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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: The U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: <em>The U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian</em>

Sami Al-Arian, the subject of Line Halvorsen’s real-life, Kafkaesque nightmare doc The U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian, is a highly regarded professor with a loving wife named Nahla, three daughters, and two sons, who happens to be an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights (unsurprisingly since he and Nahla were raised refugees, displaced when Israel came into being). He’s also one of the many residents of the United States who found himself on the wrong side of the Patriot Act after 9/11, held for two and half years in maximum security, awaiting trial on flimsy, terrorism related charges.

But what separates the Al-Arian case from the many now commonplace, Ashcroft-certified, civil liberties abuses is that this University of South Florida prof is no unknown Mohammed Atta taking flight lessons in the Sunshine State. Indeed, Sami Al-Arian has lived quite visibly in the U.S. for over 31 years! His articulate daughters show the (inadmissible as evidence) photos of a smiling Sami with George W. Bush, another beside Senator Clinton. Halvorsen interviews a congressman who seems baffled as to how a man so open about his political activities and beliefs could be accused of having a “secret life” (Bush’s “find ’em and smoke ’em out” rhetoric seems to have been reduced to “videotape a rally then knock on the door”). This is precisely what’s so terrifying about USA vs. Al-Arian. Like the slain journalist at the center of Eric Bergkraut’s Letter to Anna, Al-Arian learns that activist fame will not shield him in George W. Bush’s America any more than Anna Politkovskaya’s high profile protected her in Putin’s Russia. In fact, it can make things much, much worse.

Halvorsen opens the film with an interview with Nahla followed by one with her youngest son at home, recollecting the day officers arrived at the door to take Sami away (with a show of intimidating force better suited to Fallujah than to Florida). The images of Sami’s stunned wife and child segue into a freeze of rotoscope animation (the technique used to powerful effect later on in the courtroom trial as portions of the transcripts are read) before Halvorsen cuts to news footage of a somber Ashcroft announcing the big catch. In a jailhouse interview the very professorial-looking—balding with glasses and a beard—Palestinian intellectual tells of how he came to America for the education, and stayed after receiving his Ph.D. because he thought he could “make a difference.” Unfortunately, the more we hear directly from Sami and his wife Nahla, the more it becomes apparent why the government would spend such a huge amount of money trying to convict an innocent man. Sami is highly educated, incredibly articulate, outspoken—part of the cultural elite the Bush administration disdains. He and his strong defiant wife, committed to social justice, place their faith in an appeal to the intellect, to facts and reason, while they’re fighting a government for whom facts are truly unimportant—it’s all about playing to people’s emotions. (Had they never heard of the Rosenbergs?) Sami and Nahla reminded me of black kids in the ghetto arguing with the cops. It doesn’t matter that the police are in the wrong. Loudly vocalizing your rights won’t get you out alive.

What it will get you is solitary confinement without being charged, and your youngest daughter, braces on her teeth, being able to recite jail procedure down pat. Accused of funding the overseas killing by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami faces a “show trial” in Tampa, more juicy news story than judicial process. Those still animated scenes of the trial, the voiceover of lawyers presenting statements and the media reports, let us in on the circus. Halvorsen interviews both sides, the white male Attorney General prosecuting the case as well as the Hispanic female defense lawyer, but doesn’t get into the gritty details of “evidence,” such as the 400 phone calls garnered from 472,000(!) after nine years of wiretapping. Nahla, outraged by the invasion of privacy (“This is unbelievable!”), is relieved when the tapes are finally declassified and handed over. Halvorsen’s camera hovers above the mother and her daughters gathered around a laptop listening to the government tapes, which consist mostly of statements like, “Yeah, I’d like to order a pizza. A Bigfoot.” The family erupts into uncontrollable laughter—hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic—until Nahla suddenly stands up, can’t bear to listen anymore. She considers the government’s tactics “indecent.”

Of course, the irony is that dignified Sami had always worked within the system for his Palestinian cause, donating to charities (which got him into trouble), speaking at rallies, and encouraging Muslim youth in America to vote. There’s a heartbreaking scene in which Sami tries to speak normally with his own kids on speakerphone, as if he’s calling from the office. “How much luggage did you pack?” he asks his youngest daughter who will be leaving on a trip. The reality that he’s phoning from a jail cell and his little girl is on her way to Egypt to live with her grandmother for a year—to take the pressure off—is never mentioned. (Later she tells the camera that she hopes to “touch him goodbye” before she leaves.) On his youngest son’s birthday, Sami—joining the party via speakerphone once again—asks, “Did he blow them all out?” Nahla bickers with the boy as she trims his hair before the trial, while Sami tells him to mind his mother. The eldest son wears a Coldplay T-shirt while playing video games with his younger sibling. Take away the headscarves and the terrorism charges and this is the quintessential American family—which is what makes it all the more surreal.

