A filmmaker reflects on his experience making a film re-enactment of Osama bin Laden’s death in Pakistan and how nothing ever appears as it seems.
By **Sofian Khan**
A month after Osama’s death, I boarded a plane from New York to Pakistan. The idea started quite ambitiously: I would re-create Osama’s last days with actors in Karachi, then venture northward with a small team to Abottabad, the city where Osama had been discovered. There, I planned to shoot a series of interviews with people in the neighborhood, including a young boy who had allegedly played at the compound where Osama had lived, as well as talk to the reporters who had arrived first at the scene, and at least one ex-military man—the uncle of a friend in New York—who had agreed to say some words as long as his identity was kept hidden.
The film I saw in my head would mix together the re-enactment, crafted according to the official story, and the firsthand accounts of people on the ground of what they had witnessed themselves. However, it quickly became clear that the latter part of my plan would be more difficult than I’d expected.
The first blow came within hours of landing. One of my fixers informed me that our ex-military man, the closest to a local official we had in Abottabad, was no longer returning our calls. And, perhaps worse still, the military had been going into Abottabad’s hotels and running any journalists they could find out of the city. Our ex-military man had been more than just an interviewee. He had also agreed to let us stay in his guest room, and thus avoid being outed as journalists. But I’d made films in Pakistan before and knew that you had to be adaptable, above all, to get the job done.
Amidst all the cloak and dagger surrounding the project—whether the level of secrecy was necessary or not is debatable—I had kept all the details of what we were doing from the actors. They were mostly individuals with whom I had worked before, and bless their souls, they let me get away with this vague synopsis: “A story of a father in hiding with his sons, on the run from the authorities—basically a family’s story.”
I met my Osama-to-be at a KFC in the fancy Defense area of Karachi. As he entered I saw that the last two years had brought Adnan Shah, or Tipu as most people knew him, somewhat closer in looks to the late al-Qaeda leader. With his long face, prominent nose, and gentle eyes, the only thing that was missing was the beard. We sat down to chat over fried chicken before heading to the makeup artist’s home nearby to try out beards. I gave him the scoop on his character and watched as a knowing smile crept across his face.
“The Americans made this video. They want people to believe Osama was living here in Pakistan.”
Part of me was worried what people would think, but my secrecy had less to do with concerns over safety. I was sensitive to the criticisms my cousins and friends there had heaped on me for only showing the negative side of Pakistan in my work. My last film had been about human trafficking. Now, I worried what people would think of a film about Osama living in their midst. How would that reflect on their beloved, albeit embattled, nation?
Tipu positively loved the idea, and we left KFC to meet with Kemal, the well-respected makeup artist who has bearded, scarred, and burned some of Pakistan’s greatest film stars throughout his long career. When we arrived at Kemal’s house, the lights went out, and I took it as a sign as we were led by his assistant upstairs to the living room. To introduce Kemal to the subject whose facial hair he would be recreating, I powered up my laptop and opened a JPEG of Osama. There was silence in the room as the fan turned slowly overhead on power from the backup battery. It was hard to say in the dim sunlight filtering into the room just what Kemal’s reaction was as he studied the photo. His heavy glasses obscured his eyes. The only sign he gave was a tsking sort of sound that could have been contemplative, but was more likely a mark of discontent. He turned to me. “This picture is old. Look at his beard. How black it is.”
I went back into the folder and opened a still from the video that had been found in the compound in Abottabad. These were the most recent images of Osama. Although the angle was more or less taken from behind, showing him seated cross-legged watching television, you could still make out the color of his beard—here, almost completely white—and what could be seen of his profile certainly showed an older, more worn and worried, man.
“That’s not him,” Kemal told me with certainty. “Here you can see. The jaw is not right. The nose…” He outlined them with his finger, then turned to me: “I’m an expert in these things.”
Certainly he knew faces. Examples of his work could be seen on the walls—film stills, posters, portraits. Many recognizable faces transformed almost beyond recognition. As a maker of disguises, he considered himself qualified to call one out when he saw it. He showed me the mismatch in hair texture where Osama’s hair met his beard, and the way the whole beard moved unnaturally when he moved his hand through it.
As I played the video clip over and over for Kemal, I remembered the initial skepticism that I’d felt when I’d seen it for the first time—or when I’d heard the reports of how Osama was killed, whisked away, and thrown into the sea. I had pushed aside whatever questions I’d had and let myself be reassured that Osama was indeed gone, demoting my doubts to the rank of hackneyed conspiracy theories—along with moon landings filmed on a soundstage or demolition charges in building seven of the World Trade Center. Now, once again unsure, I turned to Kemal and asked him, if not Osama, then who did he think it was?
“An actor,” he replied, motioning nonchalantly in Tipu’s direction. “The Americans made this video. They want people to believe Osama was living here in Pakistan.”
I hesitated. “Where do you think?”
