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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Camp X-Ray movie review: all of us behind bars

Camp X-Ray green light

Superbly unsettling. Pointedly highlights how incarceration dehumanizes inmate and guard alike. Kristen Stewart’s steeliness is perfectly suited to its ironies.
I’m “biast” (pro): really like Kristen Stewart

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

green light 4 stars

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Camp X-Ray (2014)
US/Can release: Oct 17 2014 (VOD same day)
UK/Ire release: direct to DVD

MPAA: rated R for language and brief nude images
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, threat, sexualised nudity)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Steampunk99

    >> “Prisoners who have been cleared for release — a tacit acknowledgement that they never should have been arrested in the first place — remain incarcerated.” <<

    That displays a lack of understanding of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war.

    What America's critics haven't told you (because they truly don't want you to know) is that being an enemy of the U.S. is not a crime unless you're a citizen of the U.S. Nor does it need to be a crime for the U.S. to detain enemy combatants.

    And if it's not a crime, then criminal charges are simply not possible. There was nothing new about this. That's the way it's always been. Even the Bill of Rights was worded in a way that allows this, as the Founding Fathers understood war all too well. The fact that the detainees don't qualify for POW status under the Geneva Conventions does not change this.

    The same goes for that "last British detainee" who you say was "never, naturally, having been charged with so much as a littering offense." What you don't say, and probably don't know, is that he was cleared for release to Saudi Arabia years ago (where he was wanted for a connection to terrorism), but his lawyers fought against it.

    At least we can say that this movie is not educational.

  • That displays a lack of understanding of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war.

    But the US has gone out of its way to argue — successfully, alas — that the Geneva Conventions does not apply to Guantanamo Bay. So I don’t really understand what you’re saying. Except that it sounds like you’re also playing lawyer ball: you think it’s a *good* thing that America does not have to live up to its own standards when it chooses not to. And that you’re okay with American not actually having the freedoms “they” supposedly hate us for.

    If I’m wrong, please explain what you’re getting at.

  • Steampunk99

    The U.S. does live up to its standards better than most. Like any contract, the Geneva Conventions say when they apply, and in this case, they generally apply to wars between countries. Neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban qualify.

    This is no different than if some KKK member had demanded POW status after killing a black cop. The Conventions simply don’t cover it. It would be just as wrong to accuse us of failing to “live up to our standards” if we refused him, too.

    Oddly, this was settled in a case that the Bush administration lost. The Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that, although Al Qaeda detainees get some status (under Article 3), it only applies within that one article, which does not have POW status for detainees. (Taliban detainees had that status since the beginning.)

    You need to remember that the Conventions were written by governments with the advice of their military leaders. They never would have given POW status to terrorists who had no official government backing them. None of the responsible governments would have ratified such a treaty, nor would they today.

    The detainees have had military tribunals since ten years ago, annual reviews, and then habeas corpus reviews by federal judges. That’s far more than what international law requires.

  • yael

    Those terrorists are in there because they were caught in terrorist activities. Let’s stop feeling sorry for monsters. Let’s remember the millions around the world killed, maimed and destroyed by the political ideology of islam.

  • Danielm80

    She’s already responded to your comment in the review:

    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.

    But then…

    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.

  • But the US wants to have it both ways. It wants to be at war and not at war at the same time. Did you even read my review?

  • they were caught in terrorist activities

    No, they weren’t. Looks like the propaganda has served its purpose, however.

  • Steampunk99

    Yes, I read it. I can understand that ordinary people think we’re at war/not-war. But legally, we are very much at war. Courts have agreed on this.

    Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) a few days after 9/11. The Supreme Court ruled that this is sufficient. It remains in force as long as the conditions in that authorization are met. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t authorize military action against every terrorist. Likewise, Congress had to pass a separate authorization for the Iraq War.

    It’s also worth noting that most detainees support their side of the war. They’re very much at war against us. Even those detainees that some think sound reasonable will admit they support the fighting against us in Afghanistan while claiming to oppose attacks in the U.K. and Paris.

