This precise, impassioned portrait of post-9/11 collateral damage is exactly the sort of exposé that the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is designed to showcase.
Seen via the grainy video footage, Omar Khadr is something of a blur, but his sobs can be heard loud and clear. In 2003, Khadr is just a 16-year-old kid from Canada, but that matters little to the unseen men and women who sit with him in claustrophobic cells at Guantánamo Bay, pressing him to confess when he met Osama bin Laden.
Khadr's interrogations are the focus of You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo, which premieres at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 24 June and opens at the Film Forum on 28 September. It’s a stark and fractured work of split-screens and fuzzy faces that would be easier to watch if it were experimental fiction. Instead, it’s a true story about a teenager found in 2002 on an Afghanistan battlefield, where he appeared to have been dumped by his Taliban-sympathizing father, and was then tortured for days at the American base at Bagram before being shipped off to Guantánamo.
The first day that we see Khadr, he’s quiet but happy, since the Canadians have come. After so much time spent in the hands of Americans, Khadr is palpably relieved to have his countrymen sitting across from him, even if they're from the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS). He answers their questions haltingly, but without much resistance, filling in some gaps in their narrative of how Khadr’s father had been going back and forth to Afghanistan for years, operating various charities for refugees there and in Pakistan. Over the next three days, it becomes clear that the CSIS agents aren’t there to help the boy get back home. Rather, they just want to ask the same questions as the Americans, who have accused him of killing one of their soldiers.
As Khadr skews back and forth over his story, first telling an eager CSIS agent that he had been at a gathering with Osama bin Laden and then recanting it, the film cuts in scenes of others watching the footage. He’s nearly mute with fear at times, asking the CSIS team (who seem as heartless about Khadr’s predicament as they are bad at their jobs) to “promise you’ll protect me from the Americans.” Khadr’s former cellmates, his civilian legal team, mother and sister, his onetime U.S. military-appointed lawyer, and an advocate for victims of torture, are all outraged by what they see.
Damien Corsetti also watches the footage. A former guard at Bagram who has admitted to abusing prisoners, he wears a couple of telling tattoos (“Monster” and “The King of Torture”) and describes himself as a “cold, callous, son-of-a-bitch.” But here again, as he does in Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Corsetti seems remorseful over what he and others did.
Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s film has two things going for it that other documentaries about rendered prisoners, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo do not. First, where a film like Taxi to the Dark Side necessarily relies on interviews, redacted documents, and reenactments, Côté and Henríquez have videotapes. Recorded over the four days when Khadr was interrogated by the CSIS, they provide images that are both banal and horrifying. We see people dressed like office workers talking, futzing with the air conditioner, eating McDonalds: their blasé disconnection from this bumbling bureaucratic nightmare is almost more disturbing than had the tapes shown actual physical torture.
Second, the film’s argument doesn’t depend on whether or not its primary subject is innocent. While there is some disagreement over whether Khadr actually threw a grenade at the attacking Americans or never had the chance before being shot multiple times and receiving serious shrapnel wounds, this question ends up being mostly irrelevant. Multiple interviewees argue that even if he had been a willing participant in Taliban activities, Khadr is still a child soldier under United Nations law and so, a candidate for rehabilitation instead of punishment. Regardless of what Khadr has done, the film submits, he didn’t deserve to be tortured at Bagram. It's such an obvious and humane truth that it doesn’t even need to be voiced.