This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 24, 2006
Governor General's Husband Makes Controversial Film
When former prime minister Paul MARTIN appointed broadcaster Michaëlle JEAN Governor General last summer, she had to fight accusations that her filmmaker husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, was sympathetic to the cause of Quebec separatism and friendly with FLQ terrorists. The controversy stemmed mainly from Lafond's 1991 documentary, La Manière Nègre, in which he and his wife are shown raising toasts with Quebec separatists, and a book about the film in which he wrote "So, a sovereign Quebec? An independent Quebec. Yes, I applaud with both hands."
His latest documentary could invite even more controversy. Later this month, Lafond plans to premiere American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan, an empathetic portrayal of an Islamic assassin living in exile in Iran, still wanted for the 1980 murder of a former Iranian diplomat in Washington. In the film, the assassin rails at length about America as a murderous regime, calls U.S. President George W. Bush a terrorist, accuses the United States government of killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and of trying to "make American state terrorism the primary ruling doctrine of the globe."
The film also gives voice to two rather spectacular conspiracy theories. One suggests that the Carter administration allowed agents of the Ayatollah Khomeini to arrange assassinations of his political enemies on U.S. soil in exchange for opening negotiations to free American hostages held by revolutionaries in Iran. The other - the so-called "October Surprise" theory - holds that campaign aides of Ronald Reagan and the President's father, George H. W. Bush, made a secret deal offering to supply arms to Khomeini in exchange for preventing the release of American hostages in Tehran until after the 1980 presidential election, in order to help defeat Jimmy Carter.
There are some rather large problems with both theories. The author of the first, in an interview with Maclean's last week, said he had "overstated" the case in the film. And the October Surprise has been discredited by mainstream journalists and two congressional investigations - a detail not mentioned in the film.
Such theories proliferate on the Internet but have not, until now, been dignified by the vice-regal office. Lafond's film, made with subsidies from the federal and Quebec governments, will premiere April 29 at the 2006 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, and it may very well stir things up. As far as provocations of the U.S. go, American Fugitive is more philosophical than the prime ministerial aide who called George W. Bush a "moron," and more artistic than the parliamentarian who stomped on a Bush doll. But it does come at a time when Canadian diplomats are still trying to kill rumours that 9/11 terrorists came through Canada, and as Foreign Minister Peter MacKay last week travelled to Washington to lobby against tough new border security measures that could hurt the Canadian economy. "Stuff like this gives the worst impression of Canada," says Christopher Sands, a Canadian affairs analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. "I can just see Bill O'Reilly ranting about it."
In an interview with Maclean's, Lafond said the work is not journalism. "I'm not an investigative journalist. I'm a filmmaker who treats a subject in an artistic manner. I've built a model, like Einstein built E=mc2. It represents reality, but it's not reality." He also insisted his position as the spouse of the representative of Canada's head of state is "a media issue that's of no interest. I wasn't the husband of the Governor General when I made the film, first of all. And I remain a free man. I'm not free to insult people, but I'm not insulting anyone," he said.
Lafond's biography on the Governor General's official website mentions the film and describes Lafond as "a seasoned observer of the world and of our times," who has crafted "films that tell touching, thought-provoking stories; philosophical poems that resonate with the call of the road, and mirror the fates of men and nations."
American Fugitive tells the true story of David Belfield, an African-American college dropout who becomes radicalized in 1960s Washington, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He converts to Islam, and gravitates into the arms of Iranian revolutionaries in part because a fancy Washington mosque financed by the Shah of Iran "didn't want niggers." After the Islamic revolution in Iran and the fall of the Shah in 1979, Belfield, who took the Muslim name Daoud Salahuddin, and also goes by Hassan Abdulrahman, is recruited by representatives of Khomeini to carry out one of several planned assassinations. Belfield is given a fatwa, a religious order said to come from Khomeini himself, to kill Ali Akbar Tabatabai, the Shah's former press attaché in Washington, who revolutionaries believed was implicated in a coup attempt against the revolutionary regime.
