Sunday, 7 March 2010

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo

A film by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, available on DVD from

This powerful documentary is a film of talking heads - yet it’s absolutely gripping. Following the stories of four Guantanamo detainees, and featuring interviews with ex-detainees Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes, the legal director of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, and American lawyer for the detainees, Tom Wilner, it’s a damning expose of the Bush administration’s torture and detention policies in the War on Terror, and at the same time an uplifting account of how humanity can survive intact following dreadful and prolonged enforced suffering.

The film covers all the issues, including ‘extraordinary rendition’, torture and the bizarre and confusing legal mess created by the administration in order to justify its policies and sidestep international law. One example given was their redefinition of the word torture. Everyone knows what torture means: it’s the deliberate infliction of suffering on an individual. But the administration redefined it to mean the infliction of pain ‘equivalent to’ that of major organ failure or even death. Even here the definition is ambiguous: what does ‘equivalent to’ mean in this context? According to this definition, presumably breaking someone’s nose or fingers is not torture. Waterboarding (‘controlled drowning’) is not torture. Chaining someone up by their wrists in a cold, pitch dark room and playing heavy metal music at deafening volumes for a month is not torture. Slitting a man’s penis with a razor blade is not torture. Subjecting someone to the screams of a woman and children and telling him that it’s his wife and children who are being raped and tortured is not torture. But we all know it is. And all of these ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques have been practised on detainees, either by Americans or by proxy in other countries. Through the use of doublespeak, misinformation and transparent attempts to suggest some sort of legal basis for torture, the administration tried to normalise it and make it acceptable.

All of these practices seem to be so self-evidently inhumane, that after watching the film I found myself wondering how it is that so many ordinary, good people justify them. Many people do, both in Britain and the US. Statements such as ‘there’s no smoke without fire’, and ‘torture must be OK if it saves lives’, seem recurrent. The latter argument, promoted by TV shows such as ‘24’, is not supported either by common sense or by serious studies; because people under torture will tend to say anything to make the pain stop, the practice if anything tends to confuse and complicate intelligence. And there’s often smoke without fire; otherwise there’d be no need for courts to determine someone’s guilt or innocence, and there’d never be any miscarriages of justice. Miscarriages are all the more likely, of course, in an unfair system which operates outside the rule of law. Hence of the 700 or so people imprisoned at Guantanamo, over 500 have since been released, in an implied admission that there was virtually no evidence against them (many were not even charged with an offence) or that they are certainly, or very probably, innocent.

Misconceptions are encouraged by fearmongering and propaganda from politicians and the media. They include the assumption that terrorists are somehow different from other murderers, and therefore that suspected terrorists can be treated differently from all other suspected criminals. The fear of Muslims that arose after 9/11 makes them an easy target; perhaps, in a certain sense, Muslims are the new Jews. And I suspect, though I cannot prove, that this scapegoating may be a cover for an endemic racism which otherwise could not be expressed in mainstream society. But also crucially, I think it reflects an ignorance of international law. The UN Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and other international laws and treaties all exist to protect all of us, without exception, from these kinds of abuses. The people who authorise or practise these abuses are themselves criminals, and could in theory be tried at the International Criminal Court. It’s this emphasis on the rule of law, and the Bush administration’s twisting of it, that Nash and Worthington’s film presents so well – an emphasis which is present even in the film’s title.

Seeing the extent to which the rule of law has been trashed, and the standard of ‘justice’ employed as a return to the 11th Century (pre-Magna Carta), is depressing and upsetting indeed. But the film also presents hope for humanity. Clive Stafford Smith speaks in the film of how the detainees, when he first met them, had lost their faith in humanity and it was important for him to build a sense of trust with them. Yet despite everything they have been through, Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes are both humorous and humane individuals who appear to hold no personal grudges against those who guarded them in Guantanamo and are passionate campaigners for justice. Omar, who I have met personally several times, is both passionately determined and at the same time one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known. It’s both sad and touching when, towards the end of the film, he speaks of his son Suleiman whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby, and says that of all the things that were done to him in Guantanamo, the taking away of his opportunity to see the first years of his son’s life is the biggest loss of all. It’s a poignant and very human note to end the film on.

The War on Terror, and the struggle against its multitude of injustices, includes both the worst and the best of humanity. By showing us, above all, the humanity of these so-miscalled ‘worst of the worst’, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo’ does an important service indeed.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Man Inside the Suit, or how I learned to love 'Star Wars' after all

I’m currently watching all six Star Wars movies on DVD - in chronological order of events, not of release. Having now reached Part III, I’m now less dismissive of the series as an over-simplistic cowboy fantasy in space. ‘Revenge of the Sith’, as well as perhaps the most visually spectacular, is also quite subtle psychologically (yes!), contains a timely commentary on world events, and is imbued with a sense of tragedy that was hinted at in the previous film, and makes it clear that the whole series is about Anakin, his seduction, corruption, fall and ultimate redemption.

