PARK CITY, Utah—Near the start of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, at a panel titled “Why Art Matters,” veteran television producer Norman Lear answered the question this way: “The arts start the conversation. When the world is saved—and it really does require saving—the door will be opened through the arts and then the politicians. Then the policies will follow.”
And so, on the final day of the film festival, a public clad in Uggs and furry-ear hats descend on the Egyptian Theatre to jumpstart a national discussion about the Bush administration’s torture program. The American Civil Liberties Union, the PEN American Center, and producer Doug Liman ( The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Swingers,and Fair Game) are hoping their art translates into public action.
The Reckoning with Torture project was launched in 2009 by the ACLU and the PEN American Center (the world’s oldest human rights organization and the world’s oldest literary organization). Events have taken place in New York; Washington, D.C.; and several other cities. This weekend at Sundance marks the start of Liman’s association with the project. He hopes to turn the series of local performances into a documentary film. And so on a darkened stage, standing at microphones in front of the stark artwork of Jenny Holzer, a collective of actors, writers, and former Bush administration officials attempt to hold up a mirror to the nation that abused its prisoners.
The cast includes Ellen Barkin and America Ferrera, Annie Proulx, documentary filmmaker Alec Gibney, Naomi Wolf, former military interrogator Matthew Alexander, former CIA agent Jack Rice, and—in a late-breaking surprise—Sundance founder Robert Redford. They each read from torture documents, many of which were obtained by way of a FOIA request made by the ACLU, including parts of the Jay Bybee memo authorizing abusive interrogations, and the interrogation log of Mohammed al Qahtani at Guantanamo.
Some of the most powerful material they read comes from more banal sources—chatty e-mails from FBI personnel newly arrived at Gitmo or the transcript of George Tenet’s 60 Minutes appearance from 2007. These reflect the moments at which something that was policy becomes a series of interactions between humans and other humans. And they are the moments when the squirming really begins. In one of the e-mail exchanges, new arrivals chat about the movies being screened at the base, and their plans to attend a beach party. They sound—in hindsight—like the swimmers about to be consumed in Jaws.
For the most part, the audience sits silently, unsure of the proper demeanor when discussing torture. No one can figure out whether or not to clap after each reading, because the line between the performers and their materials evaporates so quickly. Should one be applauding excerpts from the John Yoo torture memo, even if brilliantly performed?
There are audible gasps at points. As author Sandra Cisneros reads from Abu Zubaydah’s first-hand account of being water-boarded and George Saunders reads from the Bybee memos, there are horrified whispers. Occasionally, the juxtaposition of spin and reality produces uneasy laughter. You hear a few disgusted snorts when Naomi Wolf reads from a 2006 speech by George W. Bush commemorating the U.N. Day in Support of Victims of Torture and promising full accounting for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There is open snickering when America Ferrera reads Kafka-esque excerpts from a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at which the detainee, Mustafa Ait Idr, keeps begging merely to be told what the evidence against him is so that he might refute it. One of the most powerful readings of the day comes from Annie Proulx, performing a statement from German torture victim Khaled El-Masri—a completely innocent victim of the extraordinary rendition program who has never been able to get into an American court to vindicate his rights.
Interspersed throughout this live performance is video testimony from torture victims, Moazzam Begg, Ruhal Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, and Omar Deghayes, all of whom were detained at Gitmo. With their strong British accents and striped rugby shirts, they ask the audience to offer them some kind of accounting for what was done to them. Several explain that they were never told why they were being held or why they were released. Years later, they all seem to be looking for answers to questions nobody can be bothered to ask.
Redford takes the stage to read the declaration of Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, lead prosecutor in the habeas corpus case of Mohammad Jawad. In this brief selection, Vandeveld describes his decision to withdraw from the prosecution due to his growing certainty that the military was holding an innocent young man for no reason. Redford is met, again, by an audience that doesn’t quite know whether to clap or weep. Somehow, it is in the array of clipped military voices—both the actual readers, like Rice and Alexander, as well as the material being read—that the most painful moments take place. The cold, clinical legalese of the torture memos themselves is something to which most Americans have become numb. Even the firsthand depictions of abuse sound like an episode of 24 or a bad airport novel. But it is the persistent sense that the military personnel who either witnessed or somehow participated in the system of abuse have been betrayed by their leaders and superiors that haunts the listener. You realize, listening to these readings, that many of those who played a role in the torture program are in as much pain as the victims.
The stated purpose of the Reckoning with Torture project is to bring those responsible for planning and implementing the abusive interrogation program to justice. As several speakers note, these people have—to a one—been promoted, honored, and celebrated in the years since 9/11. And between the use of the state-secrets privilege and the failure to investigate the abuses seriously, the Obama administration has largely been complicit in turning the documents we are hearing into history as opposed to evidence.
Perhaps Norman Lear is right, and it is only though the arts and a campaign to create public outrage that America can begin to reckon with the moral and human consequences of the U.S. torture policy. Or perhaps this project will merely have to suffice as an effort to document a moment in history that is fading from the collective memory almost before entering it. We may never see the day the United States apologizes to its innocent torture victims or takes responsibility for its worst mistakes. But maybe it’s enough for Americans to look into the faces of those it has most betrayed and understand who they really are. That includes not just the torture victims but the men and women who still can’t fathom what they were being asked to do or why.