Dear friends and readers,
Over the past few weeks I’ve watched a series of documentaries about what might be called the state of the political world and military actions conducted by the Bush and succeeding US administration (Obama) in reaction to 9/11; this includes the present omnipresent use of surveillance over (I suppose) everyone by various US and UK (and other states’) agencies, imprisonment often w/o trial of literally countless individuals, the use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture. Quite an agenda.
I began with CitizenFour, led to go to a local movie-house at 2 in the afternoon to catch the movie by the crucial interest of the subject (while in the event the auditorium was remarkably crowded for that time of day, nonetheless the movie disappeared in less than 3 weekends), but then drawn by Poitras as a film-maker. I wanted a comparison so went for what was available, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (also disappeared quickly); understanding that CitizenFour is the third of a trilogy, I used Netflix to watch the second movie, The Oath, and then (unaccountably I suppose going backwards), the first, My Country, My Country. I wanted to see Kill the Messenger, but it played in but one movie-house in all the DC area that I could find, a theater not easy for me to get and by the time my schedule permitted it, Kill the Messenger had been killed (never got to DC where the powerful politicians, their committees and aides, the media, and reporters it exposed work from). Kill the Messenger did last longer than CitizenFour and Rosewater, but then it was at just this one theater — in Ballston, Arlington, by the way, for those who know this area, a place of apartments houses, where in the mall Jim and I have seen startlingly original plays now and again, one of Rameau’s Nephew I still remember).
I’m here to tell you that Poitras is a great documentary film-maker, and her subject being what it is, you should make the effort to see her trilogy, which has been reviewed fairly by David Bromwich in NYRB, with an emphasis on CitizenFour (“The Question of Snowden”), and much less neutrally (hostilely, with snide remarks aimed at Poitras and sudden turn-abouts, such as out of nowhere “Snowden is of course a traitor”) by George Packer (the New Yorker, Holder of Secrets). I’ve already written about CitizenFour (almost upon getting home from the movie), as “A Win” (scroll down to the last third of blog).
I wish there were a recognized tradition of documentaries in the US as there are in the UK (where they regularly play on TV); the best comparison I can come up with is My Country, My Country is as good as any of Frederick Wiseman’s best.
Several things make it as good as it is: first her art, in a quiet way she juxtaposes the right scenes against one another; like Wiseman, she tries to erase herself so you are listening to others and watching them (there are little vignettes of people passing the time of day in the way of Wiseman, bits of weather); she photographs landscapes aptly and gets the feel of the place (from driving a cab in Somalia, to the dreadful quiet of Guantanamo, to the destruction of the cities of Iraq as well as life lived inside a house without electricity, or communication lines outside). She wins the trust of those she interviews insofar as they are willing to open up in all three films: the central figure of The Oath, Abu Jandal (complex, sensitive man who has led a brutal existence) seems to be doing this and in a way he does show himself; Edward Snowden is a man being interviewed until near the end in a dangerous situation (in the Hong Kong hotel), and the central figure of My Country, My Country, Dr Riyahd al-Adhadh, an Iraqi doctor, upper class male who runs for office during an election in 2005, acts out his daily routine (he works as a doctor) and seems to say what he intended to say or do wherever he is regardless of Poitras’s camera. She’s not as aggressive as Wiseman or as pointed in what she shows, and she gets an intimate feel as she films people making their tea, unexpected gestures that are revealing.
The central story of the My Country, My Country is this election of 2005: all the people we see, soldiers, mercenaries (buying as cheap as they can get them, deadly weapons in order to “monitor” the sites and make sure they go the way wanted), the campaign managers (often from Australia) are there to make this election look right. Riyadh cooperates because he is hoping to help his Sunni brethren in his area of Baghdad and around the country (Falluja) to have some sort of say (however hopeless the attempt) At one point to some prisoners he visits in a supposed opening up who have been held for months without trial, put into solitary confinement, sometimes tortured in other ways, underfed, miserable in heated tents), he bursts forth, so frustrated is he in his inability to do anything to help any of them: “We are an occupied country with a puppet government.”
One sequences of images shows an Iraqi man appealing to a committee to stop spending money this way, asking them what is the use of this (phony) election amid this slaughter; this destruction of needed services like electricity and water, these prisons? Well, Bush wanted it. As with the putting the challenger into space in 1987 done at the worst possible time weather-wise was done (as Feynman shows) because Reagon wanted it, so everyone is following the Big man and His men. Bush is the equivalent of the absent Henry VIII in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Obama cannot escape this kind of numinous power from patronage that people still organize themselves around.)
The speakers and their plights make this a poignant movie.
Poitras basically follows Dr Riyahd around; she is in his house at all hours of day and night and we watch conversations of the women inside the house, sometimes with Riiyadh answering. We see a wedding held. We get to recognize the wife, the mother, older female relatives, his daughters one of whom cries out “we have no life and can have no life, have had no life for ever so long.”
