Profiles

The Road to Truth

Sevcenko looks at Thomas Wallner’s searing The Guantanamo Trap and other films for answers.



(From top): Murat Kurnaz, Diane Beaver and Matt Diaz from The Guantanamo Trap, dir. Thomas Wallner (2011).

The day after U.S. president George W. Bush was granted another four years; Thomas Wallner, an Emmy award–winning producer and writer, was travelling to Oklahoma for a film shoot when he was asked by U.S. Customs to provide biometric information. He refused and was then interrogated. Wallner’s decision to stand up for his freedoms resulted in his name being included on the terrorist watch list for the next five years.

Soon after his disturbing border-crossing experience, Wallner read Murat Kurnaz’s autobiography, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, and was pulled into his story. In October 2001, Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen and legal resident of Germany, was arrested in Pakistan and sold to the U.S. army by the police for bounty. After five years as a detainee in Afghanistan and a prisoner of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Kurnaz was released and returned to his hometown of Bremen in the summer of 2006. The initial allegations that he was affiliated with the Al-Qaeda network and the 9/11 attacks dissolved into obscurity, leaving Kurnaz damaged by psychological aftershocks and hardened as a caged animal with no answers or apologies.

Two years later, on May 20, 2008, Kurnaz became the first former Guantanamo detainee to testify before the U.S. Congress.

Wallner’s film The Guantanamo Trap follows Kurnaz’s story in relation to three other characters who, through their bound relationship to Guantanamo Bay, find themselves in a state of immobility—unable to resolve the guilt of their past in order to move toward a gratifying future. Their fates are similar to a Shakespearean tragedy where all characters lose out in the end.

The emotional and psychological trap of each character mirrors the political inertia of the detention camp. With President Obama’s broken promises back in 2009 to shut Gitmo down for good still stinging human rights activists around the globe, a few select films—such as Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s You Don’t Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo and Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantanamo, along with Wallner’s latest installment—have contextualized Guantanamo Bay as a symbol of the dark injustice of the Bush era—and with little resolution in sight.

The Trap

It would be difficult to disassociate Guantanamo Bay from its reputation as a torture ground that has done little to stop the War on Terror. Since it was established by the U.S. Justice Department in 2002, deliberately outside U.S. legal jurisdiction to avoid the protections of the Geneva Convention, Guantanamo Bay (or Gitmo) has become notorious in the international media for its controversial “enhanced interrogation” tactics.

After the disturbing images of U.S. soldiers torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were reported in 2004 by 60 Minutes and The New Yorker, the administration fought not to let the embarrassment over human rights violations cloud their methods of ‘terrorist’ wrangling. Around the same time, Diane Beaver, a lawyer for the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, became infamous for a memo she wrote back in 2002 at Guantanamo Bay that deemed a list of enhanced interrogation techniques (like sensory deprivation and water boarding) to be used against Gitmo detainees as legal. The government leaked the confidential memo, attached with her name, to deflect the global outrage spawned from the Abu Ghraib images.

These days, search ‘Diane Beaver’ on the Internet; her name is linked to torture. That is precisely why Wallner approached Beaver about his film. Having rejected most interviews while trying to readapt to a civilian life, Diane Beaver did agree to participate in Wallner’s project about Guantanamo. In a simple act of courtesy, Wallner promised Beaver the opportunity to tell her side of the story. And she accepted.

The two additional characters in The Guantanamo Trap are Matt Diaz, a Navy lawyer at Guantanamo Bay who copied a list of prisoners and posted it to a human rights organization in New York, resulting in a six-month prison sentence for defying his superiors and his government; and Spanish criminal prosecution lawyer Gonzalo Boye, who has been working on a case against the Bush administration for unlawful detention and war crimes, including torture. By selecting polar characters that tell each side of the Guantanamo quagmire, from both inside and out, Wallner refrains from injecting his own politics into the film, juxtaposing the isolation and degradation of Kurnaz’s story with people on other sides of the issue.

“All three of these characters were at some point made into monsters by somebody,” says Wallner of Murat Kurnaz, Diane Beaver and Matt Diaz—otherwise known as the terrorist, the torturer and the traitor. “And I didn’t want the film to do that, especially with a character like Diane Beaver because she’s been so vilified. I tried hard to give her a human dimension.”

