Review: “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at the London International Documentary Festival

28.4.10

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoI’m pleased to report that Monday night’s screening of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at the Free Word Centre on Farringdon Road was a great success. The screening took place as part of the London International Documentary Festival, and featured an excellent panel for the post-screening Q&A session — former prisoners Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes (who both feature in the film), Tara Murray, a US attorney who joined the legal action charity Reprieve (whose lawyers represent Guantánamo prisoners) in October 2009, and the film’s directors (Polly Nash and myself).

On a fine evening, I walked up to the venue from Reprieve’s offices near Blackfriars with Tara, who I hadn’t met before, and Omar, which gave us some time to compare notes on the current state of play at Guantánamo and to discuss my “Guantánamo Habeas Week” project, in which I’m attempting to raise awareness of the under-reported court cases in which 34 out of 47 prisoners have won their habeas petitions (demonstrating the incompetence of the Bush administration’s detention policies), but 13 others have been consigned to ongoing detention, despite, for the most part, being nothing more than insignificant foot soldiers in an inter-Muslim civil war that became a “War on Terror” when the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.

At the venue — a great new space founded by eight very sound organizations (Apples and Snakes, Article 19, Booktrust, English PEN, Index on Censorship, The Arvon Foundation, The Literary Consultancy and The Reading Agency), which received Arts Council funding and opened in June 2009 — we were warmly welcomed by Shreela Ghosh, the Centre’s Director, and General Manager Rachel Buchanan. After a coffee in the airy café, Omar, Moazzam and I had the opportunity to catch up on our latest news and plans while the film was showing, and although a technical hitch during the screening meant that our Q&A session was rather short, the film was very well received, as is apparent from a review, cross-posted below, which was written by Laura Jenkinson for the film festival’s website.

A review of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”
By Laura Jenkinson, LIDF

The Free Word Centre in Farringdon, just behind the Betsey Trotwood pub, is still under a year old but is establishing itself quickly as a centre for literature, literacy and free expression. Tonight’s film, the first at this venue, fits with the centre’s motto and provides a voice for ex-“detainees” of the most famous apparent non-prison on the planet.

Director-producers Polly Nash and Andy Worthington have put together a very eloquent story from 9/11 to present day; the film is simple, relying on the talking heads of legal and political experts, and Omar Deghayes and Moazzem Begg, who were “detained” at Guantánamo for several years, and still photographs representing the absent parties responsible for the atrocities of “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced by a White House flouting the Geneva Conventions.

The film relies on not distancing its viewer with documentary techniques of voiceover and re-enactment — in fact it has been criticized by channel programmers for not fitting the style of television today, although Nash and Worthington both regard this as the film’s unfiltered strength.

It was a suitably modern film for this spacious and airy venue, which, despite a few early technical hitches, pleased its audience, who also found it suitably humbling to meet Begg and Deghayes at the panel discussion afterwards. It is hard to imagine these well-spoken, eloquent, charismatic and confident men suffering the abuses discussed and pictured. They looked so comfortable in themselves whilst answering the audience’s questions on the continuing fate of those left at the prison, and spoke factually rather than with emotion about the apparent new extra-judicial killings ordered by the new US government that are more “convenient” than extraordinary renditions. A remarkable evening.

About the film

[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy. It avoids common conventions such as dramatic narration, music or use of archive footage, delivering frank and understated accounts from the victims and forming an intriguing and emotive cross-section of life at Guantánamo Bay.
Joe Burnham, Time Out

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a new documentary film, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, telling the story of Guantánamo (and including sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film is based around interviews with former prisoners (Moazzam Begg and, in his first major interview, Omar Deghayes, who was released in December 2007), lawyers for the prisoners (Clive Stafford Smith in the UK and Tom Wilner in the US), and journalist and author Andy Worthington, and also includes appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Shakeel Begg, a London-based Imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Focusing on the stories of Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” on tour in the UK

The screening at the London International Documentary Festival was part of an ongoing UK tour of the film, in which Omar Deghayes and Andy Worthington are travelling around the country attending post-screening Q&A sessions. On some dates, Omar, who is now the legal director of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, and Andy will be joined by Polly Nash, and, occasionally, other guests including former prisoner Moazzam Begg, the director of Cageprisoners.

Shaker Aamer and two of his childrenThroughout the tour, Omar, Andy and the other speakers will be focusing on the plight of Shaker Aamer, the only one of the film’s main subjects who is still held in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release in 2007, and despite the British government asking for him to be returned to the UK in August 2007.

Born in Saudi Arabia, Shaker Aamer moved to the UK in 1994, and was a legal British resident at the time of his capture, after he had traveled to Afghanistan with Moazzam Begg (and their families) to establish a girls’ school and some well-digging projects. He has a British wife and four British children (although he has never seen his youngest child).

As the foremost advocate of the prisoners’ rights in Guantánamo, Shaker’s influence upset the US authorities to such an extent that those pressing for his return fear that the US government wants to return him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, where he will not be at liberty to tell his story, and recent revelations indicate that, despite claims that it has been doing all in its power to secure his release, the British government may also share this view.

In December 2009, it emerged in a court case in the UK that British agents witnessed his abuse while he was held in US custody in Afghanistan, and in January 2010, for Harper’s Magazine, law professor Scott Horton reported that he was tortured in Guantánamo on the same night, in June 2006, that three other men appear to have been killed by representatives of an unknown US agency, and that a cover-up then took place, which successfully passed the deaths off as suicides.

At the screenings, the speakers will discuss what steps we can all take to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his family. To date, we have been asking audiences to send a letter to foreign secretary David Miliband calling for Shaker’s return. This letter will be updated on May 7, following the General Election, but in the meantime please feel free to adapt it as you see fit, to put pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from the very first day of the new government.

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington. For inquiries about screenings, please also feel free to contact Maryam Hassan.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available. As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. See here for videos of the Q&A session (with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash) that followed the launch of the film in London on October 21, 2009, and see here for a short trailer of the film.

(‘DiggThis’)

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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