For better or worse, the situation at Guantánamo Bay has probably penetrated the public mind more thoroughly than most ongoing violations of human rights. On Saturday, Vancouverites get the chance to preview Thomas Wallner’s The Guantanamo Trap, a film that’s likely to bring a bigger crowd than most at the 16th Annual Amnesty International Film Festival, taking place November 17 to 20 at SFU Harbour Centre.
Wallner’s doc takes an unusual approach to the subject. “We meet people who are affected in ways that we normally don’t think about,” says festival director Don Wright. “The prisoners are obviously affected, but so are the people who are in charge of holding those prisoners.”
Indeed, one of the film’s four subjects is Diane Beaver, the military lawyer who fashioned the legal framework for the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base detention facility’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”. She’s a fascinating figure, earnest and forthcoming about her work but holding firm to the belief that it was all for God and country.
The viewer is left wondering if she has any appreciation at all for her own pretzel-shaped moral logic. Is she lying to us? Is she lying to herself? If so, does she know she’s lying to herself? Even with these questions, Wright says, “It helps you to understand her in ways that you might not have understood her before.”
She’s not without sympathy, since Beaver was hung out to dry in the time-honoured fashion by everybody further along the chain of command. “Lower-level officials are always held more accountable than the leaders,” notes Wright, but her own obdurate mindset prevents Beaver from appreciating the situation that befell Matt Diaz, a navy lawyer at Guantánamo who slipped classified information to a human-rights group. His conscience landed him with a life that remains more or less in ruins.
Ditto for another of Wallner’s subjects, Murat Kurnaz. Sold to the U.S. military by Pakistani police in the early days of the so-called war on terror, the Turkish teen endured four years at both Kandahar and Guantánamo, and the trauma is evident in every coiled and inscrutable moment he spends on-screen. To this day, Beaver scoffs at his innocence, even as every trumped-up charge against Kurnaz has collapsed.
There’s an unintended irony in the opening moments of The Guantanamo Trap, in which we witness Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama making his empty pledge to shut down Gitmo. This year’s edition of the Amnesty International film fest features four movies about Nobel Prize recipients. “I think it’s better when the prize reflects someone’s lifetime of achievement,” is Wright’s wry comment on that matter. “Certainly, the others that are represented in the list have a lifetime of achievement, often at great personal risk.”
Amnesty itself is included in the group of Nobel-oriented movies (Amnesty! When They Are All Free), along with Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee (Pray the Devil Back to Hell), Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi (Lady of No Fear), and the Dalai Lama (The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom). Wright describes the latter film as “the best we’ve ever had about the Dalai Lama, because it’s not just a celebratory film. There are actually critical voices in there, which makes it much more interesting.”
Wright also adds that growing public interest has prompted an increase in documentaries such as Blood in the Mobile, which “look at corporate accountability and the role of corporations in the violation of human rights”, while a movie like The Price of Sex—“we meet everybody involved in sex trafficking, including the criminals”—reminds us of the dangers often facing the filmmakers themselves. “It’s something we acknowledge in our festival,” Wright says. “A lot of filmmakers have gone to great personal risk to get their footage, and to be behind enemy lines, sometimes.”
All the more reason to support their work, then. “Yes,” Wright agrees. “Absolutely, yes.”