German-Canadian filmmaker Thomas Wallner.

Wallner admits that he’s been criticized for creating a human portrait of Beaver, as many believe her to be amoral and undeserving of a platform. In his defense, Wallner recognizes the “distinction between a person being human, vulnerable and apt to making mistakes—things we might have empathy towards—and then the moral decisions that they make, which are on a different plane and can be judged separately. I didn’t want the film to make that judgment but to create the tension between those two facets of a personality.”

As for his stance, or lack thereof, in The Guantanamo Trap, Wallner says, “To me it brings no value to bring my judgment to this particular situation. It’s more valuable to see what’s going on in their hearts and in their minds. Even if there’s a contradiction between what they say and their actions, I think audiences are savvy enough to read those discrepancies. I love human beings and their contradictions.”

At a certain point while watching The Guantanamo Trap, the questions that do not get answered during the documentary become just as important as the ones that do. The fact that the film does not provide concrete answers but, rather, raises questions, is very reflective of the state of Gitmo.

From the beginning, Wallner knew his film was not going to offer any kind of resolution, simply because there are no easy conclusions surrounding Guantanamo. None of the allegations against Murat Kurnaz have proven to be true. Matt Diaz has lost all court challenges to his conviction, and the human rights organizations to which Diaz leaked the list of detainees have never responded. Diane Beaver continues to wonder why her government hung her out to dry, and Boye’s case against the U.S. lawyers is stalled due to political pressure from the Obama administration.

For Germans, Murat Kurnaz’s case is quite controversial, with public opinion remaining quite divided. Yet, “what you won’t find in Germany is a patriotic pro-American view,” says Wallner. “Germans are very leery of transgressions of the state, given the history of their country. I think there is a stronger general sense of the sanctity of the rights of the individual in Germany [than in the U.S.].”

Wallner recently took his film on a mini-tour in Germany, with screenings in Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, where Kurnaz was born. Accompanying Wallner for the Q&A were both Kurnaz and Boye. The Bremen screening turned out to be a full house, with the queue winding around the block. “They really wanted to see Murat, who has a strained relationship with his hometown,” says Wallner. “The film isn’t actually about local German politics, but I think Kurnaz has a special place in Germany and particularly in Bremen.”

The Road

The Road to Guantanamo, dir. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross (2006). Courtesy Alliance Films.

Toward the end of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s The Road to Guantanamo, a pivotal statistic is provided: over 750 people have been imprisoned at Guantanamo, with only 10 ever having been charged. Their 2006 film is a docudrama—a re-enactment that traces the incarceration of three British detainees of Pakistani origin, known as the Tipton Three, who travelled to Pakistan for a wedding in 2001, shortly after 9/11. They crossed the border into Afghanistan just as U.S. planes began attacking Taliban posts and were captured in a convoy as suspected Taliban members. They were held in an Afghani prison for months before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2002, where they would remain for the next three years.

The rest of the film is comprised of dramatized scenes of the three suffering beatings, torture tactics and relentless interrogations that depict officers attempting to extract confessions that they are members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The scenes are structured around interviews with the real-life detainees, who were released in 2005.

Sophisticatedly shot, The Road to Guantanamo gets inside the horrifying day-to-day accounts of detainees, whereas Wallner’s film scrutinizes the detention centre from the outside through its political conundrums and contractions. One depicts the torture of the moment while the other, the turmoil of the aftermath.

Though The Road to Guantanamo is riveting to watch, it does leave a few potholes unfilled along the journey. Between the quick cuts of freewheelin’ road scenes, Afghan skies alight with bombs, an abrupt capture and subsequent torture scenes mixed with extremely short interview clips of the Tipton Three, we are left with foggy segues and a few crucial missing links—most importantly, the reason for their jaunt into Afghanistan. This is one of the most reiterated questions of the interrogators. And as we sit through the film, balling our hands into fists, this very question—posed over and over during many painful sequences of probing—becomes our own.

