Fun fact: Kristen Stewart — star of Camp X-Ray — wasn’t quite 12 years old when Guantanamo Bay opened in early 2002. During his presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to shut it down. He’s finishing up his second term, and Stewart will be 26 in a couple of months, and the damn place is still open. As of last week, it still houses 93 inmates. Almost no one the prison holds now or has ever held has ever been charged with any crime. Prisoners who have been cleared for release — a tacit acknowledgement that they never should have been arrested in the first place — remain incarcerated.
Another fun fact: in October 2015, the last British detainee was finally released from Guantanamo Bay (never, naturally, having been charged with so much as a littering offense). And now, never having gotten a British theatrical release, the 2014 film Camp X-Ray has finally been released on DVD and VOD in the U.K. (To be fair, the film didn’t get much of a theatrical release in the U.S. in 2014 either; at its widest, it played on seven screens.) This is a brutal film, not in a visceral sense — though there is a bit of that, too; watching someone force-fed through a tube down the nose is horrifying — but psychologically. First-time writer-director Peter Sattler has made a superbly unsettling prison film, one that pointedly and poignantly highlights how incarceration dehumanizes everyone, inmate and guard alike. But the particular disturbing details of this particular disturbing prison as we see them here are far more effective than any recounting of violations of international law and protests by humanitarian organizations about what has gone on at Guantanamo Bay in showing how this place represents an embarrassing abnegation of American ideals, honor, and integrity. It has damaged America in the name of protecting it.
The irony starts the moment lowly grunt Cole (Stewart: Anesthesia, American Ultra) arrives at Camp Delta somewhen around 2009 to begin her guard duty. (There is no “Camp X-Ray.” Consider the title descriptive: we’re getting a penetrating view of life there.) In almost the same breath, she — along with her fellow incoming grunts — is told by her commander that “this is a war zone” but also not to refer to the inmates as “prisoners,” because that would mean they are subject to the Geneva Conventions, which will be violated all over the place here; instead, they are “detainees,” because with that bit of lawyer ball, the Geneva Conventions somehow doesn’t apply. It’s a Schroedinger conflict, in which America is simultaneously at war and not at war. It reduces morality and ethics to matters of semantics and legal niceties, and it’s not pretty.
Cole is onboard at first, doing her best to maintain the illusion that those she is guarding — walking rounds during which she looks into every cell every few minutes — aren’t people. But she cannot keep it up, particularly when she begins to notice how her fellow soldiers have, in the process, dehumanized themselves. To be a “good soldier” here is to be inhuman, and inhumane, and as the others start to suspect that she is clinging to her humanity, she will become as subject to attempts at humiliation by the other guards as the prisoners are. Which only pushes her even more toward sympathizing with one particular prisoner, Ali (Peyman Moaadi), who tries to engage her in conversation — a big no-no for the guards — out of, apparently, sheer boredom and loneliness, out of a need for simple human contact.
This is not a sentimental film, and Stewart’s steeliness is perfectly suited to that of a young woman who is forced, by the rigidity of her military environment, to pretend as if she isn’t being moved by what she is witnessing, and what she is forced to do in order to fit in. She’s no rebel! She wants and needs a military career: it has been her road out of a dull, small hometown. But “it’s not as black-and-white as they said it was gonna be,” she admits to a fellow soldier… who totally doesn’t understand what she’s saying. Those viewers who steadfastly hold to the idea that this is black-and-white will likely be as mystified as that other soldier by this film… or perhaps even incensed by the mere suggestion that anyone imprisoned someplace like Guantanamo Bay deserves to be seen as human and treated with respect. And they will likely be infuriated that this is the story of two people on the opposite sides of a war/not-war who come to recognize the humanity in each other. But guess what? Guantanamo Bay is still open. The dehumanization of its inmates continues. You infuriated viewers: you’re still winning. Hooray for you.