Standing the Test of Time: “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”


The poster for the documentary film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, which recently marked the tenth anniversary of its release.

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On Friday, I was delighted to take part in one of the few regular Guantánamo-related events that are left in my calendar, as the prison becomes something of a footnote in the history books.

This amnesia is, to be blunt, genuinely alarming, because the prison is as malignantly alive as ever, a pointless zombie facility still holding 40 men, mostly without charge or trial, for whom no legal mechanism to secure their release exists, and who will all die there unless there is a change of government, and an awakened sense of outrage in the three bodies that supposedly provide checks and balances to prevent any manifestation of executive overreach in the US — the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, all of whom have failed the men still held.

The event on Friday was a screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” — the documentary film I co-directed with Polly Nash, which was released ten years ago, in October 2009 — to second-year students at the University of Westminster, who are studying International Relations under Sam Raphael, followed by a lively discussion about Guantánamo past, present and future.

Sam is an esteemed colleague, who I have known for many years. Back in 2010, he and Ruth Blakeley secured funding for “The Rendition Project”, a huge project that involved profiling all the known prisoners of the CIA’s “black site” program of secret torture prisons, and attempting to work out their movements via extensive analysis of flight records. The project, unveiled in 2013, drew on and built on previous work on “black site” prisoners, including a UN report from 2010 about secret detention, on which I was the lead author.

Sam and Ruth and researcher Crofton Black followed up on “The Rendition Project” after the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the CIA torture program was published in December 2014, and this research — “unredacting” censored details in the executive summary of the Senate report — led to the publication of “CIA Torture Unredacted” this summer, which I wrote about here.

Sam and I last showed “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo“ in November 2017, as, last year, technical gremlins defeated our best efforts to show it, and we engaged instead in a two-hour discussion of Guantánamo and of the “black sites” that was, despite the gremlins, very successful. This year, however, the gremlins were overcome, and as a result it was the first time I had seen the film in two years, and I was gratified to realize that it has stood the test of time rather well.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, and would like to do so, the production company, Spectacle, recently made it available anywhere in the world via “Vimeo on Demand,” and I’ve embedded it below. It costs £2.55 ($3.30) to rent for a 72-hour streaming period, and £9.46 ($12.20) to stream and download anytime. It is also still available on DVD — via Spectacle in the UK, and, in the US, via the World Can’t Wait.

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo from Spectacle Media on Vimeo.

Watching it again, I was reminded of its origins, and struck by how well, on an almost non-existent budget, it defies the conventions of “objective” documentary film-making to tell the essential story of Guantánamo — its human cost, and the cost to the US of tearing up all of its commitments to domestic and international laws and treaties in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Polly and I discussed making the film in the summer of 2007, when I had spent over a year working flat-out on Guantánamo, researching the stories of the prisoners, based largely on 8,000 pages of documents released by the Pentagon under Freedom of Information legislation in 2006, which, I was surprised to discover, no one else attempted, and which led to the publication of my book The Guantánamo Files in September 2007.

We established a narrative based on the book, interspersed with accounts of the two British residents who remained in Guantánamo when we undertook most of our filming — Binyam Mohamed, who was sent to be tortured in Morocco before being sent to Guantánamo (and who was released in February 2009, while the film was still being made), and Shaker Aamer, a charismatic individual whose release didn’t happen until six years after the film was released, in October 2015, and we told the story through interviews with five people in particular — former prisoners Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg, the lawyers Tom Wilner and Clive Stafford Smith, and myself.

The film’s power relates, I believe, to two things in particular: the presence of Omar Deghayes, who, in his first detailed interview since his release in December 2007, provides its emotional heart; and through its defiance of convention. There is no distracting soundtrack featuring low, moody synths, as is normal in films involving torture, there is no Sean Bean-like narrator providing distance while reading from a script as one of the interviewees walks on a beach, for example, and there is no “objective” involvement of any of the prison’s defenders, which would have fatally diluted its impact. On this point, the US government has attempted to control the narrative via black propaganda ever since the prison opened, and allowing any supporter of the prison to spout propaganda and lies would have been a dereliction of journalistic responsibility.

On this latter point, I remain passionate about the necessity for journalists and journalistic outlets to “tell the truth” — to paraphrase a key demand of Extinction Rebellion, the environmental direct action group that has been dominating headlines over the last year. When great crimes committed by governments are under the spotlight, the “liberal” media’s slavish obsession with presenting both sides of the story with allegedly equal weight, supposedly allowing viewers and readers to make up their own minds has, in so many areas of contemporary life, been a colossal failure — and Guantánamo and the “war on terror” are no exception.

I hope you have time to watch the film if you haven’t seen it, and if you work in education and would like to show the film and have me talk to students — or even to talk to students without seeing the film — do please get in touch.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    It’s ten years since “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo,” the documentary film about Guantanamo, which I co-directed with Polly Nash, was released, and to mark the anniversary – and a recent screening to students at the University of Westminster – I reappraise it and assess that it stands up well, especially because of the presence of former prisoner Omar Deghayes at its heart, its narrative structure (drawn largely from my book “The Guantanamo Files”), and its break with documentary film-making norms: no soundtrack, no voiceover, no interviews for “balance” with supporters of the prison; just interviews with five people – former prisoners Omar and Moazzam Begg, lawyers Tom Wilner and Clive Stafford Smith, and myself – explaining in detail why Guantanamo is such an abomination, and why it must be closed.

    If you haven’t seen it, it’s available to stream, anywhere in the world, for a small fee on “Vimeo on Demand,” and if you run a relevant course and want me to talk to your students about Guantanamo (with or without a screening of the film), please get in touch!

    I’m glad the film has stood the test of time, and still tells the truth about Guantanamo, but it’s sad, of course, that Guantanamo is still open, and that far too many people – especially in the US – still don’t know the truth of what has been done – and continues to be done – in their name at this wretched prison.

  2. Anna says...

    ‘Outside the Law’ certainly will remain for a long time to come an excellent introduction to the GWOT, especially for new generations who are too young to have any personal experience of it. I’ve been also thinking to restart it, albeit in higher education facilities rather than cinemas. I just do not have the energy anymore to organise a cinema tour…

    I don’t know whether you remember Aneta with whom we had ecological sandwiches in a small bookshop-cum-bar and who later led the discussion after the screening in Wrocław?
    I’ve met her only a couple of times since then, but it looks like she’s now doing very useful work in Brussels 🙂 :

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna, and thanks for the supportive words. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly nine years since you organised that wonderful Polish tour of the film, and I’m delighted to hear that you’re looking at ways of showing it to students.
    I do remember Aneta – we’re friends on Facebook, actually – and it’s great to hear that she’s doing important work in Brussels!

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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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