Dirs: Erik Gandini,Tarik Saleh. 78mins. Den-Swe. 2005.
There is something Kafka-esqueabout the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. Despitebeing part of the War On Terror, prisoners detainedhere in their strident orange suits are not given "Prisoner Of War" status butare treated as "Unlawful Combatants." Many have been left in limbo for years onend, denied access to lawyers and never put on trial. For the outside world,the camp is a source of huge and often morbid fascination.
Gitmo,the new documentary from young Swedish directors Erik Gandiniand Tarik Saleh, tries tounravel the warped logic behind arguably the most notorious prison of moderntimes.
Co-financed by Lars Von Trier's Zentropa, the film hasprovoked enormous interest since its premiere in Amsterdam (at IDFA) lastNovember. While the film-makers do not offer many new revelations and topicaldocumentaries risk dating quickly, Gitmo is quirky enough to pique the curiosity of somedistributors. TV buyers may be interested in the shorter, small-screen versionthat is also available. Gitmoenjoys further screenings at the Gothenburg Festival later this month prior toits Swedish release in February.
Gaining access to Guantanamo proves surprisingly easy: "Hi, my name is Erik Gandini and I'm calling from Sweden," goes the recording ofthe co-director's initial phone call to the US authorities. "We are doing a filmand we'd like to visit Guantanamo Bay. I wondered ifthat is possible." A few more calls later and they're on the Wednesday nightflight to Cuba.
Much of the freshness of Gitmo lies in Gandini and Saleh'sself-conscious naivete and their willingness to approach their subject inoblique, offbeat fashion. They are not hardbittennews reporters. On their visit to Guantanamo, they'retreated as if they're tourists, given a guided tour of the camp quarters andinvited to take photographs of the iguanas.
Inevitably, they're notallowed anywhere near the prisoners. The closest they get is the gates, whereat night-time - in eerie scenes that can't help but rekindle memories of oldVal Lewton B horror movies - they are able to secretlyrecord the wailing of the inmates.
Structurally, the documentaryis a little clumsy and the opening section, filmed in the spring of 2003, hasthe feel of a travelogue. Gandini and Saleh are investigating what has happened to Mehdi Ghezali, the only Swedishnational imprisoned in Guantanamo. When they arrivein Cuba, there is a sense that they don't really know what they are lookingfor.
We see them interviewing thebrusque and vaguely sinister Major-General Geoffrey Miller who, they discovermuch later, he was subsequently posted to Abu Ghraib.Like most of the other US officers they encounter, Miller cannot help but speakin blandishments ("we're detaining these enemy combatants in accordance - asmuch as we can - with the Geneva
Ghezali was released without charge from Guantanamoin 2004, but although the film-makers try to interview him - he does appear oncamera - he won't say much. His silence is in ironic contrast to the soldiers,politicians, lawyers, and reporters who talk and talk about Guantanamo,coming up with Orwellian phrases like "security contractor" and "illegal combatant"to describe prisoners and their captors.
As thefilm risks losing momentum, so Gandini and Saleh broaden their canvas by using techniques familiarfrom conspiracy thrillers. Thereis occasionally the sense that they're relying on the conspiratorialvoice-overs, quickfire editing, tape recorded phoneconversations, archive material and atmospheric music to conceal the fact thatthey're not quite sure what story they are trying to tell.
Nonetheless, they securefascinating interviews with Janus Karpinski,the US commander at Abu Ghraib at the time of theprison abuse scandal, and with a security contractor who tells them about howEastern European mercenaries are used in Iraq.
Gandini and Saleh may not castmuch new light on goings-on at Guantanamo but theycertainly succeed in highlighting the thinking that informs how the prison campis run.
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