Monday, October 13, 2014

Guantanamo up close, and an unlikely friendship: Peter Sattler's CAMP X-RAY

Peter Sattler, writer/director of the new film CAMP X-RAY, does several smart things so far as his adult audiences are concerned. He takes it for granted that we understand Guantanamo -- what it is and why it is there and what 9/11 had to do with its creation -- so he does not waste our time with unnecessary exposition. Neither does Mr. Sattler (shown below) offer us multiple scenes of torture and degradation of the "detainees" ("Don't call them prisoners!" one newcomer soldier is told). The worst we see are photographs of our "hero" having been abused and something called the Frequent Flyer method, in which a prisoner is moved every couple of hours, night and day, to a new cell so that he soon becomes sleep deprived. Oh, yes, and we also see a prisoner forced to take a shower in front of a female soldier.

My judgment on this disgusting prison is that it ought to have been quickly abolished, rather than continuing to hold these "detainees," often without charge or trial. It makes a mockery of U.S. claims toward decency or justice. The prisoner with which Camp X-Ray is most concerned is one, Ali Amir, played by actor/ writer Peyman Moaadi, shown below, whom foreign-film buffs will remember as the husband in that fine Iranian film, A Separation, and who for some reason has dropped the "o" from his last name, while replacing the "e" with an "a" in his first name in his billing for this particular movie.

As fine as Mr. Moaadi is, the attraction for most U.S. audience is likely to be the actress who stars as that aforementioned female soldier: Kristen Stewart. Ms Stewart (shown below, center), after starring in the vampire-lite Twilight franchise, has now made a number of small independent films -- Welcome to the Rileys to The Runaways and On the Road --  in which she has proven quite adept, just as she is in this new film.

Her character, Amy Cole is savvy and quick, as she tries to keep up in every way with the male soldiers in her unit. Initially, the relationship between Amy and Ali is adversarial, but slowly, the two becomes close.

Ali's guilt or innocence is never really questioned. He could be either -- and of what we never know. We see him initially abducted in an apartment while at prayer (from which country we don't even know) and then imprisoned. We do know he has been there now for eight years -- enough time read the entire Harry Potter series, the last book of which he is still awaiting. Sattler's movie is much less about the torture and pain these "detainees" must endure than about the sadness and waste of their lives that distinguishes Guantanamo.

What happens at the film's climax is extremely moving. The denouement, one that you'll probably expect, is also moving. And because of the fine performances, the film succeeds to a point. What holds it back is Mr. Sattler's reliance on that rather typical title card that reads ____ Months Later (in this case, I think it's eight, but it just as easily could have been four or six or twelve)  This allows us to say, Oh, they've grown closer now. Well, yes, but it would have been better to have seen how some of the details of this closeness came about.

Because we don't see the details, this leaves the two characters only semi-formed. The film lasts 112 minutes -- which is not particularly short, yet it feels that way: truncated, almost. Sattler would have been wiser to give us more specifics and let us see how this relationship grows and deepens. What he has chosen to show us is barely adequate, except to let us understand that, yes, these people have bonded in some ways.

He has also introduced the nasty, jealous soldier (Lane Garrison, above) whose designs on Amy make for some unpleasatness. Yet this is much less interesting that the bond that forms between Ali and Amy. We get enough of this to be moved, finally, but mostly in that standard manner we're used to in sentimental movies. This film, its characters and location, deserves something better.

Camp X-Ray, from IFC Films, opens this Friday, October 17, simultaneously in theaters and on VOD. In NYC, it plays at the IFC Center. Elsewhere? Not sure. 

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