A grim and violent topic is spotlighted in the third-season opener of "Wide Angle," PBS's series on the complex international stories that circle the world. "Suicide Bombers," airing Thursday at 9 p.m. on MPT and at 10 on WETA, offers interviews with three failed Palestinian suicide bombers, all now sitting in Israeli prisons. The three speak freely of their reasons for becoming bombers and why they failed in their attempts, whether due to human hesitation or mechanical malfunction.
"Since we have this tool [television] in our hands, I really feel we needed to let them speak for themselves," said producer Israel Goldvicht. "There is no need to add layers of experts."
Goldvicht, who grew up in Israel, said the idea for the broadcast was "started by a desire to convey to the outside world what we are facing here. People see pictures of these events on television, but I sensed that the inner story of the bombers themselves would be quite revealing."
He decided he wanted to do a film without "a picture of any victim or any Israeli -- just they, themselves, the Palestinian bombers."
Negotiating with authorities to get access for the project was hard, Goldvicht said. "They felt we were giving the bombers legitimacy, humanizing them. But I would like to hope viewers may judge it differently."
The bombers, all young men, are seen and interviewed in prison. They show a calm demeanor, and they were interviewed not long after their first interrogations by Israeli authorities. Their own voices and words are heard, in their often-rambling rationale, with translators providing an English soundtrack.
Tom Roberts wrote and directed the documentary, which spans 16 months of shooting. Roberts said he has met about 15 suicide bombers and has learned that "there is a very human element. If you add these bombers up, they are weak personalities who need social acceptance and rely on other people to give them worth," he said.
Bombers may choose this path, Roberts said, to gain favor with their fathers or to impress a girlfriend, as well as for ideological reasons.
And the idea of the "shahid" -- or a martyr killed for the cause of Islam -- is a romantic notion to the suicide bombers, he said.
"The shahid is a figure that everyone looks up to. He has a real grip on the population, the way my young son has intergalactic fantasies," Roberts said. "So you have this ideology, the anger, frustration, no hope and the personal elements, and together you have a cocktail that leads someone to do this act."
Becoming a shahid, Roberts said, involves a dark ideology "that offers benefits that are quite significant to their extended families. If you do become a shahid, then 70 members of your family will get access to paradise. So if you blow yourself up, they all get in," he said.
Roberts's repeated interviews with the bombers -- "to be sure they were not just saying what we wanted to hear" -- helped the young men to relax, he said.
"They gave up more of themselves," he said. "The times when I was alone with them, there was complete consistency. They see the other side as the total enemy. And they would say, very matter-of-factly, 'I will try to get out of this prison and I will commit another act.' "
"Wide Angle" features documentaries produced by international and U.S. filmmakers who focus on cultures and issues. Some programs are acquired as finished projects, while others are commissioned or co-produced in conjunction with "Wide Angle." The suicide bombers episode was acquired after it was made.
"I had no hesitation. As soon as I saw it, I wanted it for 'Wide Angle,' " said series executive producer Stephen Segaller. "We had been wrestling for the first two seasons with how to do a story in Israel that would capture the essence of the problem and wouldn't go out of date. This is one that portrays the ghastly polarization of the two communities, when people are so desperate they are willing to kill themselves when they kill others."
Part of the documentary's power, Segaller said, is the film itself.
"What's surprising is that a documentary that consists mainly of interviews in strictly confined spaces and under strict conditions could be compelling," he said. "And in between, they did a very good job of cutting in the graveyard of all the buses and the aftermath of the bombing scenes. That deepens the quality of the film."
One clip shows Israeli children playing in the street, acting out a funeral, imitating the images they know so well. Another shows a courtroom scene, which highlights the demeanor of the failed bombers.
"I knew in advance that this is a moment when they want to show their macho-type attitude," said Goldvicht. "When they come to court, with their parents around, whom they haven't seen for quite some time, they want to show they are very macho with what they say and threaten.
"I don't speak fluent Arabic, but our Palestinian cameraman was quite pale."
'Wide Angle' Topics
The third season covers eight new topics:
* "The Saudi Question" explores whether Saudi Arabia is capable of democratic change.
* "The Russian Newspaper Murders" examines the risks journalists run in modern Russia's political climate.
* "Women Rebuild Rwanda" looks at how women are leading their country a decade after the genocide.
* "Sahara Marathon" focuses on a marathon run through the desert.
* "The Suburbs of Islam" visits a Muslim community in France.
* "Afghanistan: Hell of a Nation" profiles a pair of aspiring delegates at the December 2003 loya jirga or grand assembly.
* "Cocaine, Corruption, Colombia" spotlights a lawyer who revealed corruption among the nation's judges.
* "Most of the News That's Fit to Print" goes behind the scenes of Iran's reformist newspaper.