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|Persons of Interest: Highlighting the Plight of 9/|
|07/27/04 at 09:52:48|
Persons of Interest: Highlighting the Plight of 9/11 Detainees *
By Dilshad D. Ali, IslamOnline Correspondent 21/07/2004
Documentary: Persons of Interest
Alison Maclean & Tobias Perse, United States, 63m
In English, documentary
In the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States waged a war on terrorism in its own land with a ferociousness and voraciousness unseen before. A country that prides itself on civil liberties threw caution to the wind in an almost mad, obsessed search to ferret out potential and probable terrorists in the United States—plainly speaking, Arabs and Muslims.
The US Department of Justice chillingly called them “Persons of Interest.” And in a new documentary of the same name that premiered in June at the 2004 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, the stories of some of these victims are soberly brought to life. Directed by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse, Persons of Interest is a low-key, low-tech conversation with a number of Arabs and Muslims detained—some for more than a year—by the US government for suspected terrorist activities.
Their stories are succinctly told in a bare, drab room in which the detainees or their families stand holding placards with their names and relate when they were arrested, how long they were arrested, what they were and weren’t asked, and when they were (or weren’t) released. Their words are simple, their demeanor pained, humbled, confused, and angered at turns.
The film spends little time or effort on cinematography, different cameras, lighting, or anything else; the main focuses are the detainees and their words. The documentary’s bare-bones attitude forces all attention on the detainees. There’s nothing else to see. And while this approach is important for highlighting individual stories, sometimes the spare look of the film also is a deterrent. At times the sound is scratchy, a microphone peeps out near the top of the screen, the look is dull.
But that’s the life of the detainees and their families, Perse and Maclean seem to be saying. These are people from all walks of life—deli workers, industry leaders, old, young, legal and illegal immigrants. And in the midst of a horrible time in the United States, in a frightening post–9/11 landscape, their lives were grabbed from them in a grotesque, desperate stab at criminal justice.
The criminal investigation following 9/11 was the largest in US history. According to the film, more than 5,000 Arabs and Muslims from all walks of life were suddenly pulled from their homes and jobs, handcuffed, taken to detention centers, questioned (and some weren’t) and kept for days, months, years on end in an outright violation of their basic civil liberties. None were ever convicted of any criminal activity relating to the attacks.
Immediately following 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a two-fold focus from the US Department of Justice: finding those responsible for 9/11 and preventing terrorism in the United States again. Ashcroft said in a speech, “The Department of Justice is waging a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives. We will use every constitutional tool to keep terrorists locked up.”
Thus was born the hastily passed Patriot Act, which allowed the government to bypass many US laws and civil liberties in the pursuit of terrorists in America. But in this pursuit, the film points out, innocent lives were ruined to no positive effect. One such life is that of Mohammad Irshaid, who lives in the United States on an H1 work visa and has a pending green card application.
Mohammad, a Palestinian who was working at the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan, was handcuffed and taken downtown without being given the lawyer he requested. He was questioned about his family, religion, culture, opinions on Israel and the United States. “I said, ‘It’s nobody’s business to know how I feel about Israel,’” Irshaid says. He was jailed for 21 days and never charged with anything. “It’s a crime against humanity,” he adds.
Other detainees were held for more than a year. Some were released only to be later deported back to their home country for no apparent reason. Khadra Ali’s brother was arrested after taking a cruise from Miami. Khadra says police told her brother he was violating immigration laws by traveling. The family spent nearly $10,000 for her brother’s case. “I think the reason they’re holding my brother is that his last name is Arab, and he was born in Yemen,” Khadra says between tears. “I don’t think it’s fair.” Later the film tells us that Arab was released and then deported back to Somalia, which is where their extended family lives.
The variety of arrestees and detainees is baffling as seen from the montage of interviews in the film. One well-mannered, soft-spoken leader in the securities field reports how his wife called him from their New Jersey home soon after 9/11 crying that law enforcement officers were bristling with warrants saying they were harboring nuclear and biohazardous materials.
The dignified Muslim was basically charged with financing the terrorist attacks. And what was the evidence against him? Religious books, foreign currency, and a flight simulator video game played by his son. After a lengthy detainment, he was released only to lose his job and reputation.
These stories finally put a face on the rumors that swam through the murky backwaters of the minds of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11. That people were being pulled from their jobs and homes and held without justice was well known. Who those people were, how to talk to them, how to get them released—these questions were unanswered in the post–9/11 suspicious culture.
As Ashcroft menacingly said at the US Mayors Conference in October, 2001, aggressive detention tactics is the name of the law enforcement game: “If you overstay your visas, even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law—we will hope that you will— we will put you in jail and keep you in custody as long as possible.”
In the months that followed the terrorist attack, the US government refused to give names, numbers, or reasons as to why different people were being detained and deported. Now thanks to Persons of Interest, at least some of those detainees get a chance to tell their story. It’s not beautiful, innovative, or flawless filmmaking to say the least. But the story is the medium, and the words are the power.
** Dilshad D. Ali's writing reaches across the United States to address lifestyle topics pertinent to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ali has covered movie premieres, film festivals, art exhibits, concerts, and numerous other cultural stories, including the affect of September 11 on New York’s cultural landscape for IslamOnline. Ali, a 1997 University of Maryland journalism graduate, resides in New York with her husband and two children.
Persons of Interest was featured at the 2004 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York in June. It may travel the United States with the traveling HRW film festival. For more information visit www.hrw.org.
|07/27/04 at 09:54:48|
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