece by someone like Cynthia Ozick (ph) in the New York Times, as she's talking about the betrayal of the great artist Henry James by this film.

Nevertheless, it's a really enjoyable film.

GROSS: I know that there's some times when a new movie season seems to be dominated by movies of the past year or two -- the successful movies. Everybody tries to go out figure out what the formula is -- and make movies that fit that formula. Is there any formula that seems to be dominating this season's new movies?

POWERS: Well I think what's interesting is that I think the success of "The English Patient" has at least changed the way people now talk about certain kinds of movies. I think no one before The English Patient was made would have thought of it as being the kind of movie that was going to make a lot of money and win Oscars.

Now, the literary adaptations of the high-toned kind are now seeing it in a different light than they were before. Somehow, there's a way in which we always do tend to read the present films in light of the past films. So suddenly, Wings of the Dove is the costume -- the romantic costume drama that Miramax has this year. And so therefore, it will be treated the same way.

There's another film based on the Peter Carey (ph) novel called "Oscar and Lucinda" (ph) that's coming out this fall. It's an Australian Victorian thing that has Ralph Fiennes, therefore linking the connection to The English Patient. And it, too, is always discussed as: "will this be the Fox Searchlight winner of The English Patient Academy Award?"

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR film critic John Powers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers.

Well John, I want to hear about a movie that's opening this weekend that I know you've already seen, and that's "A Thousand Acres," which is based on a Jane Smiley novel. I have to say, I've seen the coming attractions for this, and just from seeing the coming attractions, it seems to me -- forgive me for shooting from the hip here -- but that they've taken this like closely observed Jane Smiley fiction and made it into like a scenic family saga; with, you know, all the wheat waving in the background and -- how did you like it?

POWERS: Well, you'll be actually glad to know that there isn't nearly as much waving wheat as you might fear from the trailer.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

POWERS: I think what Disney is trying to do with the trailer is to convince people they're not going to see a film that's as depressing as the film actually is. I think -- I mean, I think this is another of the literary adaptations which are very, you know, very popular these days. And a lot of people have read the books. I don't think I'd need to describe it in great detail.

It's basically a retelling of "King Lear" set on an Iowa farm. And it's basically the story of three sisters, but rather than having Cordelia be the heroic sister, there's the suggestion that the other two sisters have been badly treated by the father, so that it isn't just pure feminine evil that leads them to betray the father, but in fact that it's the father's own crimes against them that more or less causes the problems.

And Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeifer play the two sisters who are normally considered to be the evil sisters. And they're extraordinarily good in the film.

The film itself is a bit timid. I think one of the problems with a film version of something like A Thousand Acres"is that the material is so aggressive and strong that Hollywood begins backing away from it the moment that it buys the book.

Yet in the very process of making the thing into a film, it becomes a bit more of a story about two sisters' friendship, rather than the incredible friendship and profound, almost murderous, hostility between the two sisters; that anyone who's read the book will know precisely the scenes in the book that are missing in the film, 'cause basically the film in some way chickens out and wasn't very well made, to put it simply.

And yet in the middle of it, it has perhaps two of the great screen actresses of the last 20 years who are very different kinds of actresses. Pfeifer is quite -- you know, she's an old-style Hollywood star actress, yet she's good, I think.

And Jessica Lange is a real -- she's sort of the Bessie Smith of contemporary screen actresses, and she's always giving her heart. I mean, sometimes she gives it -- she gives her heart too much. I think she even thinks, probably, that at times she's -- she just throws herself into a role too completely.

In this particular case, their styles work perfectly because the intense -- the emotional style of Lange as the kind of lost sister plays very nicely off the style of Pfeifer as the colder, brittler, angrier sister.

GROSS: They seem to make a lot of sense cast as sisters.

POWERS: Yes, they actually look very much like sisters, and they have both that mixture of connection and difference, so that you actually can sense that they would -- they would know each other so intimately, they couldn't stand one another and love one another.

And that's kind of the feeling you get with them, and it's actually very nice to see because one of the strange things about movies, and it probably has been true for the last 20 or 30 years, is that it's astounding how often major actors and actresses don't appear together.

You know, it's -- it always seems like a special event when you get two people who are good in the same movie. Or -- and this may be because of movie star egos, you know, so that when you get people, they each have their rewriters trying to redo the script to make them seem better.


Yes. You know, I mean if you think of -- or even a film like "Heat," where Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, you know, were finally together on screen for the first time, I think the amount of time they were on screen in that film, which was a three-hour film, was about one minute.

You know, even in their scenes together, it was shot in a way where they weren't in the -- they weren't on the screen at the same time. There is actually one person talking in his closeup; then the other person talking in his closeup. And it's hard to know that that's the actors vanity; whether it's just cheaper to light it that way; or what it is.

But it's very rare if you actually have a scene like several of the scenes in Thousand Acres where you have these two major people side-by-side on a sofa, where they're both interacting with one another, kind of as if it were a live performance almost -- which is the way, in fact, that movies in Hollywood used to be.

You know, 40 years ago, you would put Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell together, and they would go for five minutes. The camera wouldn't move, and they'd be doing everything. If they did it wrong, you had to do it again. Whereas now that's a really rare and exciting thing to see.

GROSS: An interesting point.

Well John, I look forward to hearing your reviews of new movies as they open during the fall. Thanks a lot for giving us this preview, and happy movie-going.

POWERS: Well thanks.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for Vogue. He'll be back with us on Thursday to review the new film L.A. Confidential which opens this weekend. On Thursday, we'll also be joined by the film's director, Curtis Hansen (ph), and star Russell Crowe (ph).

The soundtrack includes some great recordings from the '50s. We'll close with one: Lee Wiley (ph) singing "Looking At You."

I'm Terry Gross.


LEE WILEY, SINGER, SINGING: Looking at you, my troubles are free
And I'm admirer the view
'Cause it's you I'm seeing
The sweet honey dew of well-being
Settles upon me

Life seems so gray
I wanted to end it
'Til that wonderful day
You started to mend it

And if you'll only stay
Then I'll spend it looking at you

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Fresh Air film critic John Powers talks with Terry about the Toronto Film Festival which he attended.
Spec: Canada; Cities; Toronto; Movie Industry; Toronto Film Festival
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Toronto Film Festival
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


He's edited Caro, le Carré and 'Catch-22,' but doesn't mind if you don't know his name

At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book editor of his time. He started out in 1955 and has been working in publishing ever since. The list of authors he's edited include Robert Caro, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton. His daughter Lizzie Gottlieb's new film, Turn Every Page, centers on her father's decades-long editing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro.


Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Living, is a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue