Bomb Threat

In an abandoned section of downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday morning in May, 900 Frames productions—which on another day might be shooting conventional international commercials for Ford or Coca-Cola—is recreating the look of a Middle Eastern market about to explode in flames.

The spot they will produce today will never air on American television. It’s a PSA designed to help prevent terrorist attacks abroad. In it, a man walks through a market populated with Middle Eastern men, shadoor-clad women, and Arabic signage. A boy chasing a soccer ball crosses a man’s path, then sits on a doorstoop to remove a rock from his shoe. He looks up and exchanges glances with the man. The boy’s smile is not returned.

The camera follows the man into the most crowded area of the market, where he reveals explosives strapped to his chest and ignites the bomb. The percussion freezes like a shot from The Matrix as the camera tracks around ground zero of the explosion, showing the devastation of the market—glass shattering, cars flipping and victims flying through the plate glass of a cafe.

The suspended-animation technique comes from the bank-plaza explosion scene in director Dom Sena’s 2001 movie Swordfish, says Drew Plotkin, 900 Frames partner. Production deployed 120 still cameras to create the scene. A former news producer, Plotkin says that, “unlike flipping channels and seeing news b-roll, this will present the devastation of innocent people in the market.”

The 60-second spot is expected to air this summer via satellite, says Sam Najah, partner and executive producer at 900 Frames, who fled terror at age 9 with his mother during the Iranian revolution of 1979. “The bomber is not supposed to be specifically Iraqi,” he says.

In fact, the L.A. production company was subcontracted by another production company, EFXFilms, Beirut, Lebanon, which is keeping its client and its funding anonymous. EFX declined comment on the subject, in Lebanon and L.A., at the client’s insistence. Najah says “the creative is coming from somewhere in the Middle East.”

A year and a half ago, 900 Frames worked with EFX to produce a piece called “Sovereignty,” which ran during the Iraqi elections. In the 90-second spot, an American military convoy packs up and heads out, leaving a cloud of dust and desolate landscape seen by boys, who resume playing soccer. An Arabic tag says, “They leave, and we’re still here. … One nation with a promising future.” According to translators at Qorvis Communications in Washington, the spot references FutureIraq.org.

Any such attempts to communicate with potential terrorists through PSAs would be instantly suspect by a Mideast viewer, says Cari Eggspuehler, formerly on the State Department counterterrorism team and now executive director of Business for Diplomatic Action, which operates out of DDB San Francisco under the auspices of BDA’s president, Keith Reinhard. Eggspuehler says BDA, led by John McNeel, president and CEO of G1 Worldwide, has partnered with the Young Arab Leaders to “shift the debate from foreign policy to civil society.”

“Al-Qaida prefers cell phones, Internet and text messaging to television,” she says. “They use Al-Jazeera to communicate to the West, not for recruiting.”

Qorvis director Matt Lauer said that since the start of the war, in addition to Qatar-government-owned Al-Jazeera (where Coke and Toyota advertise, among others), hundreds of such messages, some by the State Department or Defense Department, have run on Iraqi state-controlled Al-Hura and on Al-Arabya, owned by private Saudi business interests.

McNeel considers such efforts “wrongheaded … our initiative with Young Arab Leaders started with the premise that commercials are no way to communicate with this audience.”

McNeel, who recently argued against a Council on Foreign Relations call for more PSAs, adds, “anti-terrorism is not best handled through the medium. Messaging is seen as motivated by intentions not in their best interests. The government has spent millions advertising in the region, but the best way is to bring tangible benefits to them, not slogans.”

Still, Eggspuehler acknowledges that “it’s a battle of ideas,” but “this cannot be done with one-way communication. It is quicker to write a check and fund a PSA than to painstakingly build relationships with young Arab leaders. But before you use television, you have to understand and appreciate the audience.”