The film’s hold and the respect it commands comes from this man who is reasonable, holding out, though at the close when the election gives Sunni hardly any seats, he is suddenly embittered and talks of how they must move (Where?); it’s touching how much care he will take over this or that specific individual as if each person matters. That speaks the values of this film against which we see the bombing and killing now and again.
You have to use your brains and recognize what are obvious lies; the film exposes the absurdity and cruelty of what was being done — we don’t see the actors who are making money of course — the Haliburtons, but in a way you can’t film that; as Alexander Pope said in the 18th century how do you dramatize the corruption of money and how it’s used and works silently so that’s it’s seen only in the people hired to work jobs, the boardrooms and dinners where things are decided. The conversations we might like to hear, money changing hands, moving digitally cannot be filmed.
My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of the year. You’d think Poitras would have gone on to make even better films. But this has not happened. The Oath and CitizenFour are made on much cheaper budgets; she does not get to films interviews of or talks to the same kinds of important people after My Country, My Country. It was after this film, she began to be so harassed at every border crossing she passed, searched and stopped 40+ times at airports, her precious things taken from her more than once (returned most of them, but not always); after this film she moved to Berlin. Packer calls her paranoid — in one of his unfair dismissive descriptions of her. Yes she’s a privileged person, comes from people with wealth, went to fine schools (including New School of social research), lived in Manhattan, frequents nice bars. Does he want her to stay in sordid ones? she’s a woman.
(Packer also indulges in snide cracks at Julian Assange . The man is not cooperative,says Packer as if this were surprising or a sin. Well, duh. Not clubbable like Packer is, eh?)
In the case of The Oath, she wanted to make a film about the taxi-driver of Bin Laden who was captured, put in a black hole, tortured, taken to Guantanomo and (astonishingly to many), with the help of two military lawyers (we watch in the film giving public interviews) won a supreme court case where they declared that one could not call a man a terrorist for supplying daily aid (like a car, like services included in being a chauffeau in effect), so congress passed a law saying to give material aid to a terrorist was enough to make someone a terrorist. The case again was adjudicated and this time he was guilty as charged (according to the new law), but the sentence was time served plus four months so a slap at congress was administered. The Hamdan cases are now used in arguments about terrorism. Promising material, no?
But after giving one interview to a BBC reporter in London, after returning home, Hamdan will give no interviews. So Poitras uses a man close to him, who “recruited” him (got him a needed job as a driver), Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law.
She discovered that Jandal is a revealing and intelligent person in his own right. So Poirtras’s film centers on Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law, what footage she has found of one of Hamdan’s “interrogation” (under a hood, and his body all cringed and terrified in some hideous prison),
then the trial (just outside with sketches and drawings of what is happening inside the courtroom), the trial lawyers and congressional hearings; she has also footage of Guantanamo, and she films places in Afghanistan and where Abu Jandal now works as a cab driver.
Jandal is a fascinating person: he is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. Also of great interest is Swift, the lawyers working for Hamdan:
there is also a military officer who says he does this to keep the constitution alive and well.
It has depths of a different kind from My County My Country. Jandal is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. He was someone who administered oaths of loyalty. Abu Jandal is an intense believer — in his religion, we see him bringing up his boy continually — and among other things he believes in is the Arab way of life he saw personified in Bin Laden; he presents his wife and sister-in-law (in burkas). We see him teaching his son:
He followed Bin Laden out of a personal identification. People who get followers do sometimes do that.
The film merits comparison with CitizenFour — done on a similar budget, similarly centrally focused without much story line (Snowden escapes to the Russian airport near the end of the film and at the close he is interviewed briefly from an unknown place in Russia by Greenwald with Poitras as film-maker). See my A Win (blog — scroll down to last 3rd).
She keeps her distance says Packer from Abu Jandal as she does not in Citizen Four. He seems to feel she identified so closely with Snowden that accounts for her taking what he said at face value. I wonder — Packer says we are watching a man being interviewed, not the inner man; well the same happened with Jandal (who is not revealing “all”). She also couldn’t get past the mask (as sophisticated people we want to know the pyschological and personal sociological reasons for his giving up a good life to risk life in solitary confinement and worse, or in Russia meagrely tolerated) becUse he was in danger at those moments as Jandal no longer is.
What we do see in Snowden is revulsion. He felt intense revulsion at what he was seeing going on around, him, at the secret life he was living, at its privileges. I think he’s an austere guy — e has not yet been apprehended because he has files of just this nature that will drop the minute he disappears–and people in power know it. He has not released much of what he has. Why Assange remains safely (tenuous safety) inside the Equadoran embass. The for how Snowden’s girlfriend got from their apartment in wherever it was to now live with Snowden in his Russia and cook spaghetti together. People may also think some of these files are known to Greenwald and Poitras. The repugnance (revulsion I called it) was not just for the way of life he saw in the high tech firms and their employees’ home life but personally, a feeling of how at risk they all were from one another.