But perhaps not as surreal as the prosecution entering as evidence footage of Israeli suicide bombings—even flying Israelis (officers, survivors, bomb technicians, etc.) over to testify—while the defense is prevented from presenting the Palestinian side. (Perhaps Al-Arian’s lawyers should have tried to screen Tamar Yarom’s To See If I’m Smiling, the unforgiving viewpoint of women soldiers in the Occupied Territories.) One of Sami’s older daughters, disgusted, says that this only proves that the government doesn’t have a case if they have to resort to such crude tactics, while Nahla just can’t comprehend why they have been “denied context.” To Halvorsen’s camera, Sami explains that he unwaveringly condemns all violence—he’s for “resistance” to the occupation, which is very different. Even the A.G. admits in a candid interview that there is “no direct link to the violence shown at the trial” and Sami, “nevertheless, he’s just as guilty.” (Say what?)

Which is just a bit more shocking than the defense resting without calling any witnesses—reasoning that the burden of proof is on the prosecution after all, and the A.G. only succeeded in proving their client a Palestinian activist. Halvorsen’s lens captures a stressed out beyond belief Nahla searching her kitchen for her “medicine” (like any true American!) “I’m so embarrassed,” she apologizes after swallowing a handful of pills. “I don’t know why I feel this way.” The government’s modus operandi simply seems to be to drive people crazy—through solitary confinement, through psychological torture. “They break you down by breaking your family down,” Sami later laments. And indeed when Nahla gets the news that the jury has reached a verdict she finally falls apart and cries for the first time on camera. The paparazzi stalking the family on their way into the courthouse—robbing them of their last remaining shreds of dignity—hits home through Halvorsen’s swift-moving camerawork, darting from angle to angle. Unbelievably, a “not guilty” verdict is reached—on all counts! Nahla speaks to reporters outside the courtroom. “I’m happy for justice in America,” she says, visibly relaxed for the first time in perhaps years. “I’m happy for the American people.” A microphone-shoving reporter asks a juror what it would have taken for him to render a guilty verdict. “Evidence,” is his reply. A female juror didn’t like that the government’s case boiled down to “just take our word for it.” And perhaps in the end it was to Sami’s benefit that he’d been locked away long enough for post-9/11 tensions to have simmered down before trial, for emotions to have cooled, for Americans to have started questioning their government again.

Or maybe not. For things only get more Kafkaesque when the government, astonishingly, won’t let go and decide to retry him! Sami calmly tells the camera that in a democracy the government acts on behalf of the people—so the people need to stand up and say “not in my name.” Soon black activists are onboard, filling in the empty spaces where Muslims who’ve endured F.B.I. intimidation at their mosques and homes, fear to stand. When a plea deal is offered—pay restitution to the victims of the suicide bombings (those same victims Sami was acquitted of killing!)—Nahla wide-eyed in disbelief is stunned speechless as she listens to Sami and his lawyer on speakerphone. But this farce has dire consequences so the Al-Arian team decides to negotiate another deal, to put the family first, rather than to go on fighting for perhaps another decade or more. Nahla is surfing the Internet while chatting with the defense attorney as she happens upon the Department of Justice website, which leaks the new deal—that Al-Arian is being deported—law and order has prevailed! All the more proof that they didn’t have a case (why else let a big bad terrorist simply walk away?) the rational congressman later explains.

One of Sami’s daughters reflects that it’s kind of sad that her parents are descendants of refugees, they themselves are refugees, and now the U.S. government is making her and her siblings refugees. Like the Laotian family at the heart of The Betrayal (Nerakhoon),” the Al-Arians made the mistake of wholeheartedly trusting the U.S. government, of believing in the myth of the American dream. Once the family is in the courtroom to work out the formalities of the plea, the federal judge stuns both sides by giving Sami more prison time (along with a diatribe about his kids going to the best universities while he blows up other people’s children. The journalists outside the courthouse gather to compare notes on the sound bite. “Anyone get that?”) The government blackmailed Sami into a plea only to hang him, returning Nahla and her children to another state of shellshock and their husband and father to a “special housing unit,” allowed one phone call a week. The “good” news comes with the final words on the screen—Sami is due to be released and deported in November. Just in time for elections. We shall see.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.