Isa Abdullah Ali is a rogue warrior.
He began life as Cleven Holt, a poor kid from the hardscrabble Washington, D.C. projects, where drugs, domestic violence and gang wars were just things you had to live with. At 17, he lied about his age and joined the Army, where he trained as a sniper.
Honorably discharged once his deception was discovered, Holt embraced the Nation of Islam, changed his name and began a quixotic — and ultimately violent — quest to find something to believe in.
He heard the call of radical Islam.
The documentary film American Jihadist, screening twice Oct. 22 at the Jepson Center, follows the rocky journey of this “freedom fighter” — he does not refer to himself as a terrorist — as a soldier for Iran in the late ‘70s, and later as an active member of the Afghan Mujahideen and the Shiite forces in Lebanon.
American Jihadist was directed and co–produced by Savannah–based commercial director and aspiring filmmaker Mark Claywell.
“Although I let people make up their own minds about him, we didn’t feel like we had the kind of information where we could land on one side or the other,” says Claywell, who’ll conduct a question and answer session following the first showing.
“I have always appreciated stories that let me think for myself.”
In the film, Ali might not come off as the most likeable guy in the world — he talks openly about the hundreds of people he’s killed — but he does seem to believe in the virtue of fighting for his religion.
He is not anti–American, he says, but anti–oppression.
“We put as much information as we could verify into the film,” Claywell explains.
“He is who he is, and we’re not trying to change any minds. I feel strongly that if you’re on one side or the other, this film’s not going to change it. But I think the film will give you some insight into how we got to this point in history.”
Claywell’s producing partner Jody Jenkins is a journalist who first heard of Isa Abdullah Ali in Bosnia, in the 1990s, during the country’s terrible, costly civil war.
“Jody saw Isa’s face on a wanted poster,” Claywell says. “He was curious as to why an American would be wanted in Bosnia during that conflict.”
What started as a book on Ali turned into a documentary film. Once Jenkins had gained the explosive expatriate’s trust, he brought Claywell into Bosnia to meet with him.
“We met Isa in the middle of nowhere,” Claywell says. “And he was more open than I expected him to be. He’s the kind of person that’s lived on both sides of it, and he knows pretty much what to reveal and what not to reveal. To try and keep himself out of trouble.”
By the time filming began, Ali was no longer being hunted, and had settled into a relatively peaceful domestic life. Still, he was wary.
He met the filmmakers at a small hotel; Ali was accompanied by his wife — herself a former freedom fighter for Bosnia — and their two children.
“That immediately set the tone,” recalls Claywell. “OK, if he was going to be an aggressive S.O.B., he certainly wouldn’t be bringing his 6– and 7–year old kids. That kind of helped make me relax.”
Onscreen, Claywell’s camera follows Ali into the hills (where he chillingly demonstrates his skill with guns), into the family home, and into the bombed–out rubble of city streets.
He talks to the camera, explaining, matter-of-factly, how he got to be where he is.
Representatives from the CIA and FBI talk about how Ali had been approached to work for the American government, but had refused. To them, he’s an enigma.
Incredibly, Ali still makes trips to Washington every few months. He’s free to come and go.
“That,” says Claywell, “means one of two things. Either he’s on the government payroll, or they’ve vetted him as much as possible and they don’t find him a threat.”
Stateside, Ali’s sister, brother and uncle fill in some of the gaps in the story.
“We wanted him to tell his whole story, where he would be the only narrator,” says Claywell. “And for whatever reason, he’s just not the kind of person that would open up in that sense – he’s very repetitive in the things that he says. He would pick the things to say and not go too deep.
“He did not open up and talk about it much. He would talk about the facts of what happened on this day, and that day. But he wouldn’t talk much about the emotions of it, and the difficulty of it.”
The filmmakers also went to Tehran to interview Dawud Salahuddin (a.k.a. David Belfield), who, like Ali, took up the call to arms for Islam and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Salahuddin, who says he fought alongside Ali in many battles, assassinated Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a prominent member of the exiled Shah’s inner circle, in Maryland in 1980.
Winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2010 Slamdance Festival, American Jihadist presents Isa Abdullah Ali as a paradox, a man who treasures life and love, but for whom bloody violence is second nature.
“He admits in the film that if something were to happen in his adopted country, which is still very much on edge, he’d be more than happy to take up arms there,” Claywell says.
“I think it’s telling that he did not do anything like go to Iraq, or Afghanistan this time around. He’s got a family now. And obviously that changes everybody. I think he would be happy to take up arms to protect what little bit he has in Bosnia.”
'American Jihadist: The Life and Times of Isa Abdullah Ali’
Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.
When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22. Box office opens at 7:15
Followed by Q&A with director Mark Claywell
Admission: $6 (cash only)
Second screening at 10 p.m. (admission: $5, no Q&A)