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.

But horrifying as Vance's story is, the documentary also makes it clear that America's involvement with torture didn't start with Bush or Rumsfeld. One survivor, Mario Venegas, says that when he saw the Abu Ghraib pictures, he was immediately reminded of his own experiences of torture in Chile 30 years before. Techniques like sensory deprivation and stress positions have long been associated with the CIA—and the CIA has in turn passed them on to the rest of the hemisphere. As Aristizábal intimates, those who tortured him in Colombia, and those who tortured Venegas in Chile, may well have learned their trade at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, an infamous U.S. counter-insurgency training center for Latin American regimes.

Abu Ghraib, then, looks less like an aberration and more like simply a particularly public recurrence. America didn't become enmeshed in torture with Bush, and it hasn't extricated itself with Obama ("Something tells me that after time, records will become available to the public that will show that the Obama administration either maintained or expanded the country's torture program," Donald Vance told me by email. "The current administration is too ambiguous concerning this issue.") Torture is part of what America is; we merely conveniently forget from time to time.

For torture survivors, though, there is no forgetting. That's a curse, but it's also, potentially, a strength. The film's most riveting figure is Matilde de la Sierra, a former doctor who worked to provide medical care to indigenous people in Guatemala. The Catholic Church at the time was trying to build a hospital on land that the military wanted to use as a training ground. As a result, medical personnel became targets, and de la Sierra was threatened, and then tortured and raped.

Of all the survivors in the film, de la Sierra is the most willing to talk about her ongoing psychological traumas. She discusses her flashback, her difficulty concentrating, and her intense shyness. She introduces us to her stuffed puppy named Chocolaté, an engagement gift from her husband that she carries with her everywhere. Her openness about her struggles makes her every appearance on screen both grueling and luminous. She seems not so much to be reflecting on her experiences as reporting on them as they occur. In one scene, the filmmakers capture her speaking before an anti-Iraq-war rally as she revoices her own cry from the cross. Asking for an end to U.S. abuses, she pleads, "I beg you as I begged my torturers, 'No more. Please, no more.'"

De la Sierra says at several points in the film that one of the most painful aspects of being a torture survivor is knowing that what was done to her made her different. She's not the same as she was, and she'll never be the same. And yet, watching her, one doesn't feel so much pity as awe. The presence of her past has not ruined her; instead, her courage in living with it and using it, day in and day out, has given her a terrifying, transcendent authority. The Obama administration seems to think that the memory of torture will destroy us. But we have already embraced torture; we are already destroyed. Memory is dangerous, but without it we can have no justice, no grace, and no peace.