" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

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There are hundreds of prisoners at a U.S. military base in Cuba. (Guantanamo Bay has been shortened to “Gitmo” by the army.) Although the Secretary of Defense assures us these prisoners are the worst of the worst, none of them have actually been charged with a crime. It seems likely that some of these prisoners have been tortured. (Pundits with agendas can argue about the definition of the word “torture,” but that doesn’t change the fact of the mistreatment of these prisoners).

These are disturbing facts, and it tarnishes my country’s image and the ideals on which it was founded. So the subject of Gitmo is one that I’d like to see my fellow Americans talking about.

But a movie still ought to engage, and a documentary ought to play by the rules of nonfiction. In spots, Gitmo falls short on both counts. There are good segments that counterbalance the shortcomings, but ultimately, it’s disappointing that Gitmo dropped the ball.

Devils in the Details

Mehdi remains mostly silent about his confinement in Gitmo
Mehdi remains mostly silent about his confinement in Gitmo

The documentary is made by Swedish filmmakers Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh. They started the project while Swedish citizen Mehdi Ghezali was still a detainee in Gitmo. After being released, Mehdi refused to talk. He appears on camera, and he says a few words, but he will not speak substantively about his captivity. And that’s just the first crack in Gitmo’s armor.

There is footage of Mehdi at a press conference where he says he was tortured, even though he cooperated with the Americans. He gives a few details, but they are vague (“I was held in [the interrogation room] for 12... 24 hours”) or seem exaggerated (“they’d put on air-conditioning at about 30 degrees below zero” — if true, an amazing feat in tropical Cuba). Surely Mehdi was kept awake for a long time and kept in a very cold room. Minutely examining Mehdi’s choice of words at an uncomfortable press conference is an unhelpful semantic game. But without specific allegations, it is harder for American moviegoers to demand answers from their government representatives. Unfortunately, it’s also easier for those who would condone torture to dismiss Mehdi.

“Jamal from Manchester”, who was also a detainee, also goes on camera and speaks vaguely about conditions in Guantanmo Bay. For one of the (potentially) best sources in the film, he doesn’t get much screen time, nor does he offer much in the way of incriminating evidence. I’m surprised that these people, imprisoned for years, perhaps unjustly, do not make more specific allegations. Perhaps there’s nothing to allege; perhaps they’re too ashamed; perhaps the director never asked or fully won their trust. In any case, if I were producing a movie called Gitmo, that would be one of the questions I would want answered on-camera.

Matter of Fact

The directors do get two excellent interviews. One is Tory Nelson, a former interrogator for the army who worked both in Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib. He speaks matter-of-factly about the methods used to extract information from prisoners, including threats of violence, snarling dogs, freezing temperatures, humiliation, all on a U.S. Government-approved list of tactics.

The other excellent interview is General Janis Karpinski, who ran the Abu Ghraib prison until General Geoffrey D. Miller took over. She, too, is matter-of-fact on camera. She was in charge of the prison, but the interrogation of prisoners was handled by another unit, outside of her jurisdiction. Had she known what was going on under her nose, she says that she would have “screamed about it.”

It’s particularly refreshing to see her frank interview, as it comes as the directors try to reach General Baccus, who used to run Gitmo. Both General Baccus and General Karpinski were succeeded by the same man, General Miller. Both may have been replaced at the recommendation of General Michael Dunleavy

Unsupported Speculation

Here, the filmmakers settle for unsupported speculation. They leave the impression that Generals Dunleavy and Miller are willing to violate Geneva Convention rules against torture, which is why they were put in charge of interrogation prisons. But the filmmakers aren’t really able to back it up. Karpinski has a strong suspicion, and the timing of a document hints at such a move, but the filmmakers keep hitting dead ends in their search for something solid, and it feels like they just gave up. They should have either followed through, or left the speculation out.

Perhaps more illustrative of the filmmakers lack of preparation is their interview with General Miller. They seem to have been caught off-guard by him granting them an interview. They ask him questions about policy set at the political level, where this General has no say.

Even worse, during a formal interview, they ask two low-level MPs to speculate about why General Baccus was replaced. When the MPs, reasonably, don’t have answers, Gandini persists, asking them if they have heard any rumors. At this point, the press handler steps in and tells Gandini to ask someone more appropriate, like General Baccus himself or his press secretary, and not these two grunts. I was actually embarrassed for the filmmakers.

Producer For a Day

If I had produced the film, I would have demanded more research and more legwork from the movie’s directors. Instead, Gandini and Saleh seem to be taking advantage of the cheapness and accessibility of video. Gitmo seems to be the best movie they could squeeze out of their limited footage. (And the movie does feels squeezed; some of the footage is repeated, and too often the interesting audio is accompanied by footage of the directors driving around the streets of Washington, D.C., apparently for lack of anything better to show over the audio).

I would have also asked that the movie focus on a single aspect of the story. Gitmo wants to be about Mehdi. But it also wants to be about the interrogation techniques used by the U.S. Government. And it also wants to be about the calculated assignment of certain generals to prison camps in the U.S. military. It never spends enough time on any single thread to make a decisive point.

The subject of the American policy regarding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is a serious and important issue. It is heartening to see some deeper coverage starting to emerge. This movie is a good conversation-starter, and hopefully it will spawn even more research and even more openness. But it’s a pity that Gitmo isn’t better produced and more rock-solid.