Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.
The description of the film says that it is a “harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.”
The film differs from the normal documentary format, which usually consists of news footage mixed with talking heads, with a “voice of god” voiceover narration. Since the film deals with the treatment these people received in prison camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, which the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to keep reporters, lawyers, and human rights groups out of, there was no way that the filmmakers could have obtained any actual video news footage of their treatment in captivity.
So they went instead for the dramatic re-enactment, with actors and sets used to provide a visual representation of what the three young men (all in their early twenties) said they had experienced. And what the film revealed was the various forms of torture that the men experienced while in US custody.
There was no attempt by the filmmakers to claim that the film was anything more than what it clearly showed on the screen, which was the story as told by the three men. But Joanna Connors, the Plain Dealer Cultural Critic, clearly took offense at the film, using surprisingly harsh language in her February 15, 2006 review to denounce it. I say “surprising” because Connors is, if her previous film criticisms and columns are any indication, somewhat “liberal” in her outlook, and thus her reaction sheds an interesting light on how journalistic professionals see their role, which was the topic of last week’s series of posts on the media.
Connors’ review said the following:
[I]n the last few years, the multiplex has become the new Op-Ed page, a place for blunt, straight-up polemics on war, the environment, elections and other divisive subjects. Where films labeled documentaries once signaled “factual,” they now abandon all pretense to following journalistic methods and leave audiences in the dark, so to speak, about what is true and what is opinion.
. . .
Winterbottom’s film tells [the young men's] version of what happened. Take note: It is their version, without any supporting evidence from neutral observers — say, human rights groups or journalists — or rebuttals from the British or Americans.
But Winterbottom doesn’t make that clear, or clear enough, given that he shows U.S. soldiers, and others, administering torture so brutal it makes the photos from Abu Ghraib look like fun and games
. . .
Winterbottom blurs the line between propaganda and truth by using several documentary techniques: The shaky hand-held camera, the extensive on-camera interviews with the three men, the location shooting (except for the scenes at Gitmo, which were shot in Iran) — all signal “news” to audiences. He mixes these with “dramatic reenactments” of the events using actors, a cheesy technique straight out of “Crime Stoppers.”
Then Connors reveals how far she has bought into the administration’s arguments that in this “war on terror”, anything goes and normal legal safeguards, let along human rights, be damned.
Are the men telling the truth? Who knows? Their story has enough holes to justify their capture, imprisonment and interrogation. On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to allow lawyers into Guantanamo on behalf of the prisoners and news accounts about Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons and violations of international law weigh heavily on the other side.
The idea that people can be kept in jail for three and a half years, not allowed to see families or lawyers, and subjected to torture (what she coyly refers to as “interrogation”) just because their story has “holes” is an amazing testimony of the power of this administration’s rhetoric of the “war on terror” to cow even “liberals” to go along with them. Are the three men telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were not charged with anything for the entire time of their long captivity, and then when they were sent back to Britain they were released immediately by British police who could not find any reason to charge them. So the presumption has to be that the men were telling the truth. Does the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” not mean anything to Connors? And even if they were guilty of something, does she feel that it would that justify the treatment they received?
This kind of call for a fake balance is the result of the media propaganda model. While the suffering endured by the prisoners is very real, there is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns “weigh heavily on the other side” as Connors asserts. The administration seems quite gleeful and unconcerned about violating all the norms of behavior and is pushing for even more leeway to use torture.
Connors sums up: “Whatever one’s views on the war or one’s political views, the enflamed, out-of-control situation in the Middle East makes releasing this movie deeply, almost unforgivably irresponsible.”
Unforgivably irresponsible? Really? It is interesting that the administration has permanent license to make repeated unrebutted and unsubstantiated statements (which the media dutifully repeats) that claim that everyone they catch is an ‘evildoer’ or ‘bad guy’ or ‘terrorist’. These are staples of the current news and the lack of balance is not denounced as “irresponsible.” This is because the administration is always given the presumption of credibility, despite their shameful record of lies and deception. And yet, one person makes a film telling the story from the point of view of the prisoners, and suddenly there are demands for ‘balance’. This is a good example of how journalists internalize certain attitudes and do not realize they are serving in a propaganda system.
Given the state of the news media, it may be that this kind of documentary is the way of the future. One can see why mainstream journalists are worried by these developments and oppose them. The director of the film Michael Winterbottom has created successful commercial films (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo are among his credits) and uses his skills at dramatization to bring the events to vivid life. He knows how to create a dramatic impact. Since he is not a professional journalist (at least as far as I am aware) he may not have internalized the need to provide the kind of phony ‘balance’, which in actual practice means tilting the story heavily in favor of the government’s version of events in order to garner the approval of mainstream journalists.
The visual power of film is probably what arouses the concern and ire of those who support the government. Paul Krugman describes (September 18, 2006 in the New York Times – sorry, no link available) the torture that prisoners of this administration undergo. He writes:
According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ”stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours”; the ”cold cell,” in which prisoners are forced ”to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,” while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ”the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,” then ”cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him,” inducing ”a terrifying fear of drowning.”
And bear in mind that the ”few bad apples” excuse doesn’t apply; these were officially approved tactics — and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.
I’m ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I’d be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured — and I’m not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantanamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent. (my emphasis)
These are strong words. His description of the methods or torture are disturbing but lack the kind of emotional punch that a visual representation can provide. When you see some of the very things described by Krugman on the screen, you are filled with revulsion. You wonder how any human being can treat any other human being like that.
This is why these kinds of documentaries are powerful. And dangerous. And why they will be opposed and denigrated by some members who see themselves as the guardians of the “objective” media.
See The Road to Guantanamo if you can. And see our tax dollars at work in the service of barbarism.