We are all responsible for Omar Khadr

Posted by in Doc Side

“Knowing has everything to do with growing. But the knowing of dominant minorities absolutely must not prohibit, most not asphyxiate, must not castrate the growing of the immense dominated majorities.” Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers.

A teenager with light brown skin, short hair and clad in orange coveralls sits slumped at a desk, head held in delicately cupped hands, and sobs. As he cries for his mother in Arabic the grainy image flickers and jerks with a lo-fi intensity that befits surveillance footage. He is alone in the room, having been left by his CSIS and CIA interrogators, fuliginous nameless wraiths who are off camera watching the same footage themselves, waiting for an opportune time to return to the tiny room to continue the psychological warfare they have been conducting on this twice shot, blinded from shrapnel, tortured and imprisoned adolescent.

And we—the audience—are watching with them, sitting tense in our seats, experiencing the intimate proximity of an interior space of intense injustice, pain, suffering, and desperation.

The teenager is Omar Khadr, a prisoner of the US government, who has been incarcerated for nearly seven years in Guantanamo Bay – where the surveillance footage was captured. The video of his four-day interrogation was recently released (some of it censored by authorities) and has been deftly deployed by filmmakers Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez in a new documentary You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo.

The minimalist film relies exclusively on the surveillance footage and interviews with Khadr’s lawyers, former co-inmates, family and experts. Inventively shaped into the documentary form, these interior scenes—difficult to watch, infuriating, heart-wrenching sequences of oppression and abuse—epitomize a dynamic documentary cinema powerfully delivers: that of virtual proximity.

Image from the Face Book Group, Justice for Omar Khadr

Documentary cinema is a powerful tool for drawing out empathy and understanding when it creates these spaces of interiority – intensely personal spaces that defy laws of physicality, where distance shrinks between subjectivities and audiences feel so close, so connected to the scenes before them the exchange elicits discomfort and tension. It is a virtual proximity that is championed by the non-fiction film genre; a screen closeness that lends itself to deep, emotional, and critical elucidation.

Following the Khadr example, one can learn about this terrible black mark on international law and on Canadian conscience by reading articles and watching news segments. One can even access some of the above mentioned surveillance footage on line. But these resources—disparate and disjointed fragments of “objective” interpretations of social reality—are ephemeral and incomplete stations along a journey of discovery and inquiry, they do not provide the holistic, attentive and ultimately intimate space that a documentary film deliver.

As such, it is documentary that shakes us from our media-sampling meanderings, sits us down, and teaches us how to come closer to others not near to us – how to diminish distance and share experience virtually with those we are likely never to come into material contact with, from the marginalized to the oppressed, the monsters and the casualties. It is this shared space documentary produces, this element of collapsing distant realities in time and space, that sets the grounds for diverse and dynamic spaces of discovery and inquiry, and hopefully inspired action.

And I certainly hope You Don’t Like the Truth (the title is taken from a comment an exasperated Khadr made to interrogators), will do just that for every single Canadian alive. This is wishful thinking of course, and a seemingly bizarre sentiment considering it is born out of engagement with a film that offers no hope at all for the victim of one of Canada’s most violent and discriminatory policies ever deployed. Omar Khadr is a sad burnt offering of Canada’s “War on Terror,” having been in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong colour skin. There is no evidence against him that, even the American soldiers interviewed in the film agree, prove that he is guilty of killing a US soldier. In fact there is evidence that proves the opposite. Besides, as lawyers in the film argue, he was fifteen when he supposedly (I would say fictitiously) threw the deadly grenade – which makes him a “child soldier” under UN conventions and international law, meaning he should be released from Guantanamo immediately.

But freedom is a fairytale for this terrorized Canadian citizen. Instead, his lawyer, Dennis Edney, told us in Montreal after the screening at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema, he has two choices: Plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in prison, hopefully in Canada, or fight for his innocence and continue wasting away in the sinister shadows of Guantanamo and other US torture chambers. He is moving toward the former with little hope for a future of walking among the free.

As Omar Khadr fades from the collective conscience, from our media-memory fragments, this new documentary confronts us and urges us to share his space, to feel his suffering, and to be inspired to fight for him.

“Each one of us is powerful. We can’t sit around and wait for government to do the right thing. We have to do it ourselves.” Edney told us this in an impromptu speech later in the evening that was will emerge as the most memorable and moving speech of the festival. Yet, it was a speech also mired by defeat: “I’m going to fly to Guantanamo tomorrow to see Omar and I’ll tell him about tonight and all of you, but I’m afraid I’ve got nothing hopeful to offer you.” The defeat is certainly not Edney’s, who has spent thousands of his own money and countless volunteer hours to represent Khadr over the years, but is instead shared by every Canadian.

We are all responsible for Omar Khadr’s freedom and rights. We are also all responsible for the abuses he has suffered during incarceration, including those against his rights. As he fades from the collective conscience, from our media-memory fragments, this new documentary confronts us and urges us to share his space, to feel his suffering, and to be inspired to fight for him.

The intense anger that many felt leaving the theatre must be translated into action. We must not forget about Khadr and other victims of Canada’s racist and costly War on Terror. We must fight for what is right, and what is right concerning Omar Khadr will never feel so clear as it does after experiencing You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo.

The time of waiting for government, especially the Harper administration, is over. It is time to force the elite minority of decision-makers and policy-shapers to do the right thing. There are only a handful of Khadr’s compared to the multitudes who enjoy the privileges of freedom in this country, it is enough to turn empathy into actions. It is enough to turn knowing about injustice and oppression into growing as active citizens who share the space of the dominated and who fight to break free of that space.

To take action, visit the Amnesty International Campaign page for Omar Khadr or the Omar Khadr Project, including the petition to repatriate Omar Khadr.