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
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