Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, November 2011
Synopsis: In July of 2002, 15-year-old Canadian citizen Omar Khadr was captured in a US raid in Afghanistan, and accused of killing an American soldier. Severely injured, Khadr was interrogated and tortured at Bagram Air Base, before being transferred in October 2002 to Guantánamo Bay, where the US government was preparing to charge him with war crimes. Over the four days of 13th to 16th February, 2003, two representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service were allowed to interrogate Khadr in the company of a CIA liaison. The interrogation was filmed, and in May 2008 the video recordings were made available (in occasionally censored form) to Khadr’s lawyers on the orders of the Canadian Supreme Court. This documentary shows select parts of the recordings, with informed commentary from, amongst others, a psychiatrist specialising in torture victims, a deputy director of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a former foreign minister of Canada as well as a former Director General of Consular Affairs, two of Khadr’s lawyers, a US Navy lawyer, a Canadian national security reporter, several former detainees of Bagram and Guantánamo, and a former US interrogator from Bagram. An overwhelming case is made for the injustice and inhumanity of Khadr’s treatment.
Review: A 16-year-old boy sits alone at a desk in a room, viewed in split screen from multiple angles on low-quality video. “Nobody cares about me,” the boy whimpers, before breaking down into tears and repeating over and over the Arabic phrase for “Oh mother”. His youthfulness, and his clear distress, make this almost unwatchable.
The boy is Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who, captured in Afghanistan in 2002, ended up in the US detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, charged with killing US soldier Christopher Speer and providing material support for terrorism. He was the camp’s youngest detainee, and the only minor ever to be accused (and subsequently convicted, as part of a 2010 plea bargain) of war crimes since they were first defined at Nuremberg. The footage was originally recorded in February 2003, as part of a four-day interrogation of Khadr conducted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service with the help of the CIA – but the recordings have since been placed in the public domain in accordance with a 2008 ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court, and are now, in this compelling documentary from Patricio Henriquez (Under the Hood, A Voyage Into the World of Torture) and Luc Côté (Crash Landing), reconfigured to serve as an indictment not of Khadr but rather of his interrogators and the ideology behind their work.
Dr Paul Berdichevsky, a Toronto psychiatrist specialising in the effects of torture, explains that the cameras were kept rolling throughout Khadr’s isolated breakdown so that the interrogators, watching the sequence live from another room, could determine precisely when their subject became most “vulnerable to the interrogation”. Berdichevsky, however, recontextualises the harrowing footage as evidence of “psychological abuse” resulting in Khadr’s “total regression” – abuse which Gar Pardy, retired Director General of the Consular Affairs of Canada, identifies as “a continuation of the torture that he was being subjected to.” From such physical torture, endured over several months of detention at Bagram Air Base, Khadr had learnt to tell his interrogators exactly what he knew they wanted to hear – but when, on Day Two, he retracted his vague tales of meetings with Osama bin Laden and started nervously telling a rather different story, his interrogators showed no interest in listening (“You don’t like the truth,” Khadr tells them). Yet as the deaf-eared questioning continues, Henriquez and Côté offer their own panel of expert witnesses (lawyers, politicians, UN workers, former detainees, etc.) to interrogate the very legality of interviewing detainees without lawyers present, of treating minors as adults, of withholding the right to a civil trial, or of the Canadian government’s prolonged refusal (in contravention of its own Constitution) to demand the repatriation of its own citizen. Meanwhile, Canadian national security reporter Michelle Shephard and US Navy lawyer Lieutenant Commander William Kuebler (the latter privy, as Khadr’s detailed military council, to secret photos of the battle scene) argue that it was practically impossible for Speer to have been killed by Khadr (who was lying face down and gravely injured at the time Speer was attacked).
If this documentary uses the footage of Khadr’s interrogation to turn the tables on those who originally recorded it, then it seems fitting that its most striking testimony, taking the US government to task for treating a 15-year-old as a legally responsible adult (“you don’t treat a child like this”) and criticising Canada for repeatedly failing to champion a compatriot’s cause, should come from Damien Corsetti, a one-time US interrogator at Bagram (and later Abu Ghraib) and self-confessed “monster” who “did very bad things”. That this man can end up credibly holding the moral high ground, and can claim that he has shown Khadr (whom he consistently treated well at Bagram) more compassion than Canada ever has, is proof positive of the topsy-turvy morality that has taken hold in the War on Terror, making victims of the innocent and accomplices of us all.