Taking Guantánamo to Norway: “Human Rights, Human Wrongs” Film Festival Report


Human Rights, Human Wrongs Film Festival, Oslo, February 2010Over the weekend, Polly Nash and I, co-directors of the new Guantánamo documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” travelled to Oslo, where our film had been chosen as part of the Human Rights, Human Wrongs Film Festival.

Organized by Oslo Dokumentarkino and the Human Rights House Network of human rights organizations, the festival, which is in its second year, took place in Parkteatret, a wonderful old theatre with an intimate atmosphere that made for a perfect venue. The festival began on Wednesday and ran through to Sunday, with packed houses throughout for a powerful programme put together by a group of committed, knowledgeable and very friendly activists, lawyers and human rights advocates.

Polly and I arrived in Oslo late on Friday afternoon, marvelling at the deep blanket of snow covering the entire country, and then made our way by tram to the venue (via our hotel), where we received a warm welcome from Sarah Prosser, one of the organizers, and managed to catch the last film of the day, “The Problem: Testimony of the Saharawi People,” a new documentary by Spanish directors Jordi Ferrer and Pablo Vidal. Combining undercover filming with archive material, the film revealed, unflinchingly, how, in the Western Sahara, abandoned by the Spanish in 1975 and then illegally occupied by Morocco, the Saharawi people are subjected to a brutal and little-known occupation, and how condemnation of the regime is stifled largely by Spain and France. Guided around the country by a veteran campaigner for the Saharawi people’s rights, who has been repeatedly imprisoned and tortured in the many “black prisons” maintained by the Moroccan government, the directors also interviewed two women activists who have been subjected to brutal torture.

Last summer, I received a crash-course in the history of the Moroccan government’s oppression of the Saharawi people at WOMAD, during and after an appearance by Mariem Hassan, an extraordinarily powerful singer and spokeswoman for the Saharawi people. Originally based in the El-Ayoun Refugee Camp in Algeria, one of four camps where around 165,000 displaced Saharawi have been living since 1976, Hassan now lives in exile. Although the directors of “The Problem” also visited the El-Ayoun camp, it is their footage from inside Western Sahara, and their encounters with peaceful opponents of the occupation, who wonder, pointedly, whether western governments only pay attention to violent resistance movements, that made the deepest impression on me. Further information about “The Problem” can be found here, on the official website.

On Saturday, Polly and I arrived at Parkteatret too late to see “Getting Justice: Kenya’s Deadly Game of Wait and See,” but we did manage to see most of “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court,” a fascinating account of the development of the ICC, and its struggles to become established as the first ever international court to tackle war crimes and crimes against humanity. This was a gripping exploration of the long struggle to establish a global body capable of judging cases of genocide when national bodies fail to do so, whose origins can be traced back to the Nuremberg Trials and the founding of the United Nations, even though, of course, the project is being resisted by the US, China and Russia, all of whom have refused to recognize the ICC. Further information can be found on the film’s official website here.

In a panel discussion following the screening, chaired by Niels Jacob Harbitz of Human Rights House, Maina Kiai, Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, and the founding chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (who made “Getting Justice” with the Nairobi-based British director Lucy Hannan), discussed the ICC, accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the current situation in Kenya with Nora Sveaass, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oslo and Norway’s representative on the UN Committee Against Torture, and Gunnar Ekeløve Slydal, Deputy Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who participated in the establishment of the ICC. An interview with Maina Kiai is available here.

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoAt 2.15, following a brief introduction by Polly and myself, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” was screened to a full house. The film was very well received, and was followed by the screening of a short film by the celebrated Norwegian journalist and filmmaker Erling Borgen, exposing Norway’s complicity in the crimes of the “War on Terror” through Aker Kværner, a company hired by the US military at Guantánamo to provide much of the prison’s infrastructure and technical support. Plans to prosecute Aker Kværner were stifled in the Norwegian courts, but in a panel discussion following the screenings, chaired by Borgen (who was also the festival’s first patron), Ståle Eskeland, Professor of Law at the University of Oslo, condemned the politicization of the legal process in this case, lamenting how it demonstrated that in Norway (as in so many other countries), terrorism was being used as an excuse to pretend that the rule of law no longer applies.