Snowden no sentimentalist but he does seem to have acted out of a deep feeling of what is decent and indecent. What he saw happening where he worked, he felt was indecent — Imagine him watching people looking into files of just anyone or someone they wanted to hurt or were paid to find things out about. In comparison Abu Jandal has beliefs that are deeply optimistic (from his religion which is real), though he fears snatching and killing. At the end of The Oath he has lost his job and is worried about having lost his cab but doesn’t say why these events have occurred.
It’s no coincidence that decency also actuates Poirtras’s chosen Iraqi doctor. This sort of emotion outraged, and an idealism as well as intense curiosity about the people who involve themselves fuels Poitras’s films. Her film on Snowden is more careful — it seems apolitical and that’s to enable her to make another.
Films can be a source of real information and insight — like so much in our culture, because their power and abilities are often so wasted and thrown away and wrongly exploited that does not mean the medium is not one of the most powerful we have today.
David Denby of the New Yorker tells about the incident on Stewart’s comedy program which Denby thinks helped lead to Rosewater.
At the time of this real life incident on TV, Stewart’s interview of a reporter named Bahari that led (circuitously) to Bahari being snatched, kidnapped, imprisoned, held in solitary confinement for months and emotionally tortured, terrified and also beat up hard a couple of times, I was not watching TV at all so can say nothing (I still don’t watch TV much.) The important element was this gave Stewart a justificaion, a raison d’etre beyond the actuating purposes of the film (similar to Poitras) — to expose what the war on terror, surveillance, and torture in imprisonment, specifically solitary confinement inflicts on individuals.
Bernal is a powerful actor and this is not the first political film he’s been in; he was superb in After the Rain, about the attempt in a South American country by a corporation to take over the water supply and start charging money for it (see my blog, Even the Rain).
It’s a good not a great film, and part of the flaw is its fiction and sentimentalized (we don’t get deep pain at all). He’s also careful to be mainstream and he does this by suggesting all political movements and leaders are shits. Bahari’s father was high in politics and gov’t in 1953-54 when the only attempt thus far was made to set up a secular democracy, socialist in thrust: the US and UK with their CIA and M15 moved in and overthrew them, imprisoned, tortured (probably) and destroyed it. In the movie Bahari’s father is implicitly criticized as a deluded communist with the implication all communists are tyrants, deluded people follow them. As if they are more evil than fascists, totalitarians, religious fanatics. In fact they were trying to set up a neutral secular state with the socialists; a real election had put a democracy in place. The US staged a coup. The happy ending of the film also seems to justify the American state as a sane one: but the real topic of the movie, solitary confinement (to which much of the movie is given over and is an stunning feat), is more widespread in US prisons than European ones, and political imprisonment has grown to visible public dimensions. The film did not stay long in theaters anyway.
Some tentative conclusions:
That Poitras comes from wealthy people tells us more than how she affords her traveling, her living in Berlin, and see her earlier privileged life (New School in NYC); more importantly (from my studies of liberty and reading Mill and Berlin and others), her sense of her self, her background, upbringing makes her feel she can exercise her liberty. It is as important to feel you have the right to exercise your liberty, which comes from background (upbringing, class, gender, education, habitas) as to have it. Like Penelope Fitzgerald (an article by James Wood in the same New Yorker as Packer on Poitras), her quiet sense she need not explain, her concision and other aspects of her film making come from this background. Their nerve, they have the nerve.
The non-fiction trilogy is by a woman — there’s a cyclical feel; we end where we began in The Oath, poor Jandal now has lost his cab and job. We are not told why — nor exactly who provided the money for the cab in the first place. We go back to white letters on black in CitizenFour. There’s little superfluous violence, hardly any at all, it’s just menacing us at the corners of the screen – all the people we see interview Jandal (she includes film clips) and the film clips of the defense atttorneys for Hamdan and of course the narrative line telling us accurately what happened to him (sold to the Americans, put into black hole, &c&c) and we feel it in her overvoice of Citizen Four. We see it in the silent pictures of the cities and landscapes (Guantanomo, Afghanistan, places not identified where people are meeting in tents and being interviewed or talked at by reporters and high officials.) Now she’s not an official. She’s just a woman.
As to the issues, there is passing discussion of liberty which one lawyer says is now unfortunately defined as privacy: that’s a real loss as what’s at stake is more than privacy. A friend writes: “The issue of free speech was also addressed. What this surveillance means is that the notion of free speech is essentially meaningless. In invading your privacy, your civil liberties have been suspended. For example, should you try to organize a protest, the government will know what you are up to. If they consider the action a treat, they can stop it. I guess this is when the swat team arrives at your door.” The 8th amendment is also gutted as your money can be stopped from getting to you. The US government and others too (the UK perhaps in its decades old GCHQ), has records of all our business transactions, such as our public transit card, and our credit cards, and our banking info, as well as everything we do on the computer and every phone call we make. They can access these files at any time and go through them retroactively.
Stewart is a deeply compassionate man but without the “license” of non-fiction curtailed what he could have dramatized.