(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Hoping to escape her small town roots and make a difference in the world, a young woman (Kristen Stewart) joins the military and is soon assigned a guard position at Guantanamo Bay. Surrounded by hostile jihadists and aggressive squadmates, she discovers that her mission is far from the black and white ideal she thought it would be. Striking up an unusual friendship with one of the detainees, she finds herself in an ethical quagmire that upends the simple view of the war she had and may lead to an unlikely bond between two sworn rivals.
– From DVD Production Notes
Less than a year ago I was put into a situation that comes to mind when I see Camp X-Ray. I won’t go into specifics, but I was part of facilitating an audience participation experience in a somewhat experimental environment. The catch was our superiors told us that we should act detached and “weird out” the patrons who paid at the door.
That wasn’t what happened. It didn’t take long (mere hours) before I saw my co-workers’ behavior breaking down into something out of the Stanford prison experiment. They became comfortable with speaking sharply to anyone they considered “out of line”; they ganged up on people and insulted them. At one point a guy I had just met donned a mask and then made a group of uncomfortable, frightened people get into two lines and face away from him while he paced behind them, barking at them like he was in the military.
In the meantime I realized that not only did I think this was strange and over-the-top, but I wasn’t capable of doing the same things. I ended up dealing with frightened, edgy and sometimes tearful strangers in the way I always deal with people, in some instances comforting or reassuring them, all while knowing that I could get disciplined for it. When it was over I hadn’t, but I drove away from the experience knowing that I would have been a lousy guard at Auschwitz.
I didn’t make the connection until recently, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot while revisiting Camp X-Ray. It would be easy to peg this film as a political statement, and I’ve come across a commentary or two saying it’s “shitting on the military” or being like, “oooh, let’s feel bad for the poor terrorists.” Like anything else, everyone has their opinion or point of view. But for me this is not as much as a political statement as a parable, taking place outside of society and in the middle of nowhere…
…and yet it encapsulates things happening everywhere– not only now but throughout history. It’s about the struggle of individuals in a situation much larger than them, a well-oiled machine that doesn’t deviate from its rules. There is only black and white. There are only good guys and bad guys. There is only doing your job and following commands. There is only believing in what you are told and following through.
At the center of this world is Pvt. Amy Cole, who is played by Kristen Stewart. People who know me might ask, “What are you doing watching a Kristen Stewart movie?” My answer: this is a good Kristen Stewart movie. That’s the difference. It’s without a doubt my favorite of her performances because the role suits her so well: a mix of hardness, self-doubt and subtlety. The Daily Beast‘s Marlow Stern observed, “It’s a role perfectly suited to her strengths—vulnerability and hidden courage—and few young actresses, with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence, can hold a close-up like Stewart.” Critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted the same thing: “You can read every fluctuation in her mood even though she’s barely moving a muscle.”
While watching Camp X-Ray I realized Kristen Stewart is a dude, and that’s part of the reason some of her previous performances have been maligned or misunderstood. By “dude” I mean she should be taking roles from men, and later on I discovered that in this case she did. Cole was supposed to be male but Stewart was meant to play it, and not surprisingly she played it well.
Orson Welles once observed, “There is a fascist in all of us.” I am aware of the one within myself, the patterns of behavior I could slip into if they remained unchecked. Camp X-Ray examines how those tendencies surface in people who have volunteered to be part of an authoritarian system. To say the least it encourages and fosters this kind of behavior, and Cole is no exception. She is constantly on guard and doesn’t want to look weak or incompetent in front of her superiors. As a result, she doesn’t see or treat the detainees like people. She is too busy trying to act like a hardass.
However, that’s hard to do when you’re dealing with Ali Amir, or as the system distinguishes him, “Detainee 471” (Peyman Moaadi). He is undoubtedly a person. What lands him in Guantanamo is ambiguous, as we only see him handling some burner phones before his arrest (more like an abduction) in 2002. By the time Cole arrives he has been a prisoner for eight years.
He is also an unabashed extrovert. He talks and talks and talks and talks, belying the idea of an enigmatic or dangerous criminal mastermind. Moaadi is fantastic in this role, bringing an unexpected levity, complexity and humor to a man trapped in an oppressive and pointless existence. All he wants is someone to talk to.
Cole isn’t prepared for this and has no idea what to do with him. Her superior Ransdell (Lane Garrison) cautions her on her first day: “You can talk to them, but do not let these guys know anything about you. Do not let them get inside your head.” As a result she refuses to listen or talk to Ali until he lashes out at her and makes a scene. Afterwards she discovers he will be tortured with sleep deprivation for a week. That isn’t a turning point for her, but the beginning of her trying to understand him.
There is only one scene that explores Ali’s motivations for being obstinate. His first outburst made me think of a passage in Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth Of Solitude (1950), which addresses Mexican identity and “otherness” in America, but could apply to any minority in an oppressive situation: “He seeks and attracts persecution and scandal. It is the only way he can establish a more vital relationship with the society he is antagonizing.”
But of course it isn’t just that. Ali’s acts are about resistance and his own set of ethics, even though they are costing him so much. In the meantime Cole begins to question the ethics behind her work, as well as experiencing the drawbacks of being a female in the military. Her conversations with Ali get her into trouble, distancing her from the ideals she had before getting there.
Although I’ve never been in the military, worked in a prison or had to deal with Cole’s specific issues, I understood her feelings. I’ve been in situations where it took time to discover that I was completely out of my depth- and not only unwanted but in complete disagreement with what is happening around me. Watching her fellow soldiers change throws Cole’s development in sharp relief. Some are unaffected by what they’re experiencing. Others are ambivalent. Others are becoming desensitized and parroting everything they hear.
What’s crucial is how making a human connection is so controversial in this environment. It’s not what Cole sets out to do, but it happens. She begins to realize what it might be like on the other side of the locked doors or chain-link fences. She knows there is nothing to her duties other than preventing the camp’s detainees from dying. This makes her only physical contact with Ali all the more poignant when he struggles with her being shipped out and replaced.
I appreciate Camp X-Ray‘s shying away from grandstanding or preachiness. At the end of the day it’s a universal story, but inextricably linked to reality. This is where politics become unavoidable. Ali often talks about about “good guys” and “bad guys” throughout the film, posing questions that are difficult to answer. All we can walk away with at the end is what we think of Ali and Cole, not the bigger picture.
I will say this, though: despite what many people want to believe, most of us think we’re doing the right thing, or at least something sane or justified. A former CIA officer named Amaryllis Fox was featured in a video that went viral earlier this year, positing the same idea. Of course she got slammed for it, which comes to show how empathy can still be confused with wishful thinking or being “soft.”
When it comes to Guantanamo Bay, all I know is that it’s a strange and violent place, and if everything I’ve read about it is true, I doubt its effectiveness. If anything, it has seemed to do more harm than good.
Which brings me to another story. While working at an artist’s residency in upstate New York, my boss received a call from a former resident who was concerned for his wife’s mental health. She was a journalist who had been visiting prisoners and personnel at Guantanamo and been exposed to its conditions. He begged for a few days where she could be flown out into the country and decompress from what she had seen. My boss complied.
During her time there the woman remained quiet and somewhat apart from everyone else, but one afternoon the two of us went down to the lake. I took a swim and lost my hair clip somewhere beneath the dock. She asked me about school while I swam in circles, trying to give her satisfying answers.
It is only now that I’ve considered I was the first person she had interviewed in months who was able to be free, moving however I wished under the afternoon sun. I’ll never know how that made her feel or if it meant anything, but I’m beginning to understand.