In a wide-ranging discussion, followed by a lively Q&A session, I also explained the problems facing President Obama as he tries to close Guantánamo (involving cowardice and compromise on the part of the administration, but also a right-wing propaganda machine that is out of control), described how complicity in the “War on Terror” involved the whole of Europe, and encouraged those attending the festival to put pressure on the Norwegian government to accept cleared prisoners from Guantánamo. To date, the Norwegian government has refused to join Belgium, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Switzerland in accepting cleared prisoners, in order to help close Guantánamo — and to demonstrate a commitment to universal humanitarian principles — and I put forward the case that, as with other countries in Europe (including the UK), pressure should be exerted to accept prisoners as a kind of moral trade-off for complicity in the “War on Terror.” In Norway, this occurred not only through the actions of Aker Kværner, but also through the Norwegian government’s decision to turn a blind eye to US rendition flights through Norwegian territory. Although this may well have taken place as part of a NATO-wide agreement in October 2001 to provide unquestioning support to the Bush administration, it remains unacceptable that any country can be allowed to behave as through the rule of law was suspended in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

After this stimulating debate and Q&A session, Polly and I watched the last two films of the day. The first was “My Neighbour, My Killer,” which captured the sometimes disconcerting results of the Gacaca courts in Rwanda. These traditional local courts, established to deal with the 1994 genocide, function partly as a truth and reconciliation commission, and partly as a system for accountability, with what appears to be a fragile success, although it was disturbing that so little remorse was demonstrated by some of the accused. Further information can be found on the film’s official website here.

Following up on these themes, “Enemies of the People,” directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, is an extraordinary new documentary addressing Cambodia’s “Killing Fields,” the genocide that took place under Pol Pot (“Brother No. 1”) and Nuon Chea (“Brother No. 2”). At the heart of the film is Sambath, whose family members were killed in the genocide, who embarked on a one-man mission to create a truth and reconciliation process in Cambodia. After spending ten years visiting Nuon Chea, and tracking down other former Khmer Rouge leaders further down the chain of command, Sambath succeeded in persuading Nuon Chea to speak about his responsibility for the genocide, and drew out the most extraordinary confessions from those who fulfilled the regime’s merciless aims. For further information about the film, see the official website here.

Afterwards, the organizers took the guests — myself, Polly, Maina Kiai, Lucy Hannan and Rob Lemkin — out to dinner, and afterwards we returned to the Parkteatret, magically transformed into a sweaty concert venue, for a “Balkan Beat Party” featuring an excellent Balkan band with a seven-piece horn section. It was a refreshing antidote to the often troubling messages of the day’s screenings, but although the party music was ringing in my head as Polly, Rob and I took a taxi back to the hotel at 2 am, it was difficult to escape the extraordinary intimacy of Thet Sambath’s encounters — not with Nuon Chea, whose warped idealism remained largely intact, but with the other Khmer Rouge murderers featured in “Enemies of the People”; ordinary men, haunted by their deeds, who demonstrated, it seemed to me, that contrition and forgiveness are amongst the most difficult tasks that we face as human beings.

My congratulations again to the organizers, and I only wish that I had another film lined up for next February. Instead, please see here for upcoming tour dates for “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” and, if you can read Norwegian, check out this newspaper article, based on a telephone interview with me, which appeared in Saturday’s edition of the Norwegian newspaper, Klassekampen.

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 launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Betsy Kawamura says...

    Thank you kindly for the lovely review. I have tried my best to send my 1,000 “closest and nearest” to the Film festival and I wished to bring a “virtual” magnum bottle of champagne to Elisabeth and others helped put this together ! I had always admired their work! Though I was sadly not able to attend this year, I certainly hope to make it next year ! I really sorely missed the docu on the ICC, as I am trying to study the procedures in detail, as it relates to the tragic circumstances of the ordinary North Korean facing crimes against humanity. Their case went as “proprio motu” to the ICC last December as I understand… Would be lovely to follow up! Cheers and again thanks for the very nice review! and I will refer more people to the festival! bk

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Betsy. Great to hear from you.

  3. Betsy Kawamura says...

    Andy, I have tried to write to you on your email… hope you have received it? Kind regards to you… bk

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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