Belfield carries out the order. He dresses up as a postman and drives a mail truck to Tabatabai's suburban home. "When he came to the door for a signature, I shot him," Belfield tells Lafond with cool matter-of-factness. After the murder, he flees via Montreal, Paris and Geneva to Tehran, where he has lived in exile ever since.
Lafond gives his subject a large and mostly uncritical platform to tell his story and express his views. "If I'm one, what are they?" Belfield says of American authorities who call him a terrorist. "I'm responsible for one life, okay. They are responsible for tens of thousands - and that's just in Iraq. We're not talking about what's happening in other parts of the world, or the kind of mechanisms they are setting up, okay? - the kinds of mechanisms they are setting up to make American state terrorism the primary ruling doctrine of the globe." He later adds, "I'm not killing anybody, but George Bush is killing people every day. What makes him the champion of democracy and what makes me a terrorist?"
The White House has declined to comment on the movie. "The Bush administration will politically pretend it hasn't happened, and concentrate on the relationship with [Stephen] HARPER, who is not complicit in the choosing of this Governor General and her spouse," Sands predicts. And for his part, Lafond shrugs off the possibility of a hostile reaction to the terrorist's rhetoric. "Anybody who is able to read reads that every day in the newspapers," he says. "It's not new. I'm doing my job. My job is to question."
Lafond's portrayal of the assassin reveals a lonely, thoughtful, depressed and suffering man who longs to return to his country but will not surrender to it - although he has offered to give himself up if Carter and his former aides are asked to testify at his trial. In the film, Belfield wanders alone through barren landscapes and lifts weights in a small, decrepit apartment. Belfield's distraught brothers in Long Island, presented with footage of Lafond's interviews, don't know whether they want to hug or punch their long-lost brother.
Belfield appears to exist in a moral and political no man's land - wanted for murder in his home country and disillusioned with the Iranian revolution that he was once so passionate about. Although he doesn't express outright remorse, his convictions seem to have been severely shaken. As a Muslim, he cites the Koran: "Consciously killing a believer itself, it says, entails hell forever. I made the judgment but who knows what the cosmic order is, and what's correct and what's incorrect. Who really knows?"
As a militant African-American, Belfield wasn't even that enthusiastic about the choice of target for his assassination. He is quoted as saying he would have preferred to have killed Richard Nixon's former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. In a 2002 article in The New Yorker, Belfield was also quoted as saying: "I was primed for violence, and I thought about cratering the White House a quarter-century before al-Qaeda did. My biggest aspiration was to bring America to its knees, but I didn't know how."
While Belfield believes he was just an assassin carrying out a hit, Lafond's documentary also features an investigative journalist who portrays him as part of a deeper and more bizarre conspiracy. Joseph Trento, who has written books on CIA history, argues in the film that the Carter administration enabled the murder. "Daoud had no idea that he was being manipulated by Iranian and U.S. intelligence," Trento says in the movie. "A deal had been made to essentially allow the new regime to come into the U.S. and conduct assassinations of its old enemies in exchange for opening negotiations on the hostages." Asked whether he intended for viewers to be left with the impression that there was a U.S. government conspiracy to support the assassination of an Iranian diplomat, Lafond told Maclean's, "Yes, it's the impression I had."
But the theory doesn't appear to have much support outside the film. "It's outlandish. I wouldn't give it any credence," says Daniel Brumberg, associate professor of government at Georgetown University, who specializes in Iran. As for its endorsement by the husband of the representative of Canada's head of state, Brumberg says, "I can understand it's a little awkward. The whole thing sounds nutty."
