Screened at the London Film Festival in 2014, and still awaiting a British release (according to Amazon one is scheduled for January 2016, Camp X-Ray is an independent film about the war on terror that already feels like a historical artefact.
The camera slowly pulls back from the burning north tower of the World Trade Centre revealing the image as playing on a TV. A man enters the room and empties a bag of cellphones as the sound of adhān drifts through an open window. This anonymous individual is suddenly seized by shadowy figures who pull a hood over his head. A bewildering series of quick cuts then career him and the viewer across air, sea, and land and into a cage in Guantanamo Bay.
This is an arresting opening but sadly the film that follows quickly becomes becalmed on a sea of good intentions. The bulk of Camp X-Ray takes place eight years later and concerns the experiences of a raw army cadet Pvt. Amy Cole (Stewart) posted to guard duty in the notorious detention camp. Starting with Cole’s first day on the job allows writer/director Peter Sattler to take his audience into the camp, and gives a credible reason for the exposition that sets out the strange Heller-esque terminology the Army uses to normalise its activities. Those held in Gitmo’s cells must never be referred to as ‘prisoners’ always ‘detainees’. Cole is not that green that she isn’t able to tell a naïve colleague that this is because prisoners are subject to the Geneva Convention.
Initially Cole is keen to make an impression. Her status as a woman in the military is clearly a force that drives her to immediately volunteer for a detail subduing an agitated detainee. And she is no less eager to display the cuts and bruises she sustains during this action as a badge of honour. Her attitude changes as she very slowly forms a relationship with an inmate Ali (Moaadi) – the character from the film’s opening. This gets off to a rocky and grossly scatological start but gradually develops into a mutual journey of discovery awakening her ability to feel empathy for her charges who the Army classifies only by number.
Sattler is good at building up an accumulation of detail to expose the stultifying bureaucratic purgatory of the base for the jailer and jailed alike. The inmates do not have anything to do but pray and read the small selection of censored books and month old newspapers Cole wheels around in a library cart. The soldiers spend their off-duty time getting drunk and skyping home.
Performances are fine. Stewart continues to be an intriguing screen presence exhibiting a strange discomfort in her own skin that works well for this role. Moaadi does his best to give some nuance to his character despite the film’s refusal to give him any back story. There is even some slight and bitter humour to be discovered in a running plot-line about Ali’s frustration at the library’s failure to stock the final Harry Potter novel. However, the culmination of this plotline is both groan inducingly obvious and dramatically disingenuous (no spoilers, but the small ray of light found at the end of the movie is hardly credible).
Despite the decent performances and Sattler’s eye for framing his shots nicely Camp X-Ray feels unfortunately shallow and trite. The film raises several topics, the war on terror, the morality of rendition, the treatment of women in the military, then fails to examine any of them in depth. This is a film about very recent history, events that are bearing terrible fruit today, and yet it feels already irrelevant. A curious period piece. Ultimately the moral and political theme of the film seems scarcely deeper than the Depeche Mode lyric ‘people are people tell me why can it be, you and I should get along so awfully?’
This review was originally published on the Verite Film Magazine blog (RIP).