Last week, I had an email out of the blue from Jeremy Varon, a Professor of History at the New School for Social Research in NYC and a member of Witness Against Torture, the campaigning organization that screened the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself) at the start of an 11-day fast and vigil outside the White House in January this year, to mark the eighth anniversary of the prison’s opening. Jeremy had just shown the film to a group of students, and I thought his comments — and those of his students — were worth posting below:
This is Jeremy Varon. We’ve never met or spoken, but I have long admired all your efforts and I know you have been in touch with other Witness folk. Before our last phase of intense action (an 11-day fast in D.C., various demos, an arrest at the Capitol) we watched your film as a group. We were pretty wrecked by it, and had a wonderful conversation. It helped focus us for the days ahead on why we where there, doing what we were doing.
Anyhow, Debra Sweet [director of The World Can’t Wait, who helped organize a short US tour of the film last November] was kind enough to give me a copy to show to a class for grad students I teach on Terrorism/“War on Terror” (ever in quotes). We saw it tonight and the students were frankly stunned by it, moved nearly beyond words (though again, we had a nice discussion once folks collected themselves). One young fellow, an American (there’s students from all over) was in tears and, for his comment, muttered about how if we do nothing to speak out against this, we’re guilty too. Everybody wanted to know, “What can I do?”
So thank you. It’s very powerful, and motivates (it seems) people as much as it depresses them.
All my best,
Peace – Jeremy
Jeremy also explained how various students had written to him to talk about the film and the experience, and one had said:
When I first saw it, I initially felt jaded: “Sure, tell me something about GTMO I don’t know/haven’t read.” And I had seen of course “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which is wonderful in its own right. But within three minutes I was hooked, and ended up learning a lot.
I find it perhaps more “moving” than “Taxi.” For me, the most intense part was when Omar said (paraphrasing): you can take my eye, break my ribs, break my nose, but there’s no way to compensate the years of my son’s life I lost” (I have a 3 year old). Analytically speaking, the best line was yours: that what we precisely need is to go back to September 10, 2001, the day before the 9/11 attacks, when none of what came afterwards would have seemed possible. I had a thought, an organization or initiative called “The September 10th Project.” Just the name makes people curious; if you explain it, it really gets them thinking.
Jeremy also forwarded the following email from another student:
The film kept me awake last night. Reading about happenings at Guantánamo and seeing the victims talk about their ordeals are completely different sensory experiences. I’ll never forget how the man with the bad eye casually, sometimes laughingly, spoke about his systematic de-humanization. Whereas M**** [a fellow student, from India] was affected by how the victims look like him, I was struck by how the perpetrators look like me. I think I told you that my dad and two half-brothers were in the Army, albeit decades ago. So the complicity I feel is perhaps not just as an American but as a white, blond American with connections to the military and the government. Who would do these unspeakable things? People with backgrounds similar to mine. How can I possibly reconcile myself to this? How am I different if I know about it and do nothing? But how can we challenge the institutionalization of de-humanization by a seemingly all-powerful government and apathetic, consenting-by-silence population? … How do you keep fighting a battle with such little hope of any positive change?
Thanks for showing the video. It shocked me out of my intellectual laziness … We all need to be aware of what our country is doing in our name.
If you would like to organize your own screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” in the US (or anywhere else), please go ahead. The DVD can be ordered here from Spectacle, the production company, and a press kit, featuring a poster you can adapt, is here. If you do go ahead, please advise me and Polly and we’ll help publicize it.
Moreover, if you — or anyone you know — might be interested in getting me over to the States to promote the film (or, again, anywhere else), then please let me know. As mentioned above, I made a ten-day visit last November, supported by the Future of Freedom Foundation and The World Can’t Wait, and would love to make a return visit — in June, July, or anytime from September onwards. We’ve submitted the film to various film festivals, and are also in discussions with a US distributor, but I’m happy to have any opportunity to spread the word about the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo, and the unaddressed crimes of the Bush administration, and as I’ve discovered over the last few months, touring the film around the UK with former prisoner Omar Deghayes, it has a powerful impact, bringing home to audiences the human cost of the brutal and ill-conceived “War on Terror.”
About the film
“[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy.”
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.
Take action for Shaker Aamer
Throughout the ongoing UK tour, Omar, Andy and Polly (and other speakers) are 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.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Shaker Aamer was a legal British resident at the time of his capture, and was seized 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. A new campaign to secure his release will follow the General Election in the UK on May 6, but in the meantime, a template of a letter that can be sent to the new foreign secretary (whoever that may be) can be found here.
The letter also calls for the British government to offer a home to Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian, cleared for release in 2007, who lived in the UK and is terrified of returning to Algeria, and also to other cleared prisoners who cannot be returned to their home countries because they face the risk of torture.
““Outside the Law” is essential viewing for anyone interested in Guantánamo and other prisons. The film explores what happens when a nation with a reputation for morality and justice acts out of impulse and fear. To my mind, Andy Worthington is a quintessential force for all things related to the journalism of GTMO and its inhabitants. As a military lawyer for Fayiz al-Kandari, I am constantly reminded that GTMO is ongoing and that people still have an opportunity to make history today by becoming involved. “Outside the Law” is a fantastic entry point into the arena that is GTMO.”
Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, attorney for Guantánamo prisoner Fayiz al-Kandari
“I thought the film was absolutely brilliant and the most powerful, moving and hard-hitting piece I have seen at the cinema. I admire and congratulate you for your vital work, pioneering the truth and demanding that people sit up and take notice of the outrageous human rights injustices perpetrated against detainees at Guantánamo and other prisons.”
Harriet Wong, Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture
“[T]hought-provoking, harrowing, emotional to watch, touching and politically powerful.”
“Last Saturday I went to see Polly Nash and Andy Worthington’s harrowing documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at London’s BFI. The film knits together narratives so heart-wrenching I half wish I had not heard them. Yet the camaraderie between the detainees and occasional humorous anecdotes … provide a glimpse into the wit, courage and normalcy of the men we are encouraged to perceive as monsters.”
Sarah Gillespie, singer/songwriter
“The film was great — not because I was in it, but because it told the legal and human story of Guantánamo more clearly than anything I have seen.”
Tom Wilner, US attorney who represented the Guantánamo prisoners before the US Supreme Court
“The film was fantastic! It has the unique ability of humanizing those who were detained at Guantánamo like no other I have seen.”
Sari Gelzer, Truthout
“Engaging and moving, and personal. The first [film] to really take you through the lives of the men from their own eyes.”
Debra Sweet, The World Can’t Wait
“I am part of a community of folks from the US who attempted to visit the Guantánamo prison in December 2005, and ended up fasting for a number of days outside the gates. We went then, and we continue our work now, because we heard the cries for justice from within the prison walls. As we gathered tonight as a community, we watched “Outside the Law,” and by the end, we all sat silent, many with tears in our eyes and on our faces. I have so much I’d like to say, but for now I wanted to write a quick note to say how grateful we are that you are out, and that you are speaking out with such profound humanity. I am only sorry what we can do is so little, and that so many remain in the prison.”
Matt Daloisio, Witness Against Torture
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.
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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