  • Steampunk99

    It looks like you’re a victim of propaganda as well.

    Opinions may vary, but for some of us, serving on the front lines a Taliban unit is a terrorist activity.

    I suggest you read Shaker Aamer’s assessment that was stolen and revealed by Wikileaks. He’s the one you mentioned that was recently released to the U.K. Since it was intended to remain secret, it’s obviously not propaganda. One can discount 90% of Aamer’s file, and it’s still enough.

    The military has generally been reluctant to talk about the detainees. And so, most of what you’ve been getting over the years has been anti-American propaganda, much of it from their lawyers.

    Their propaganda has been serving its purpose, too, but their purpose is often deadly.

  • RogerBW

    Of course, the only possible way for truth and justice to be served is to detail people without trial forever. No alternative is possible. I’m vaguely surprised you aren’t calling for them to be tortured to death; isn’t that also legal according to American lawyers these days?

  • Steampunk99

    Forever? Nonsense. They’re being held until the end of the war. That’s the way it is for most wars. Where do you get “these days” from? It’s always been this way. The manual the military referred to on this is old, and last updated in the 1990s.

    Detainees had the tribunals required under U.S. law, as well as annual reviews. They’ve also had habeas reviews by federal judges, although that’s new, and wasn’t in previous wars.

    What is it about this war that you want the old rules to be thrown out? (An astonishing thought when we were just discussing the Geneva Convention.) Is it that you think this enemy will never stop fighting? Most detainees (and their loudest supporters) don’t want their war to end until their side wins. Then why complain to our side about that?

    Afghanistan got a new government under U.N. authorized elections. Most Afghans greatly fear the Taliban. Unfortunately, most detainees and their supporters (including Amnesty’s just recently former partners) think it’s okay to fight against that elected government.

    I’m comfortable supporting my position. I’ve never supported torturing anyone to death, but that can hardly be said of anyone with sympathies for the Taliban.

  • Danielm80

    It may be legal to keep someone in prison for going-on-fifteen years, with no end in sight. That doesn’t make it just, or wise.

    Also: “We treat people better than the Taliban do” isn’t much of a defense.

  • It’s also worth noting that most detainees support their side of the war.

    Well, if they do, they certainly have good reason to now!

    So you’re good with the lawyer ball? Got it.

  • You’re very trusting of the US government. I am not.

  • Steampunk99

    It’s legal.

    And as long as they also support their side of the war, it’s clearly moral.

  • They’re being held until the end of the war.

    Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

  • It’s legal.

    So was slavery.

  • Steampunk99


    With a few exceptions (which don’t include the ones we’ve talked about here), they’ve always supported their side of the war. They didn’t just change their minds because we treated *some* of them almost the way the British treated German prisoners in WWII.

    Nothing lawyerly about that. This is both legal and ethical. Remember that innocent people have died because we’ve let the wrong ones go. Just because it usually isn’t Americans being killed by ex-detainees doesn’t make it okay.

  • Steampunk99

    As I said, the Afghans elected a new government in 2004. Amnesty’s (now former) friends want the war to continue. If it bothers you that the war is taking so long then you need to ask them to end their war and support elections.

    BTW: In reality, Orwell despised the peace movement.

  • Steampunk99

    Not in radical Islamism.

  • Steampunk99

    Unless it comes to health care.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Any wars’ most ardent defenders seem to fall into two camps: the bloodthirsty, and the bloodless. Our friend here apparently aligns with the latter. Willful obtuseness seems to be a bonus.

  • Steampunk99

    And which side do you align yourself with? Are you really floating above it all?

    We’ve just had a reference to Oceania having always been at war with Eurasia. That book was written just a few years after WWII. And in that war, after the Soviets’ switching sides, much of the anti-war movement of that day switched from being anti-war to pro-war. They even went so far as to support the internment of Japanese-Americans. It was lawyers from the previously-anti-war radical National Lawyers Guild that successfully defended it in court.

