Three nonfiction features in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival take 21st-century incarceration, and accompanying judicial abuses, as their focus. Portraying American law enforcement in the war on terror as a galling dog-and-pony show, Better This World reveals the prosecution of a pair of naïve, youthful activists as a rigged spectacle reminiscent of federal infiltration of antiwar groups in the 1960s. David McKay and Brad Crowder, high school buddies from Midland, Texas, were a pair of tentative dissidents in their Bush-country environs until they met and were mentored by Brandon Darby, a thirtysomething organizer with renown in leftist circles for his relief work in post-Katrina New Orleans. Recruiting the younger men to join him in protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and emphasizing that he planned “direct action” to “shut the fucker down,” the charismatic Darby—a Cajun Henry Rollins-type with a bent for busting out jiu jitsu moves and recommending beef over tofu as an asset in building strength for defense against prison “ass rape”—advocated for the legitimacy of armed struggle in conversations with his protégés before and during the preemptive police clampdowns at the RNC. After McKay and Crowder used Walmart-bought materials to fashion Molotov cocktails in Minnesota, and were arrested before resolving vague, halfhearted plans to use them, Darby’s role became clear in the case against the Texans: He’d been working as an F.B.I. informer for a year and a half.
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s documentary doesn’t let its duped young crusaders entirely off the hook (one lies on the stand in an attempt to strike at Darby’s protected status, and both stupidly mistook the state-fortified GOP circus for a battlefield of ideals), but the enigmatic Darby, a goad and snitch masquerading as a self-styled revolutionary, is its most troubling figure, a putative leader whose chief cause is his personal power trip. As the increasingly Kafkaesque trials of Crowder and McKay unfold, the filmmakers lay on too many montages of McKay’s supportive girlfriend and baby footage of Crowder, but besides stony-faced feds and prosecutors unblushingly comparing the defendants to the 9/11 terrorists, the astonishment of the prisoners and their families at the barefaced legal trap that has been set for them resonates most. Crowder splutters at the efforts to get him to testify against his friend, “That’s game theory,” while McKay’s father says of his son’s decisive trial, “It’s about who’s gonna lie the fuckin’ best.”
Two other docs on tap scrutinize contrasting modes of imprisonment, steeped in abuses of religious code and post-2001 military detention. Love Crimes of Kabul is a blunt record of a handful of inmates at a women’s prison in Afghanistan’s capital, a facility where half of the detainees are held for the “moral crimes” of adultery, premarital sex, or running away from their families. One long-serving prisoner expresses unapologetic pride for the murder of a husband she accuses of infidelity and child rape, but director Tanaz Eshaghian focuses on three younger women whose fates are in the hands of theocratic male judges. An 18-year-old arrested on suspicion on “intention to have sex” with an unsanctioned neighbor boy faces a lengthy sentence, though a sympathetic matron defends her as “a virgin, so there is nothing wrong with her”; a caustic runaway (“My family speaks with knives”) is urged by the older friend who sheltered her to placate the authorities by marrying the elder son of the “dishonored” safe house; and, with notes of mordant comedy, a pregnant poet who faces 15 years for relations with her fiancé savvily negotiates the system right through her wedding (the groom arrives in shackles) as she bargains for a sort of Sharia prenup, demanding $30,000 if her spouse ever ends the marriage. This intimate look behind the sexual oppression of fundamentalist law (U.S. “liberation” is not even alluded to) echoes with chilling counsel like “A bad husband is better than no husband,” and is stained with the tears of women who can only resume their lives if they submit to the control of men.
Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s spare yet demanding You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo presents excerpts of 16-year-old Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen apprehended after a deadly firefight in an Afghan village, being interrogated in 2002 at Guantanamo Bay by his country’s intelligence agents, who transparently (and extralegally) attempted to gather evidence with which his American captors could prosecute him. Though interlaced with talking-head lawyers, former interrogators, and an academic interpreting the youth’s body language and psychological isolation (along with Omar’s anguished mother and sister), the dominant images come in an inverted “L” of three fuzzy video angles, as the alternately petrified and defiant subject sits before a condescending-and-worse chief questioner. “They look like they’re healing fine to me,” the interrogator sneers as the teen lifts his shirt to show shrapnel wounds, and smarmily apologizes for giving him a microwave-nuked McDonald’s burger with “They don’t deliver here.” Some audiences may not be inclined to take any pity on Khadr, the son of an Al Qaeda financer, but it’s hard to see him as much worse than a pawn when he weeps “Oh, Mother,” for minutes when left alone, or as his post-capture torture at Bagram Air Base is recounted. In the “legal black hole” of Guantanamo, its youngest prisoner, now 24 and serving an eight-year sentence in the wake of copping a plea, seems a living testament to American callousness toward norms of international justice and the likelihood of reaping future enemies from the scapegoats among the interned.
This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 16 – 30. For more information, click here.
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s Better This World premieres on PBS’s POV series on September 6.
Tanaz Eshaghian’s Love Crimes of Kabul premieres on HBO on July 11.