They Can Touch You
“At one point I was so angry and disappointed at God,” says Adama Bah. But over the two years since this high school student was arrested, she’s come to think there must be a reason. “I’m starting accept God let it happen like that,” she says. “Why, I’m not sure yet.”
In March 2005, when Adama was 16 years old, she and a friend, Tashnuba Hayder, were picked up by US authorities, who described them as “terrorist threats.” Adama remembers that day as the camera in Adama turns hectic, pitching and reeling around Adama’s East Harlem apartment to reenact what it felt like. The place was suddenly filled with people, Adama remembers, 10 or 15 of them, searching for something. “It was FBI, it was police, it was Immigration,” she recalls. At first, she believed the presence of the Immigration officials meant they were coming after her father, Mamadou, a cabdriver and illegal immigrant from Guinea, West Africa. One of the authorities told her to “get up and pick up your shoes, just take one pair,” she says. She was confused, she was afraid, and within a few minutes, she was headed to a maximum-security juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania.
Adama had arrived in America with her parents when she was two; her brothers and sisters were born in the States. She became a Muslim in America, at her father’s urging, while she was away at school. Adama—which airs this month on ITVS—introduces Adama’s family by way of footage taken one of her younger brothers, Abdoul. “I’m the cameraman and the director and I did everything to make this movie,” he smiles, turning his lens on his siblings one by one, asking them to perform a bit. “You dance too much,” he tells his sister Mariama. When Adama offers to sing, Abdoul says, “It’s okay if you sing, because it’s a funny movie.”
This happy dynamic is changed forever when authorities discover Mamadou’s illegal status while they research Adama’s case. They take him away too: she remembers that he was handcuffed. “He told me, ‘Everything will be okay, you’re the oldest child, so it’s your responsibility to take care of the family.’” She could tell that he wanted to hug her, she says now, but “he couldn’t.” (He was deported back to Guinea, West Africa in August 2006.)
When Adama is released six weeks after the raid on her family’s home, a news report from Democracy Now notes, “Now it appears the government had no case at all.” Still, she must wear an electronic ankle bracelet and keep to a curfew, even as she also tries to do what her father has asked. At first, she tries to go back to Heritage High School in Manhattan, but soon realizes that she needs to support her mother and siblings, and so she drops out and begins babysitting.
At the same time she’s bearing this burden, Adama is facing deportation proceedings. Her friend Tashnuba is already gone, and Adama’s case is prolonged because she has applied for political asylum. (The film hardly needs to underscore the irony of this situation.) Though cameras can’t go inside any of the offices where she’s questioned, she describes some sessions, including an early one when she was told that Tashnuba confessed that she had “signed me up for a list” to become a suicide bomber. Adama is stunned: “I’m like, there’s a list you can sign up?” When she learns later that Tashnuba has been told the same thing about her, Adama is further horrified. “When you arrest someone you have to have proof,” she says, and unless they do, they “can’t touch you. But if you’re an illegal immigrant, they can touch you.”
As she waits for this decision—it takes two and a half years, and seven hearings, before she knows her fate—Adama does her best to make a living and also to be a teenager. As she interacts with the camera crew, it’s clear how young she is. “There,” she points to a page where she’s been writing in a journal, where she’s written “wuz.” She reassures the camera operator: “I know how to spell ‘was.’ That’s how teenagers write. Because I am a teenager,” she instructs, her fingers marking scare quotes on the last word. In a next scene, she picks up the phone to speak with a friend, her legs swinging, like a teenager’s.
By inviting Adama to speak for herself, David Felix Sutcliffe’s documentary grants her the sort of voice the US government denies her. She runs through a gamut of reactions, rebellious and angry, vulnerable and frightened. She is made wise before her time, and she’s asking questions she wouldn’t have thought to ask had she not been subjected to this ordeal. Still, as she laughs at her best friend Damaris’ graduation, or hears from Demaris’ mother that she’s on her way to “Smith College in Massachusetts,” Adama remains resilient She maintains a sense of self-identity, despite all efforts to contain and redefine her.