    I support the side fighting against true outrages, including slavery. Yes, my side is imperfect. But, if you’ll notice, what I’m defending here is simply the rules we’ve had in all wars.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Neither, but it’s good to know that you don’t actually read what other people write.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I don’t think it’s “good” so much as “consistent”. They’ve got a playbook they’re working from and they’re going to stick to it. It’s not about a conversation, it’s about running through bullet points.

  • Steampunk99

    I read all sides quite clearly. If you’ll note, I’m the one who’s referencing the law of war, including the Geneva Conventions, what the rules actually say (as opposed to what people think they’ve learned from watching Hogan’s Heroes), and what the positions of the detainees are based on what they’ve said or refused to say.

    You’re not really floating above it all.

  • Seriously? You’re comparing a public service that — should the US ever move to an NHS-style service — that would take place out in the open and be subject to vigorous oversight, to federally mandated secrecy in a situation that has no oversight at all?

    We have no common ground to have a reasonable discussion.

  • Look, this is what is comes down to: Either the US is at war, and POWs are subject to the Geneva Conventions, or the US is not at war, and its prisoners are subject to all the civil rights that any prisoner is subject to. You cannot have it both ways.

  • Steampunk99

    The Geneva Conventions have it both ways.

    Read Article 2 (it’s identical in all four of the Conventions) and it says what kinds of wars are covered. As I said, the Supreme Court ruled that this falls under Common Article 3, which is self-contained, and none of the other articles apply. There is no POW status under Article 3. Trials are required only if we sentence one of them.

    The word “detainee” was already in the manual. You’re actually arguing with the Supreme Court, as well as both the Bush and Obama administrations.

    But even if you wanted to squeeze this war under the entire Geneva Conventions (and some did), these detainees still wouldn’t qualify as POWs. WWII had prisoners that didn’t qualify for POW status either, many of whom were executed by all sides, including by the U.S. There are rules to war that terrorists (pretty much by definition) decided to ignore. This was their choice.

    It still is their choice. Common Article 3 encourages both sides to make agreements to bring the full Conventions into play. They don’t want it.

    Secretary Colin Powell is known for disagreeing with the decision not to put this war under the entire Geneva Conventions. But if you read his January 2002 letter to Bush’s lawyers, he says quite clearly that (with a possible exception of some Taliban members) the detainees would still not be getting POW status.

    The funny thing is, Powell wrote that they wouldn’t even qualify for so much as a quick tribunal. He had good-but-unrelated reasons for wanting to use the full Conventions. POW status wasn’t one of them.

    I know it sounds like lawyer ball to you, but the Geneva Conventions simply don’t agree with you.

  • Steampunk99

    The U.S. military has very vigorous oversight. It’s true that there is necessarily some secrecy but the entire Senate and House defense committees have full access. Any general who testifies could be put on trial if they lie to Congress.

    They could view the recordings at Gitmo if they wanted.

  • Danielm80

    Next you can explain why it’s completely just that so many police officers were exonerated after killing unarmed black people, and why so many Wall Street firms were too big to fail.

    There’s a reason some of us think the system is broken. The reason is people like you.

  • Steampunk99

    I’m just telling you what the rules are. Anyone who wants to say they support the law of war and the Geneva Conventions should understand that what I described here is what they’re claiming to support.

    Don’t like it? Then stop claiming you have ever supported the Geneva Conventions. It was created this way for a serious and deadly reason.

  • You’re actually arguing with the Supreme Court, as well as both the Bush and Obama administrations.

    Yes. You said that like it’s a bad thing.

    Common Article 3 encourages both sides to make agreements to bring the full Conventions into play.

    Oh. I see. What or who do you think is the “other side” in this thing? It certainly isn’t a nation. Is it “terror”? How do we get “terror” to agree to anything?

    There are rules to war that terrorists (pretty much by definition) decided to ignore. This was their choice.

