by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
The subject of the almost permanent detention of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay is one rarely brought to the screen for audiences to ponder. More often than not, when it is, it’s very heavy-handed and black and white. There’s never any ambiguity about the circumstances that led these men to be in the most famous prison since Alcatraz and there’s never any thought that these men might not belong there. It’s a tough sell for me; in a world where we are so quick to celebrate when anyone’s freedoms are finally handed to them when they should have had them from day one, the constant demonisation of an entire religious group sticks in my craw a little bit and I yearn for a film that can at least show us a little of the grey area of this particular subject.
A few years back, I thought I was going to get just that with My Name is Khan, a film centered on an Indian Muslim with autism trekking across the country to talk to the president and tell him that he is not a terrorist. I saw the trailer and thought it was going to be great. But the trailer didn’t hint at the fact that the film was actually a Bollywood style musical which then ruined what could have been an exceptionally powerful film. So when I read about Camp X-Ray doing relatively well at Sundance last year, I was intrigued, excited, but a little skeptical all at the same time. Of course, once again, over here in the UK we miss out on the movie completely because no-one thinks British people want to watch films like this. So now the film has been through the theatres and has hit Blu-Ray and VOD in the States, it’s time to take a couple of hours and give this film with such potential a once over.
Starting us off with a glimpse of the burning World Trade Centre in New York on the morning of September 11th, the film quickly cuts to a shot of Ali, soon to be detainee 471, being black bagged by special forces in the middle of his morning prayers. We see the man, and others, being transported across the world in the now world famous orange jumpsuits and eventually thrown into a small cage. His hood removed, we see Ali’s beaten and bloodied face as he squints under the Cuban sun at the beginning of what is going to be a very long time in prison.
Eight years later, the standard annual guard rotation has begun and this time rookie recruit Amy Cole has rotated in to the prison. Orientation done and dusted, Cole is eager to prove she can stand with the men on the watch and so she volunteers to help when the call for a reactionary force, a five-man team sent to calm rowdy inmates, comes in and gets stuck in. Taking a beating and having her face spat in by the inmate, Cole gets the acceptance she needs and having jumped in at the deep end, is ready for anything the prison can throw at her. Anything except the boredom and monotony of guard duty, that is.
Early on, Cole is on library duty, the daily slog of dragging a cart around between the tiny cells and swapping out detainee’s books for new ones if they wish. Born from this monotony is the young soldier’s relationship with inmate 471 who, in an unexpected moment of levity, complains about the American’s cruel and unusual torture methods by not letting him read the seventh and final Harry Potter book and finding out how the story ends! This starts what turns out to be a very up and down relationship between the young recruit and the Guantanamo veteran. A moment of rage at the system leads Ali to take his anger out on Cole, running with pretty standard guerrilla prison tactics, he throws a cup filled with crap at her. Leaving her stinking and filthy and him on one of the more brutal psychological punishments where he’s carted around from pillar to post for days having his sleep withheld and his sanity taken away. It’s a situation that Cole not only can’t abide by, but she suddenly sees just how little she can do about it.
Ali’s return from his punishment sees the pair’s bond strengthen. A mutual disdain for an unfair system combined with the crushing loneliness on the block give the unwitting friends a mutual point of discussion and closeness to form their camaraderie around. Learning more about the prisoner than even his captors did, Amy slowly starts to comprehend the hopeless situation that Ali finds himself in. Innocent or not, released from his imprisonment or not, he’ll never be free of Guantanamo Bay and so he’s reserved himself to a life of fighting against a system that’s condemned him without so much as a fair trial.
Camp X-Ray is, on its surface, a simple story of a relationship formed between a prisoner and his guard. But scratch the surface a little and you can see a tale of a man beaten, physically and emotionally, by a country intent on demonising him and everyone like him; but we also see a story of a young female recruit who has her own battles on both sides of the cages. She has to fight against a military that still doesn’t respect female soldiers for the equals they are while simultaneously fighting a battle with her wards, a group of men from a culture that can have just as much disdain for women. Her battle to work within the lines of her chosen profession while being respectful of the men under her care is one she loses skirmishes to on both sides but ultimately is the better person for it.
Following a stellar performance in Still Alice, Kristen Stewart has completely wiped the mopey Twilight teen from my memory with yet another amazing performance. Wearing her heart completely on her sleeve and bringing the naivety of a young soldier with little understanding of her surroundings to the screen in a way that makes your heart sink for her. You just want to hug her and tell her that it’ll be alright. Opposite her, Payman Maadi (from Persian Oscar winning A Separation) plays the Detainee 471 brilliantly; equal parts man fighting for his freedom and man who’s lost the will to fight anymore. In a role that would be far too easily overplayed for sympathy, Maadi’s quiet Ali Amir is the perfect embodiment of a culture singled out through other people’s fear of them.
It’s all too easy for films like this to go the “America! Fuck yeah!” route in an attempt to justify the country’s actions over the years. Similarly it’s very easy for these film to act like documentaries, showing the atrocities put upon the prisoners in these places. But first time writer and director Peter Sattler has sidestepped these issues with finesse and decency, not going preachy in either direction and simply letting the viewer make up their mind who may or may not be in the right. Ok, so the ending is a little tacky and manipulative, but its effect on you makes it completely forgivable and outside of thinking “yeah, I knew that was coming” I haven’t given the cheapness of it a second thought. It’s a very slight blip on an otherwise very good, emotionally charged film. Those going in expecting Zero Dark Thirty will come out disappointed, but those looking for a great psychological study wrapped in very real current events will be blown away.