What we can gather from the accounts of the Three is that they went into Afghanistan just for fun. But what is fun, or even adventurous, about entering a war zone during a wedding celebration? The filmmakers’ reluctance to provide a legitimate answer works to undermine the film’s position that it’s unjust for interrogators to question, moreover hold captive, these young men. One review from The Times sums it up best: “The sheer stupidity of these Brits mocks the sincerity of the film. Winterbottom refuses to ask the bleeding obvious. His unquestioning faith in his ‘cast’ is bewildering.”

Whereas Wallner’s unanswered questions formulate the entire point of his film, those that go unanswered in Winterbottom’s just lend themselves open to charges of constructing a sloppy narrative. Still, Winterbottom’s film does a proper job of drawing attention to Guantanamo Bay’s blatant and inexcusable practice of torture tactics. For that, it can be celebrated for pointing the camera on human rights abuses in a place that has no right to exist.


Security-camera footage of Omar Khadr being interrogated by CSIS agents from You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo, dir. Luc Coté and Patricio Henriquez (2010).

The Truth

But perhaps the most accurately defining phrase linked to Guantanamo Bay’s position comes in one scene in Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s documentary, You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo. The film is based on security camera footage from Guantanamo Bay of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), who interrogated 16-year-old detainee Omar Khadr for four days in 2003 at a U.S. maximum-security facility at Gitmo.

“That’s what I told you, the truth. You don’t like the truth,” Khadr answers to CSIS officials. Through a brilliant selection of moments from seven hours of grainy videotape, one sees Khadr undergoing a psychological breakdown before the interrogation officers. Using interviews with ex-cellmates of Khadr, American military soldiers, lawyers and psychiatrists among others, the film analyzes the political, legal and scientific aspects of the interrogation. Director Luc Côté said that the dramatic arc of their film was evident in the four days. Day 1: Hope, Day 2: Fallout, Day 3: Blackmail, and Day 4: Failure. They didn’t need to play with the material—it simply spoke for itself.

Used as a translator by his Taliban father, the Toronto-born Omar Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002, after a compound was blown up in battle, killing many involved, including his father. After the incident, Khadr was charged with killing an American soldier, making him the first child soldier to be tried as a war criminal.

Gitmo Films

The majority of the films made about Gitmo have been financed and directed by non- Americans. In the United States, very little of Guantanamo Bay has made its way to the big screen. Toward the end of Michael Moore’s SICKO, the director takes a boatful of patients and 9/11 rescue workers to Guantanamo Bay, pleading through a megaphone that these American citizens deserve the same medical attention that Al-Qaeda is receiving.

The infamous orange jumpsuits used in Gitmo have become synonymous with critiques of the America administration as human-rights abusers, sometimes used in symbolic parody. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, by subversive U.K. street artist Banksy, the artist-director pulls a stunt in Disneyland by inflating a life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee—in the orange jump, hooded face and manacled hands and feet—and placing it inside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride.

This fall, The Guantanamo Trap is screening in prestigious festivals all over Europe, including Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and France, with phenomenal feedback from both the public and press. And yet so far, every U.S. festival has rejected it. “I’ve never seen such a pronounced bias,” says Wallner. “Perhaps the film is more ‘European’ in the sense that it asks a lot of the viewer. American audiences, at least mainstream audiences, have that tendency to be spoon-fed and pulled through a film by a gripping aesthetic that often involves musical and visual pyrotechnics.

“Perhaps the U.S. is tired of hearing about Guantanamo,” continues Wallner, “which is a shame because this film is not really about Gitmo; it’s about individual responsibility, mortality and trauma, themes that go way beyond the particulars of time and place in relation to Gitmo.”

Indeed, The Guantanamo Trap attempts to sharpen people’s political views on the abuse of power in the search for the real truth. As we’ve witnessed through the procedures of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, the U.S. governmental and military operations responsible don’t really like the truth, so it’s important that some films are seeking to find it.

Melanie Sevcenko currently lives in Berlin, Germany, where she works as a freelance journalist for international publications, in both radio and print. Her articles have been published by Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera, GlobalPost, The Washington Times, Miller-McCune, DOX Magazine and Realscreen, among others.

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