In an interview with Maclean's last week, Trento himself significantly revised his statement. "I may have overstated the case when I said 'conduct assassinations,' " Trento said. "What [Khomeini's people] probably asked for was permission to come into the U.S. and operate - what they mean by operating and what we mean by operate are two different things," he said. "I didn't mean that the U.S. government sanctioned assassinations." Trento added that he did not believe Carter would have been aware of the alleged deal, which he describes in a book, Prelude to Terror. There he writes that the deal was struck between the Iranians and Richard Nixon's former head of the CIA, Richard Helms, acting as a back-channel negotiator on behalf of the Carter administration.
But even the watered-down version of the conspiracy does not persuade other scholars. "It's ludicrous. This is a conspiracy theory," says Mark Gasiorowski, a specialist in Middle East politics at Louisiana State University who has written several books on Iran, including U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran, and who has also researched Belfield's case. "It's ludicrous to say the Carter administration would let anyone like an Iranian intelligence agent or officer come into the U.S. to do anything, let alone carry out assassinations." Gasiorowski disputes other details sketched out in Trento's book, adding that a conspiracy was unnecessary because the revolutionary regime had sufficient support networks among students in the United States to make conveying an assassination order a simple matter.
In the film, the Trento theory is criticized by Jimmy Carter's former National Security Council staffer, Gary Sick. "Conspiracy theories are very attractive," says Sick, who now teaches at Columbia University. "Sometimes the simple version is the most likely," he adds, before presenting his own October Surprise theory. Published in a 1992 book of the same name, it holds that officials in Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign struck a deal with Khomeini's regime in which the U.S. supplied arms to Iran via Israel in exchange for Iran delaying the release of the 52 American hostages until after Reagan was elected - the idea being to avoid giving Carter's campaign an advantage.
This theory has been debunked by numerous investigative journalists (including long tracts in Newsweek, which called it a "conspiracy theory gone wild," and in The New Republic, which characterized it as "a total fabrication"). It was also discredited by investigations by both houses of Congress. The House probe, headed by the highly respected Indiana Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, who in recent years was vice-chair of the bipartisan commission probing the 9/11 terrorist attacks, involved a 16-member investigative team working on a US$1.4-million investigation that produced a 968-page report based on interviews with 230 people. It found "no credible evidence" to back up the allegations. The report also stated that several witnesses whose stories were key to the accusations denied knowing about the deal when asked to testify under oath.
A parallel inquiry by a Senate foreign relations subcommittee concluded in November 1992 that the reports were unsubstantiated (though it stated that the behaviour of Reagan's campaign director, William Casey, operated "on the outer limits of propriety" when he informally sought out intelligence on the hostage negotiations). In the film, Sick admits his theory is "controversial," and concedes that he has no "smoking gun." He also allows that it relies on information from unsavoury characters.
Lafond stresses he is not trying to provide answers, but raise questions. "I'm not looking for a guilty party. I'm looking for all the possible viewpoints in order to challenge them. And if you put all the elements together it's quite disturbing. There are things that will disturb the viewer. And I can't go beyond that. I have no way of resolving what's troubling," he said.
Until the film is released, it's difficult to gauge just how controversial it might be, given the filmmaker's position. As the representative of the Queen, the Governor General has historically been expected to remain above politics. The vice-regal spouse had little public profile until the appointment of Adrienne CLARKSON, whose husband, John Ralston SAUL, was a well-known writer and philosopher, says Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. "Had this blown last summer, I have a feeling there would have been even more pressure on Michaëlle Jean than there otherwise was to not let her get the position," he says. Since becoming Governor General, however, Jean has expressed views that "are quite contradictory from the apparent thrust of this documentary - such as her comments on Canadian efforts in Afghanistan and her support for the soldiers," he adds. Nonetheless, "This is going to stir the pot in a big way, especially because you've now got a Conservative regime, which looks at the world very differently than the Martin Liberals." However, he doubts that the film will affect Canada-U.S. relations "because very few people in the U.S. have heard of the Governor General."
Lafond says he is not worried about how the White House will react. "If there are reactions, quel bonheur."
Maclean's April 24, 2006