Earlier this year, the U.S. Marine general who opened Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay Navy base in 2002 called guarding detainees there a “soul-numbing experience.”
“I think that we need to be very careful that these young people, the guards themselves, don’t become changed for the worst by just having to lock up other human beings and see what’s going on,” retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert told the Miami Herald.
Now, Hollywood captures the soul-numbing nature of the work with “Camp X-Ray,” a two-hour drama starring Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame as an American soldier guarding war-on-terror captives.
And despite the star power, the film has perhaps drawn more attention abroad than at home. Filmmaker Peter Sattler, passing through Miami this week for its Friday night premiere at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on his way to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, disclosed with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment that it opens this month in Beirut and Iraq.
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“That’s the interesting marketing challenge,” said Sattler, a first-time director. “How do you get people to go see a movie about a topic they’ve run from for 13 years?”
Not since Harold and Kumar donned orange jumpsuits and escaped from a Hollywood version of the prison in 2008 has the big screen tackled the topic of indefinite detention without charge at the prison President Barack Obama wants to close. Then, it was a comedic spoof that suggested abuse through rape of two Americans who were, oops, mistakenly profiled as terrorists.
This film is more subtle. It sweeps aside the — “We’re the good guys” — narrative that the U.S. military promotes at the prison of 149 detainees, 80 of them approved for release. Captive and captors come across as caught up in something larger than themselves.
Sattler said in an interview that he wrote the movie to get people “to look at your enemy as a human being” and make “some larger, archetypal philosophical statement about the core relationship you have with a stranger.”
Also, he said, he and Stewart didn’t team up to make a political polemic on the need to close the prison, a hot-button issue in American domestic politics. “If we had the answer of what to do with Guantánamo Bay we would’ve called Obama and told him,” he said.
Besides, Stewart’s “not overtly political like that.” She was “really drawn to the character” of Army Private Amy Cole, a soldier guarding a Muslim man who was snatched from his home in the Arab world eight years earlier.
In many ways, Stewart, 24, plays the character like the stoic 20-something guards the military presents to visiting reporters on prison visits.
She’s not glamorous. She gets splattered with feces flung by a detainee from inside his cell. She’s lonely, disconnected from family in this non-war-zone where troops get danger pay. She dons white socks and Adidas flip-flops for a party, drinks too much, gets sloppy. She opines on why detainees don’t get The Geneva Conventions.
Filmed in California
The film itself pays meticulous detail to set design — right down to the library cart the private pushes around a replica of Guantánamo’s maximum-security lockup for low-value detainees — then diverges from detention center doctrine in ways that are sure to annoy members of the military.
Stewart’s character spends, it seems, her entire tour of duty on one cell block, often alone, chatting with Detainee 471, played by the Iranian film star Payman Maadi. She calls him by his name, Ali, a breach of prison doctrine.
“Policy does not allow members of the guard force to engage in or hold conversations with the detainees beyond the mission at hand,” Navy Capt. Tom Gresback wrote by email from Guantánamo to a Herald query about whether guards and captives had long hours to “shoot the breeze.”
Sattler says a 2002 Camp X-Ray guard, Brandon Neely, did befriend some detainees, and told him how realistic the film felt.
It was filmed in California across just 21 days, mostly at an abandoned correctional facility that the film industry can use. Nobody from the movie ever visited the real prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Had they, perhaps they’d know that the guards Velcro numbers where their names go on their battle dress — a through-the-looking-glass version of the detainees, who are called by their internment serial number.
The filmmakers did, however, consult former members of the military and comb through prison materials and news reports on the Internet to give a sense of realism — right down to an Iraqi actor shouting Arabic slurs in the soundtrack, a juxtaposition to the American soldiers’ vulgar language.
Borrows from media tour
In fact, it feels at times like it was copied off the imagery that emerges from the prison’s censored package tour for visiting media: Food preparation, cell checks every three minutes, Harry Potter books at the detainee library.
But it piles on with ripped-from-the-news improvisations — a restraint-chair forced feeding, sleep deprivation as punishment, a hunger strike.
There’s plenty in the film that may annoy the succession of Army censors who double as docents delivering memorized talking points to reporters — starting with the movie title. It’s a misnomer. The action takes place in prison buildings, not the 2002 open-air cells that resembled dog kennels. Sattler said he chose the title for its alliteration.
Another portion sure to annoy is the punitive, promiscuous use of forced cell extractions in the film.
No one knows what the tackle-and-shackle technique really looks like, yet, because the prison is resisting a court order to make public some videotapes of the real event. In Sattler’s version, Private Cole volunteers during first-day orientation, suits up, is slugged by a detainee and gets a fat lip.
To write it, Sattler studied a leaked prison handbook and portrays his as a brawl undertaken by amateurs rather than the well-rehearsed, choreographed operation portrayed by Justice Department lawyers defending prison forced-feeding practices in the federal courts.
‘Hostile, intense, boring’
It’s a device, says Sattler. “You have to show this place being hostile and intense before you get into how boring it is.”
And that’s the point, as he sees it.
He had watched a National Geographic documentary exchange between a soldier and a captive over a library book at a cell door — and said he was lured to the topic by his imagined interactions between those two men.
“In the same way that the terrorists aren’t monsters,” he said, “these soldiers aren’t some ass---- guard who wants to kill people.”
His film soldier became a woman, he said, long before Stewart agreed to take the part. His wife was pregnant with their first child, a girl, and Sattler said he started thinking about “what heroes am I going to show her?”
The film dispatches Guantánamo’s good-guy, bad-guy narrative in a single lunch scene in the guards’ cafeteria.
Private Rico Cruz, played by actor Joseph Julian Soria: “These [expletives] did 9/11. And now they’re in jail. End of story.”
Private Cole, played by Stewart: “The [expletives] who did 9/11 died there.”
You see, at the real Guantánamo both statements are at once truth and lie.
Only one detainee at the real Guantánamo has been convicted of a crime — he’s not mentioned in this movie, but he made an al-Qaida recruiting video for Osama bin Laden and was sentenced to life in prison. Six other prisoners await death-penalty trials, five as alleged co-conspirators in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Eighty of today’s detainees are cleared for release, if the State Department can find countries to resettle them and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signs off on the deal. But guilt and innocence aren’t part of the equation for the real guards of Guantánamo.
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Sattler says he never considered asking for the prison camp tour — a weekly offering by the public affairs team when the war court is not in session. Instead, he and Stewart schooled themselves with videos and first-hand accounts, WikiLeaked prisoner profiles and news articles.
But he said he would “go there in a heartbeat” to screen his film at The Lyceum, the base’s outdoor cinema where the Navy shows first-run movies for anyone at Guantánamo, except the detainees.
“Some people may hate it. They may boo it,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s their life. It would be an interesting experience.”
Whether the “Twilight” star would go, too, is another matter, he said. That would be up to her and her publicists.
Follow Guantánamo reporter @carolrosenberg on Twitter.
Filmed in California, not Cuba
The scenes of “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart playing a guard may resemble Guantánamo before censors began ordered photojournalists to chop off the heads of captive and captors in their photos from prison visits.
But the military says it had nothing to do with the making of the movie “Camp X-Ray,” about an unlikely friendship between a female guard and an Arab war-on-terror detainee. The director, Peter Sattler, said his team wrote the Army but was refused collaboration.
Instead, all the filming was done in 21 days in California — mostly at closed correctional facility in Whittier, Calif, but also a few scenes in Los Angeles.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January; it was picked up for U.S. distribution by IFC Films in February.