Karen knows what terrorism is like. It's like when her father exploded in anger for no good reason and grabbed her by the neck, and she didn't fight back. Consequently, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, she feels that terrorists "want what we have," and that "we can't walk away like nothing happened."
Gavin has a different view: Wealthy countries that let people in poor ones die of preventable diseases are engaging in terrorism, too. And Carlos offers the perspective of someone who personally experienced terrorism, as a kidnap victim.
Each of the witnesses Andres Tapia-Urzua calls in his video "Terminal" has a unique take on terrorism, which is just the point of both the 15-minute work and the program it anchors, the My Terrorism Video Festival, screening Sat., March 5, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room.
The Pittsburgh-based artist says that while everyone talks about terrorism, the terms of the discussion are set mostly by the government and the mass media. In autocratic nations that terrorize their own citizens, says Tapia-Urzua, "The stories that come from the top, they're all one-sided." He adds, "I think we've been experiencing too much of the same around here."
He was already working on "Terminal" when last year he put out an international call for artists who could broaden that conversation with individual perspectives. As a native of Latin America -- he left military-ruled Chile some 20 years ago, as a college student -- he knows terror encompasses more than foreigners flying hijacked planes into office buildings.
"Terminal" is inspired by "Terrorism: Theirs and Ours," an essay co-written by the late scholar Eqbal Ahmad. Ahmad argues that society's power-brokers never define terrorism in order that they might use the concept for their own ends. Manipulating public perception so that yesterday's "freedom fighters" can, like the Afghan mujahadeen of the 1980s, become today's terrorists, is one strategy. This brand of selective moral outrage is complemented by the opportunity to control one's own people by provoking the fear of mysterious outsiders.
Working in his distinctively charged style -- manipulated stock footage, expressionistic lighting, highly textured soundtrack -- Tapia-Urzua also reports Ahmad's contention that while political terrorism attracts the most attention from governments and the press, it actually causes less harm than any of the four other kinds of terrorism he identifies, with the state-sponsored variety leading the way.
That argument echoes throughout the 15-part, two-and-a-half-hour My Terrorism program. In an excerpt from Burnt Oranges, Chicago-based filmmaker Silvia Malagrino's feature-length documentary about her return to Buenos Aires two decades after fleeing military rule there, a young man recalls the day in his childhood when soldiers arrived to "disappear" his mother. Burnt Oranges is followed in the program by "No Mas, No More," local artist Dennis Childers' protester's-eye-view of a 2004 demonstration at the former School of the Americas -- a reminder that the U.S. has itself trained Latin American soldiers who went on to sow terror in their own lands.
Grim stuff -- but the festival also has its share of pungent humor. Appropriated-footage tricksters Mindbomb.tv offer "You, Robot," a hilarious TV-ad parody skewering public complacency in the war on terror. Quebec's Pascal Lievre contributes the dreamily musical "L'Axe du Mal," in which a pair of lovers vacationing at Niagara Falls duet (in French) the text to George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, to the tune of the Jermaine Jackson/Pia Zadora ballad "And When the Rain Begins to Fall." "Hazardous Materials," by Pittsburgh's T. Foley, uses a Ranger Rick action figure to illustrate the travails of the heroic but anonymous haz-mat worker in the age of anthrax letters. And the dark comedy gets shadier in "Intercourse With a Martyr," by Canada's Rob Thompson, in which a young man terrified of women and obsessed with the terrorist menace develops a relationship with his female analyst that starts out campy and ends disturbingly bizarre.
Yet the most plangent work in the My Terrorism festival might be "Don't Call Me Crazy on the Fourth of July," former Pittsburgher Richard Pell's smart and empathetic portrait of the late Richard Lansberry, the college-educated Korean War veteran and former small-businessman who spent 30 years in a public campaign (largely waged via Grant Street sandwich boards) to warn us of various government conspiracies, including the "silent radio" that controls our minds.
With a deceptively light-hearted but ultimately chilling matter-of-factness, Pell notes that the official records -- of Cold War-era FBI mail intercepts and CIA research into psychotropic drugs, for starters -- dovetail quite nicely with Lansberry's nominally paranoid rants about hearing voices in his head and not getting his mail. We're left wondering both whether Lansberry was so crazy after all and in what ways we ought to redefine "terrorism."
"My terrorism is different from your terrorism," says Tapia-Urzua. "Maybe my terrorism is you."