Still from DUGMA: THE BUTTON Film

Norwegian filmmaker Paul Refsdal is no stranger to controversy. The freelance journalist has spent more than three decades covering conflict around the world and his last film, TALIBAN BEHIND THE MASKS, was shot behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. But when Refsdal went to film an airstrike in northern Syria back in 2014, little did he realise that it would be the start of his most controversial project so far.

DUGMA: THE BUTTON is a feature film documentary about a group of suicide bombers working for Al Qaeda in Syria. The film follows the daily lives of four “martyrdom seekers”, each waiting for their turn to “push the button” (known by Jihadis as ‘Dugma’) and perform a martyr operation. The director Refsdal spent a total of six weeks embedded with the Nusra fighters to present an unbiased picture of the Al Qaida soldiers, from their private lives and personalities to their inner beliefs and motives.

The vast majority of the documentary focuses on Abu Qaswara al Maki, a Saudi soldier who has spent two years on his militia’s most exclusive waiting list. In the opening scene, Qaswara shows us around his heavily armored suicide truck, pointing to the innocuous little red button in the dashboard that he intends to push when he reaches the enemy. The 32-year-old left everything he had including his family to travel to Syria and join Jhabat al-Nusra. His youngest daughter wasn’t born when he left and Qaswara will likely never meet her. When the moment is right, he will drive the huge fortified truck rigged with 15 tonnes of explosives and blow himself up behind enemy lines.

Back at an Al Qaeda safe house, Abu al-Yaman is training young solider Abu Abdelrahman. The men talk openly about their lives before Jihadi and their desire to become a Martyrdom Seekers believing it will lead them to paradise, a place where Allah forgives all sins and allows them to marry 72 women.

Film Still from Dugma: The Button

But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Abu Basir al Britani, a 26-year-old white British citizen who converted to Islam while living in Egypt. Basir, formally known as Lucas Kinney, is on the list of Martyrdom Seekers but after three weeks as a married man he receives the news that he might become a father – something that for the first time makes him doubt that Dugma will be the right thing for him to do. “If I take a conscious decision to press the button… they will not forgive me” Basir explains. It is a rare scene of self-doubt that is a sharp contrast to how Al Qaida usually like to portray themselves.

Refsdal has gone to great lengths to portray the characters not just soldiers, but as human beings with weaknesses, faults and self-doubt. The fighters talk openly and without censorship about their faith and their wiliness to make the ultimate sacrifice. As such, the film is incredibly challenging to watch. Every step of the way, the viewer is wondering which of the soldiers will be called up next. Tension increases when we watch a Turkish Nusra fighter from afar detonate his explosive vehicle, a mission initially intended for Qaswara, amid shouts of “Allahu akbar” (God is great). Ethics are also called into question when Qaswara is called up to complete his final mission and we, as an audience, are left with a host of questions, including whether Refsdal will do anything to stop him. It’s shocking, it’s controversial but it’s also incredibly fascinating.

The film is also visually striking with Refsdal juxtaposing scenes of contemplative beauty and intimacy with that of war and destruction. One example of this is the shot of Qaswara sitting on the floor of a mosque with the Quran in front of him, reciting the verse commonly used to justify Dugma. As his beautiful song-like recitation continues, the picture fades into al Qaida’s own videos showing Dugma operations.

There is no doubt that DUGMA: THE BUTTON is a challenging film to watch, but it’s also unlike anything you’ve seen before. Refsdal was given unprecedented access to Al Qaida, following the daily life some of their most feared members and his result is a unique insight into the mindset of the enemy and the soldiers that fight for their cause.

4 out of 5 stars

DUGMA: THE BUTTON is released worldwide on iTunes from 2 August 2016.

This review was originally written for ScreenRelish