It’s also stunningly beautiful. The opening shot, before which all previous memorable opening shots in the series pale in comparison, is incredible, with golden sunlight flaring in space and a dizzying battle which is exciting, humorous and yet already contains a sense of tragedy. The two friends are fighting together; they will end the film fighting each other. And the visuals, as they do throughout, are not merely spectacular (any video game can do that), but expressive of mood. The golden sunlight in this opening scene suggests that the sun is setting on the Republic – and indeed it is. By the end of the film the Republic will be no more – as will the strained but nonetheless deep friendship between Anakin and Obi Wan. This is the darkest Star Wars movie by far – something that could never have been imagined over thirty years ago, when we all poured into the cinemas for Part IV, the film that we now know as ‘A New Hope’ after the Republic’s (and the hero’s) fall.

Both falls, the personal and the impersonal, are depicted with some subtlety. In the second half, all the threads of Palpatine’s machinations are drawn inexorably together as democracy is destroyed – it’s all terribly believable. The Chancellor’s controversial ‘emergency powers’ are just one allusion to the War on Terror; no politician ever wants to give up temporary powers, which is why the piecemeal giving away of our freedoms is so dangerous. Natalie Portman’s Padme (sadly with less to do here than in the previous film) asks Anakin if he’s stopped to wonder if they’re fighting on the wrong side; if they’ve become as bad or worse than the enemy they’re at war with. And there’s a chilling reminder of the year 2001 when Obi Wan, desperate to help Anakin and avoid having to kill him, is told by his former apprentice “if you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!” Donald Rumsfeld spoke almost the same words at the start of the War on Terror. “Only the Sith talk in absolutes” replies Obi Wan, and in another sense he’s right. Darth Sidious, enjoyably chilling and creepy throughout, is the only purely evil character in the whole series. Anakin is portrayed with far more subtlety, and also quite movingly, by the much-maligned Hayden Christiansen.

It’s his transformation into Darth Vader, his betrayal of the friendship with Obi Wan and his relationship with Padme, which is the tragic heart of the series. Christiansen expresses Anakin’s fear, despair and conflict quite convincingly, and even at the end is far from simply ‘evil’. After rescuing Palpatine and causing the death of Windu, he collapses and cries “what have I done?!” And even after massacring the Jedi children, he stands alone (utterly alone) on the volcano planet with a tear streaming down his face. While Darth is destroying the Republic, Anakin is asking him from the back of his mind “What are you doing?” All this makes his final mutilation and transformation, from his burning at the edge of the lava flow to his encasement (imprisonment) in the famous suit, all the more upsetting. I found this scene distressing, as well as a little morbidly fascinating: what did the young Darth look like inside his suit? At the end of the movie, Anakin has lost everything. His is the real tragedy of the films, just as he remains, ultimately and despite his fall, the Chosen One. He does restore balance to the force, he does destroy the Sith! It just takes him six movies to do it.

The acting throughout is good. Ewan McGregor is really starting to look like Alec Guinness, the supporting cast are excellent (I’ll include the CGI Yoda in that!), and Natalie Portman portrays Padme’s heartbreak – well, heartbreakingly. She’s also astonishingly beautiful; I can see why Anakin fell in love with her!

I haven’t yet mentioned the humour. At times it’s a funny movie, and if dialogue is always claimed to be George Lucas’s weakest point, he’s not bad with the one-liners. “Not to worry – we’re still flying half the ship!” says Obi Wan before their impossible crash landing following the space battle. And R2-D2 is as engaging as ever (I didn’t know he could fight like that before!) But there’s even a sadness in the humour. R2 will not always be helping Anakin, and many of the jokes arise from the tense friendship between Obi Wan and Anakin. By the end of the movie it’s not longer a joke. The last words screamed to Obi Wan by the burning, mutilated Anakin are “I HATE YOU!!!” To which his heartbroken mentor cries “you were my brother! I loved you!” Full marks to both of these actors, who worked hard both on the fight scenes and on the psychological aspects of their relationship throughout these two films. It’s a moving and upsetting climax.

It might be said that I’m taking the film all too seriously. I would have said the same when Parts IV-VI were all I knew, but now I’m a convert. And the whole Star Wars saga was conceived and written during the Vietnam War, whose parallels with the War on Terror have been remarked on by Lucas himself. It was noticed also by right-wing politicians in the US, some of whom called for a boycott of the film after its release because it was ‘liberal’ and against the Iraq War. Which of course, is as excellent a reason as any for going to see it!

One wonders if Tony Blair will one day find some kind of redemption, as Anakin does in Part VI. Now that is hard to believe.