Anahit Behrooz


The Matchmaker – first-look review

Benedetta Argenteri's documentary about Tooba Gondal fails to get to the systematic causes of radicalisation, instead opting for shoddy personal blame.

The West, simply put, does not know what to do with Muslim women. Are they victims in desperate need of a white saviour or willing participants in their own oppression? Do they need a feminist re-education or is their life under patriarchy simply a cultural quirk? Do they even have agency, and if so, why don’t they use it to escape their obviously intolerable circumstances? And what is with the veil? Why do they keep putting it on?

The Matchmaker, Benedetta Argenteri’s severe and histrionic documentary about the Western women who defected to ISIS (subversively called Da’esh in the Arab-speaking world), is – in the vein of so much media about Muslim women – similarly confused.

Taking as its subject Tooba Gondal, who fled the UK to Syria in 2014 and allegedly recruited a dozen Western women to marry Da’esh fighters, The Matchmaker is a portrait of – in theory – a shadowy and culturally abject figure, whose story speaks to immensely urgent socio-political questions regarding the proliferation of Da’esh, the gendered violence of warfare, and the slow creep of radicalisation on the Internet. The reality, however, is a muddled and disturbingly partisan snapshot of a woman that, in its haste to carve out a narrative of agency, absolves the structures that created her of any responsibility.

It is the role of documentarians to bring their unique argument to a story, to retell the world according to their own focus, but this is filmmaking that is awash with agenda. Largely comprised of interviews Argenteri conducted with Gondal in a refugee camp after Gondal renounced Da’esh, The Matchmaker’s naturalistic, conversational footage is intercut with clipped headlines from the Telegraph, The Sun and – wait for it – The Daily Mail, whose dire maledictions about the “gun-toting jihadi” are superseded only by a swelling score that creates a frankly parodic sense of foreboding.

The very fact of the interviews is interesting, but Argenteri’s questions are mawkish and orientalising, and Gondal herself reads as disarmingly young, filled with the kind of embarrassment for her previous life that is normally reserved for awkward prom night flashbacks. Not much is made of the ambiguities and contradictions of her behaviour or her relationship with the truth, except for an overarching air of superior misgiving.

Argenteri is clearly intent on subverting the narratives of victimhood that she feels are all too easily assigned to such women, yet the pendulum has swung too far, striking instead a note of solitary blame. The Iraq War is, shockingly, never mentioned, and nor are the other geopolitical conditions created by the West that led directly to the rise of Da’esh and the hostile environment of Islamophobia that was ripe for radicalisation. “I would call it manipulated…brainwashed,” Gondal responds at one point to Argenteri’s question of her ”switch” to a jihadi mindset, and it is not a little horrifying that the interview subject is the first to introduce this thread, that it is barely followed up, and that no consideration is given as to why a surveillance state dense with Orwellian programmes such as Prevent and See It Say It Sort It did absolutely nothing to prevent anything at all.

We know there are much larger issues of responsibility and complicity at stake here – the recent revelations about Shamima Begum have made that violently clear. Yet this documentary does very little to uncover the real machinations of power at play. Instead, it merely gawks, and prods, and indicts.

Published 8 Sep 2022

Tags: Venice Film Festival

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