Film review: Kristen Stewart stars in Peter Sattler’s ‘Camp X-Ray’
Camp X Ray, following a very limited run at film festivals and a handful of theatres, is finally being released in the UK this month, on DVD and VOD only. That certainly identifies it as a minor film, and it is both low-budget and minimally promoted; but it is still well worth checking out.
The semi-secret American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although widely discussed, has never before been the setting for a film. The controversy, and the difficulty of presenting the subject even-handedly, may have put off filmmakers in the past. Peter Sattler has done justice to the difficult subject matter, in part by avoiding overt discussion of the politics of the prison. Instead, he addresses the subject indirectly, by focusing instead on the personal struggles of the people who reside there – both the prisoners and the camp guards. It is not a political film, but a story about human connection under the most unlikely circumstances.
The story centres on one character, a young American soldier named Amy Cole. In a brief glimpse of back-story, we see that Cole has joined the army in order to distinguish herself, expand her limited horizons, and, as she wistfully remarks, to do some good. To her dismay, instead of being sent into battle, she is assigned to guard the male detainees at one of the prison installations at Guantanamo Bay, designated Camp X Ray.
The prison itself, its routines and claustrophobic environment, is introduced before the characters are. We learn, during the new recruits’ orientation, that the inmates are not guarded to keep them from escaping, but to keep them from dying, their situation being almost guaranteed to bring on suicide attempts. They are watched constantly to prevent any of them from killing or injuring himself. They are “detainees,” the soldiers are told, never to be called prisoners. One of the new recruits wonders why. Because, Cole blandly explains, prisoners are protected to some extent by the Geneva Conventions, while detainees are not. Those two facts set a sinister tone for the unfolding story.
Having established the realities of the prison, the film does not make more of them in a didactic way. The actual mistreatment of the detainees, such as sleep deprivation, is mentioned only in passing, and always takes place off-camera. There’s little political commentary here; both terrorism and torture are just background scenery, making their point very subtly.
The second central character is one of the prisoners, Ali, who was incarcerated eight years earlier on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. An interesting choice is the way in which Ali is introduced. Cole’s initial assignment is to bring the prison library cart around to the cells and distribute books to the prisoners. The cinema audience laughed in surprise when Ali began complaining to her about the last Harry Potter book not being available. It really was incongruous: an accused terrorist, looking the stereotypical part with his grim expression, dark beard and Middle Eastern accent, peering through the metal grille on his cell door and demanding his guard’s opinion of Professor Snape. Right away, preconceptions were rather obviously being scattered, as when Cole remarks that a certain movie probably was banned where Ali was from, and he responds, “What, in Germany?”
Critics of the film may be right to say that the detainees were stereotyped, all scowling, angry, Arabic speaking men, except for Ali, who speaks fluent English, is open to Western literature, and unlike his fellow inmates, seems to have no problem relating to women. But they all come across as desperate, lonely, miserable people, who may respond to their situation in different ways. Ali does begin with a hostile act toward Cole, but in general is just seeking some kind of human contact. Other detainees are, as the case may be, suicidal, violent, or withdrawn in reaction to their confinement; but only Ali is actually given a real personality.
The leisurely pace of much of the movie seems to be deliberate. We get a feeling for how slowly the time passes here, with endless hours of pacing the prison hallways, monitoring the detainees, the monotony only broken by occasional acts of violence or rebellion. It’s draining on the soldiers themselves, more so for the detainees. Also, time is taken to let Cole and Ali’s friendship gradually develop, as Cole is very reserved and cautious when talking to him at first, as her position requires her to be. Cole is naturally shy and socially awkward; her own isolation within the camp parallels Ali’s, and this is one reason they connect. She doesn’t really fit in with her fellow soldiers, who are not inclined to think too deeply about the significance of what they are doing in the prison or why.
Sattler does not take the easy route of making the American guards mindless bullies. One or two guards are bullies; some, including the commanding officer, think deeply about the nature of the prison and sympathize with the detainees; most are simply doing a job, one which is better done without too much thought. From Cole’s perspective, however, none of them can offer her real friendship. The closest thing to a friend she has is a fellow private named Rico, who is friendly to Cole but easily accepts the party line, and can’t relate to her growing ambivalence about her duties at the camp. Cole once makes a tentative move toward a sexual relationship with another soldier, but this ends badly when she rebuffs him and he retaliates. She finds herself lonely and isolated, and in spite of their enormous differences, Ali ends up being the person she can relate to most easily.
Cole and Ali gradually develop a real friendship, one extremely limited by circumstances, and which they must conceal from the rest of the camp. Cole’s genuine empathy for Ali’s situation is a lifeline for him when his despair finally begins to overwhelm him. The movie’s painful climax is unfortunately a little clumsy and melodramatic, the writing in the more intense scenes being the key weakness in this film. The scene culminates in an important breakthrough in trust between the characters which is nevertheless very moving.
The acting in Camp X Ray is definitely its strong point. Iranian actor Peyman Maadi, who will be remembered as the lead actor in A Separation, is intense and fascinating as Ali. He manages to convey every nuance of feeling perfectly, even with the limitation of being seen mostly through the bars of a small window in his cell door. Kristen Stewart as Cole is equally good; and the two actors form a perfect team, Cole’s mistrust and natural restraint reflecting and enhancing Ali’s desperation and anger.
As a political statement, Camp X Ray works better than a more strident message might have; and as a story about the capacity for humans to connect against all odds, this movie was a great success.