Kissing a Suicide Bomber
Author: Dave Mango
Writer’s Potential: 8
Logline:When an apathetic American photojournalist is forced to share his apartment with a beautiful Chechen rebel, she helps him interview future suicide bombers.
Synopsis:ZACK FENNER is an apathetic New York Times photojournalist stationed in Grozny who’s only interested in capturing the story through a camera lens. After taking a photo of Russian soldiers slaughtering Chechen schoolchildren, soldiers storm into Zack’s hotel room while he’s having sex with a Chechen prostitute, DARA. They really want to bust Zack for his story, but their grounds are that he illegally solicited a prostitute. They both try to convince soldiers that Dara is his girlfriend and no payment was made. He’s told if she stays in Moscow with him for 30 days, they’ll accept that as an explanation. Reluctantly, the two of them share Zack’s apartment in Moscow. They don’t get along at first because of Zack’s opportunism and lack of concern about Chechens’ plight. Dara’s intense hatred of all Russians doesn’t help, considering she’s forced to live there.
Zack is nearly fired from the Times because a German newspaper has already published an identical shot of the schoolchildren. He has to get something better, or he’s gone. Meanwhile, Dara ventures out to a Chechen district in Moscow, where she meets with RUSLAN and MALEK. She doesn’t realize that they run an underground rebel faction and are sending children to be martyrs. Ruslan and Malek see value in her, but more value in Zack. He can get their story out. They kidnap him and take him to meet with AHMED, a teenager who intends to explode himself somewhere. Zack interviews him, asking questions about why Ahmed wants to do this, whether or not it’s justified, and so on. He hands his piece to MARTIN, the head of the Times’ Moscow bureau, who loves it — and will love it even more when Ahmed does himself in. Martin asks Zack to rewrite it, guaranteeing him a Pulitzer. When the story is published, the Russians want to know when and where this suicide bombing will take place. Zack and Martin refuse to tell him. Ahmed steps onto a train platform and, terrified, gets on a train and blows it up.
Russian agents have decapitated Zack’s dog. Dara and Zack find this, and they agree they can’t go back to the apartment. They hide out in a ticket booth in the Moscow Zoo. Later, Zack is taken again to the restaurant where Malek runs things; this time, his blindfold slips and he sees the name of the restaurant. With Dara translating again, Zack interviews Ahmed’s younger sister, SULIKHAN, who is remorseless and unafraid — she wants to martyr herself for the cause. She hates all Russians, even children. The interview becomes heated. Zack and Martin go to the American embassy, where the ambassador explains that he will allow them to stay in a secure facility on embassy grounds, but when the story about Sulikhan is released, he demands (in the name of diplomacy) to know where this will take place. Zack explains he doesn’t know. Russian police and soldiers storm the embassy in search of Zack. Zack, thinking he’s eluded them, sneaks off to Malek’s restaurant. Turns out, they’re monitoring Zack the whole way. Police raid the place, taking people out. Zack tries to talk sense into Dara, but she explains her number’s up — she’s been chosen to be the next suicide bomber. As she straps on her vest, a policeman enters and guns her down in front of Zack. Zack’s horrified and immediately grief-stricken.
A year later, Zack has won the Pulitzer. He gives a long speech about the unfortunate toll this job has taken on his psyche, and how he finally got it back and they should be ashamed for rewarding him for standing back and watching without doing anything.
Comments:This script is very well-written and it tackles a difficult subject with an appropriate mix of sensitivity and realism. It raises a lot of serious questions about radicalism and about American apathy, but the author does an excellent job of keeping these questions and conflicts in the context of the characters he has created. These aren’t simply mouthpieces designed solely to engage in debate — these are fleshed-out, well-written characters who think, talk, and act like real people. The story is well-structured and feels authentic. The one minor complaint is about Zack’s character arc, which feels a little soft. His change is clear, but just when and why he changes isn’t. Around the third-act mark, it seems almost as if in one scene he’s cynical and apathetic, and in the next he’s angry and passionate. There isn’t anything that really defines a slow change from his callous start to his outrage at the end.
It would be nice to see that change happen more gradually, as he talks with people like Dara, Ahmed, Sulikhan, even Ruslan and Malek. Especially when he sees the opposite — the way the Russians treat him for empathizing with the Chechen cause, the way the Russians treat Chechens as subhuman. In short, everything he’s photographed over the years, he’s seeing for the first time. He’s no longer empathizing by finding “the shot,” as he calls it — his passion and anger should fuel him the way it does the suicide bombers, but instead of going the route of violence and killing, he uses his skills as a journalist to express himself. All this is there in the text, but it’s kind of glossed over. It’s implied that his story about Ahmed isn’t empathetic — Martin has to tell Zack to “make me like this kid.” Perhaps this would be a good starting point for Zack’s gradual understanding of the suicide bombers. Shaken by the fact that this terrified kid he interviewed only a day ago has taken himself and hundreds of people out in one fell swoop, angered by his personal mistreatment — and especially the mistreatment of Dara — by the Russians, maybe his story on Sulikhan is naturally a bit more empathetic, finally reaching its height when Dara is killed. All of this is pretty much there — Zack’s gradual change just needs to be highlighted a bit more.