    So, you’re okay with their guilt being a foregone conclusion?

    I’ll say it again: We have no common ground for a reasonable discussion.

  • You may certainly argue with Bush, Obama and the Supreme Court, but they all do know more about the Geneva Conventions than you. That is, after all, what you brought up.

    There most certainly is another side in the war. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not technically at war against all terrorists. Nor are we at war against all Islamic terrorists. Legally at least, we have specific enemies. “War on Terror” is only a nickname. Likewise, World War II wasn’t really a war with the entire world. It wasn’t even a war against every fascist country.

    As long as there are specific enemies, they can be asked to make agreements. Germany did so during WWII regarding Free-French prisoners who became unlawful combatants after France surrendered. They could make contacts now if they wanted. Amnesty had a partnership with a likely al Qaeda sympathizer (to put it kindly) who himself had interviews with Anwar al Awlaki. They could easily make a few phone calls. Besides, if al Qaeda cared about the detainees, they could find ways to contact us the same way we had a prisoner swap with the Taliban.

    It’s not a matter of guilt or innocence in the law of war. There’s nothing new about this either. Read the relevant treaties and you’ll see there are no trials for wartime detainees unless we sentence them beyond the length of the war. But they’ve had tribunals, annual reviews and federal habeas hearings. It’s more than required by international law.

    I’m sorry to disturb you with facts, but that’s what this is.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Nice, you’re even consistent in your condescension. But still not near so clever as you think.

    Bet you’re loads of fun at parties.

    But do carry on. I’m sure you’re on the cusp of settling a decade old contentious topic right here in the comments section of a movie review.

  • It should no longer be a contentious topic. It was settled by the Supreme Court in decisions that the Bush administration generally lost — although those losses were basically around the edges of the law. I’ve had to live with the facts of those losses. It’s interesting that you can’t.

    The law is supposed to be the common ground.

  • RogerBW

    So you feel that the law is the sole definition of what is right?

    Have a lot of affairs, do you? That’s not illegal.

  • Whether or not affairs are illegal (sometimes, they are), that’s not the point. I’m really just pointing out what the law actually says — both U.S. and international.

    If you don’t know what the rules are, and don’t know the reasons they were written this way, then it’s a bit funny to imagine you know what’s right.

  • It was settled by the Supreme Court

    Which has been known to be wrong from time to time.

    I’ve had to live with the facts of those losses.

    Have you? In what way were you impacted?

  • You’re quite right that I haven’t been impacted personally, other than the minor ways we’ve all been affected. Current military members, as well as Afghans and people in other Muslim countries, were surely hurt by our giving away too much, letting the war take too long. But I’m trying to talk about what the law actually says.

    POW status wasn’t even close. While the Bush position had a narrow defeat in the Court, POW status wasn’t an issue. As I said, it doesn’t exist in Article 3 of the Conventions that the Court said applies. (Bush initially said Article 3 applies to Taliban, not al Qaeda detainees, and the Court ruled it applies to all detainees in this war.)

    But let’s pretend for a moment that, like you said, every Justice on the Court was wrong. At the most, the Court could then have ruled that the main Conventions apply. If so, then they’d have required tribunals to determine POW status. Well, the detainees already had similar tribunals by 2004-2005 (sans POW status). The results are online. We can see that it could only have been an option to a handful of Taliban, and they’d have been among those sent back to Afghanistan a long time ago. The rest would still be in the same boat they’re in now.

    Basically, this would be the scenario I said Colin Powell was in favor of, and he said he didn’t see much different for the detainees.

    In other words, this wasn’t close. The Geneva Conventions had later additions (called Protocol 1 and 2), but the U.S. didn’t ratify them, and they wouldn’t have changed anything in this war anyway. Our enemies would have needed to operate differently. And if they were willing to do that, then they could well have made the agreements I mentioned earlier.

    Note that conditions for such agreements (e.g. operating like real armies) could have saved the lives of innocent civilians. You’re really asking for more than you think.

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