DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHTNR
The suicide bomber (or "homicide bomber," depending on your choice of news outlet) has become such a familiar subject of the modern landscape that they hardly even seem to warrant notice anymore. Whereas the media used to tie itself in knots with tortured examinations of "Why do they do it?" now such stories--granted, as long as they involve the expected Middle Eastern locale and Arab race--are usually not deemed worthy of such analysis anymore. Only the body count matters, and maybe the cause.
In such an environment as this, where the insane and horrific have become ordinary, Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night arrives as a bracing slap in the face, giving an almost unbearably intimate fictional accounting of a young girl getting ready to be a suicide bomber in the heart of bustling Times Square. Although Loktev makes on the surface no attempt to explain or understand the nameless girl, in following her so closely doing what she perceives to be her final hours, and picking up on snippets of past history, by the end of the film her character has finally made the nearly impossible jump for such a current-events cliché, from statistic to person.
Using a purposefully antiseptic, vérité method, Loktev tracks the movements of the girl (Luisa Williams) from being picked up by a nearly silent driver and taken through the day's training steps and final bomb preparation up until her arrival in Times Square. The girl of uncertain ethnicity is quiet and mouse-like, nearly inaudible when speaking, and appearing almost tearfully thankful to the soft-spoken and masked men who have come to her anonymous hotel room to prepare her for the mission. There's the sense that she has great shame in her past, as she's constantly cleaning herself in a nearly ritualistic fashion and is dressed in a body-hiding long skirt and long-sleeved shirt. With her haunted eyes and meek demeanor, she's little more than a ghost in the terrorist cell's machine.
The self-abnegating words of the girl's whispered rant/prayer (the first thing we hear and see in the film) are also ghost-like, as though she's already got one foot in the grave. The words are destructive yet entirely non-specific; "I have only one death. I want my death to be for you." Is this a god she's speaking/praying to? A departed/dead lover? Just as the girl doesn't seem to have a clearly defined focus for her self-annihilation (never for a second does she seem even remotely familiar with any concepts as passionate as rage or martyrdom), the terrorists who surround her in that void of a hotel room are similarly without purpose. When waiting, they sit, hands folded, without talking. They are of mixed race, and speak without accents. No fiery rhetoric is launched, no lectures of fiery righteousness are given. At one point they sit the girl down in front of a backdrop showing numerous masked terrorist types clutching AK-47s. They then switch the backdrop to a clenched-fist logo so generic in appearance that it could have been utilized by any leftist group of the past 30 years. Loktev cuts before the girl (draped in a ludicrous-looking bandolier and AK-47) can start speaking, the point perhaps being that the message of such groups is irrelevant, at some root level always the same. The end result is the same as well: dead civilians who just happened to be nearby, and a dead bomber, who's achieved the deliriously theatrical end they had been craving.
It's the second section of the film that Loktev seems to have based most of her research on. Like many of the somewhat unbelievably comic true stories involving young suicide bombers (especially from Chechnya), the girl wanders her target area of Times Square in somewhat of a daze, eventually seeming to forget why she's there with a 50-pound nail bomb in a back pack. Unfortunately for the film, this is also where it starts to fall apart. Williams is perfect in a practically wordless role, but there's only so much Loktev can do with following the girl around the tourist-heavy streets; there's little to be found in watching that pinched and blank-faced girl as she ducks into stores for snacks and seems to hunt for time-wasting diversions. Anything to stave off the inevitable act which, now that the day has come, doesn't seem as utterly necessary or even desirable anymore to the girl; of course, it's too late now.
Even if the film does in the end fall victim to the purity of its own approach--the Times Square segments being so especially hard to dramatize in any meaningful way--Loktev still deserves much credit for taking on a potentially unrewarding project with such brio and skill. She understands that giving this confused young girl a reason for what she is doing would likely only confuse the issue.