By Mary Milliken
PARK CITY, Utah, Jan 24 (Reuters) - After years of watching Osama bin Laden in grainy television footage, U.S. audiences have a chance to see a less chilling version of the al Qaeda leader — as a cartoon character dancing to rap music and a video game villain.
That’s how Morgan Spurlock, director of the 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," depicts bin Laden before embarking on a mission to find the No. 1 U.S. enemy in his film "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" that debuted this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
Bin Laden eludes the director — as he has the U.S. military and the CIA — but what Spurlock finds during his tour of the Middle East is the poverty and repression that have fueled radical Islamic militancy.
Yet, many people he interviewed rejected the idea that bin Laden, who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, has a firm grip on the region.
"As more and more people brought up the root causes that create an Osama bin Laden and radicals around the world, it becomes obvious that he is not that important," Spurlock told Reuters at the top U.S. film festival for independent movies.
What is important, Spurlock concludes, is ending the problems that led to bin Laden gaining the leadership of al Qaeda.
"Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" opens in U.S. movie theaters in April. It is being released by The Weinstein Co., whose chief, Harvey Weinstein, paid around $2 million to acquire distribution after seeing just 15 minutes of footage.
Spurlock made a splash at Sundance with "Super Size Me," winning a directing award for his one-man assault on McDonald’s in which he eats the fast food giant’s meals for 30 days in a row and documents his weight gain and deteriorating health.
At the start of the movie, as his first child is about to be born, Spurlock says he feels the need to save the world from bin Laden and al Qaeda — a franchise, as he calls it, even more lethal than McDonald’s.
MAKING DENSE MATERIAL LIGHT
Since Spurlock wants to face danger head-on, he undergoes training to work in a hostile environment and obtains clearance from his pregnant wife to travel everywhere except in Iraq.
He goes to Egypt, Morocco, the Palestinian territories and Israel, where he is attacked by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews. He visits bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia, and asks shoppers in a luxurious mall if they know where he is.
Spurlock accompanies U.S. forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and talks with locals who say they just want an end to war. In the end, he goes to Pakistan, where he is stopped in his tracks by growing violence in the tribal regions.
He gets home in time for his child’s birth with 1,000 hours of footage.
Spurlock said he hopes audiences will see that people in the Middle East and Muslims share many of the same values as Westerners, a desire for democracy and better lives for their children.
"We do kind of live in our own world and don’t look beyond our own borders," said Spurlock. "I think the greatest thing that could happen is that we embrace the idea of a world community a little bit more."
He said he doesn’t want anyone to think he is mocking the serious issue with his use of video games, his dancing bin Laden and his entertaining interview style.
"The goal is to try to use humor and make light some really dense, heavy material," Spurlock said. (Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Xavier Briand)