A Documentary Makes the Case Against Torture by Interviewing the Tortured

America wants to forget the abuses of Guantanamo and the like, but Beneath the Blindfold shows that the consequences of brutal interrogations linger for a long time.

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Beneath the Blindfold

"Didn't he get the memo that we're not relitigating the past?" That's what Rahm Emanuel reportedly shouted at a White House intermediary early in the Obama administration's tenure when he learned that Eric Holder had plans to investigate Bush-era torture. As Glenn Greenwald has discussed at length, the Obama White House has decided that our country shouldn't hold Bush, or Rumsfeld, or John Yoo, or anybody accountable for interrogations using torture which violate international and domestic law. Or, as Emanuel put it, "It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution."

Hector Arisitzábal, who was tortured by police in Colombia because his brother was a Marxist, has a somewhat different perspective:

Afterwards, after I was let go I had nightmare after nightmare, fantasy after fantasy, of doing the worst things imaginable to my torturer. I came back, I worked, but I wasn't there.

For Emanuel, energy and time are something we can allocate rationally. Torture was an unfortunate policy, but that's all the more reason to not think about it too hard. For Arisitzábal, on the other hand, torture is a trauma, a recurring nightmare. It isn't something you can bracket in pragmatism. It snaps your life in half, and the tragedy is precisely that you can't go back to what you were before the break.

For torture survivors, there is no forgetting. That's a curse, but it's also, potentially, a strength.

Arisitzábal's comments are part of Beneath the Blindfold, a documentary by Kathy Berger and Ines Sommer that premiered in Chicago last Friday and is now seeking festival and theater distribution. The film focuses on the experience of a number of torture survivors living in Chicago. In production for six years, Beneath the Blindfold has little explicitly to say about the Obama administration per se. But in presenting the words of torture survivors, rather than of politicians, apparatchiks, and wonks, the film can't help but change one's perspective on the policy debate.

That was certainly one of filmmaker's goals. Interviewing torture survivors, talking to their family members, and following them as they try to put their lives together and help one another, is itself a political statement. For example, Blama Massaquoi was first forced to be a child soldier in Liberia, then captured by rebels and made to drink lye, destroying his esophagus. Now in America, he's working to be a nurse because, he says, he wants to help others as so many helped him recover. His story of torture is about gratitude, faith, and service, rather than about revenge and punishing one's enemies—a quiet but definite rebuke to our public discourse.

"The impetus for the film definitely came around the time the stories of abuse at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib first began to appear," Berger told me in an email. "As appalling as that was, what was equally disturbing was the lack of public outcry and the blindspot in the media. Political pundits and academics had the main stage but no one was thinking to speak with those who lived through the experience of torture."

Somewhat counterintuitively, concentrating on the personal experience of the tortured gives the film a broader, not a narrower, perspective. Conversations about torture tend to be tied to the news cycle—currently, they focus especially on the war on terror and the abuses of the Bush administration.

Beneath the Blindfold certainly discusses these matters: One of the interview subjects is Donald Vance, a U.S. Navy Veteran who worked for a contractor in Iraq in 2006. In the course of his job, he discovered instances of bribery and corruption, including misappropriation of weapons. Out of patriotism and concern for U.S. troops, he reported the abuses to the F.B.I. In retaliation for his whistleblowing, the U.S. military threw him into a holding facility for enemy combatants, where he says he was tortured for three months. He's currently suing Donald Rumsfeld for violating his Constitutional rights.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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