“He’s been dead since 2003, my dear boy,” Kemal kindly explained. “They’d been keeping him frozen so when things with the wars were still going bad, and the American public finally got fed up with it all… just like that they could pull him out and you feel for a minute like maybe you’re winning at something.”
There was a twisted logic to what he said, although I didn’t believe it myself. Imagine what it would take! And why even bother to freeze him if you’re not going to show the body to anyone? As I later learned, there were many educated Pakistanis who were convinced that similarly improbable scenarios had in fact transpired.
“Come on,” Kemal said to Tipu, “let’s get started.”
An hour later, we had our very own Osama seated in the drawing room. It was quite convincing. But it needed help. Right then and there I made the decision to use a lower end camera, not unlike the one used to shoot the now-famous clip of Osama watching television. And to address the difference in skin tone, some makeup and a little less light was called for. That’d do the trick and give us our swarthy villain.
For a moment, as I looked at Tipu, now fully in character, with a solemn expression on his face. I wondered, could it be possible? Even now with all the tools of visual manipulation available, we still readily believe what we see on our screens. And yet how easily we can be fooled. I knew that no one would ever believe Tipu was actually Osama bin Laden. But just imagine what could be accomplished with greater resources. Imagine a top-secret equivalent of Hollywood out there somewhere—a place where all that seemingly innocuous movie magic is employed to change the very facts of history.
Even if Obama had made the decision to release the pictures allegedly taken of Osama before he was cast into the sea, they would certainly have looked like fakes.
A loud beep rang out as the backup battery switched itself off. The electricity had returned. A nearby wall sconce flickered on, breaking the fragile illusion with its bright beam across Tipu’s face. Osama had left the room; Tipu was now just a creepy guy with a fake beard. The fan overhead tripled its speed, blowing fine strands of fake hair across the dining room table. Tipu lit a cigarette while a servant brought in a tray of tea. The test was over.
Later that day, my friend from New York called me—the one with the ex-military, now ex-interviewee, uncle. He warned me to stay away from Abottabad. He said it wasn’t safe to go there. I figured he was probably just feeling bad about his uncle bailing on us, and I assured him we’d steer clear. Anyhow, I’d already decided to change the interview segment of the film. Instead of firsthand eyewitness accounts, I wanted to know what everyday Pakistanis thought about Osama’s death.
Over the next week I traversed the city with my production manager, Shakeel, on his trusty motorcycle, weaving our way through the labyrinthine streets in search of people from all walks of life. From rickshaw drivers to lawyers, from street sweepers to office managers, one thing was consistent: a complete distrust of the official American version of events. That much I had expected. But I suppose the extent of it came as some surprise. Alamdar Habib, a shopkeeper, explained to me the intricacies of the “American drama.” “Everybody knows the CIA recruited Osama. Every schoolboy knows it. That’s why most people you are talking to here don’t care when they hear he’s dead. They’re more angry about American drone attacks happening every day, and the cost of daal [lentils]. This is just a game. Osama’s been an American agent since the eighties.” The storekeeper’s friend, a skinny, bearded driver who would not give his name “because I have two daughters,” went further into the shadowy history. “It was in President Reagan’s time when this whole plan was started. [General] Zia was also one of their agents. They had to kill him because he knew too much. They even had to erase Reagan’s memory because he might have said something later on… ” When I asked again who “they” were, he agreed with Alamdar that it was the CIA pulling the strings. Still raw in Pakistanis’ minds was the January incident in which CIA contractor Raymond Davis had shot and killed two men on the streets of Lahore in broad daylight. He was freed after payment of 2.4 million dollars to the families of the victims. Against the backdrop of drone strikes and Americans killing Pakistanis on its own streets, the sense that a Great Game was being played was palpable.
The more I heard, the more I realized that the clandestine Hollywood I’d imagined had its work cut out for it. The whole point would be to convince people outside the States of America’s benevolence. But they had their own, very strong, ideas about things. Even if Obama had made the decision to release the pictures allegedly taken of Osama before he was cast into the sea, they would certainly have looked like fakes. If you’ve ever looked at a body in a casket, unless you knew the person beforehand, it’s hard to believe they once walked and talked. This would be further exacerbated in a photograph. I’m almost certain that even those Congressmen and women who had been shown the images must have thought, if only for a brief moment, how much that stiff skin resembled rubber latex, how the bullet hole in his face looked like something out of a John Carpenter film. It was only their trust in the order they served that kept those first fleeting impressions from sinking any deeper.
The fact is that when it comes to Osama’s death, or any other unilateral action taken by the U.S. in the name of justice, proof is like American pie. You simply won’t find anyone buying it on the streets of Karachi.
Sofian is a New York-based filmmaker. His most recent documentary, Brother Rob, about the recent Koran-burning in Florida will be airing on the Documentary Channel in October. Currently, Sofian is working on a feature film slated to shoot in Febraruy 2012 in New York called The Pakistani.