Gitmo - The New Rules of War
New Video // Unrated // $26.95 // March 27, 2007
Review by Don Houston | posted April 23, 2007
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Background: For those who have been living in a cave for the last 6 years, the USA is currently engaged in a war of wills with a hostile group of Middle Easterners that aren't keen on much that we hold dear. Much of the current emphasis of this conflict is in Iraq though Afghanistan is still involved to a lesser extent; largely due to the events of September 11, 2001 when an organized attack against us left thousands of people dead by some cowardly terrorists. President Bush and Congress responded to the information at hand and determined that certain countries were sponsoring terrorism so they revved up the war engine and the rest is history. The resulting conflict has led to a proven mass murderer being deposed as head of state and at this writing, our collective forces have fought bravely along side a coalition of forces from other governments as they wage war against an entrenched enemy network of terrorists with the official governments of the two nations assisting us. The combatants for the opposing side are unlike those from most previous wars in that they have no official rank, organized structure, chain of command, or other aspects most of us have come to associate with a wartime enemy; leading to numerous problems. One of those problems involves how to treat them when they are captured and what "rights" they should be afforded as a result, the current administration claiming that they are not truly prisoners of war so much as "unlawful combatants" that allow for a bit of flexibility in their treatment. The USA has/had a couple of detainment facilities that have made the news in this regard; one at the infamous Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the other at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The Abu Ghraib in Iraq was very well known as a place where deposed leader Saddam Hussein instructed the torture and deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners during his reign of terror. Amnesty International protested such treatment but ultimately it fell on deaf ears and it was kept under the control of Iraqi officials except for the small section where the USA held some combatants. A few years back, a media story broke that detailed how some prisoners were being abused (mostly posing naked, being yelled at, and threatened in various ways), leading to a number of the American guards being tried, sentenced and tossed out of the military. The American General in charge of the detainment, Brigadier General Janice Karpinski, was demoted and later claimed that she knew nothing of the abuse as well as changing her story (once demoted) that she had a wealth of information on prisoner abuse; even writing a book about it, expanding her claims to include the Guantanamo Bay facility that she had never been to.

Guantanamo Bay, on the other hand, is best known as the location of the hit movie A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. A relatively small outpost on the border of Communist country of Cuba, the strategic value of the location has for years been a thorn in the side of Fidel Castro and his allies. In 2002, a detention facility to hold persons of interest in the war on terror was built and used extensively to gather information in hopes of saving American lives. The nickname "Gitmo" was given it by the troops stationed there and scores of reporters have visited the facilities over the years. The claims that prisoners were not treated well have been around for some time now, even SCOTUS ruling that some of the practices there had to stop, including restoration of POW statutes as allowed by the Geneva Convention. That said, here's a look at the Swedish documentary Gitmo: The New Rules of War, focusing on the facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Movie: Gitmo: The New Rules of War was released back in 2005 (and shot between 9/11/2002 and 6/1/2006) when the status of the Guantanamo Bay detainment facility was under fire thanks in large part to the attention gained by the Abu Ghraib scandal. The idea for the documentary came to filmmakers Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh when they saw a Muslim man holding signs in public places (in Sweden) asking questions about his son's detainment. His son, Mehdi, had refused to say anything after a short time in captivity, not even sending mail to his father as a means of protest. Mehdi was captured in Afghanistan under somewhat clouded circumstances, one of the most frustrating things about the documentary as it purposely avoids going into any detail about the man. For all the viewer knows, he was a top Taliban or Al-Qaeda official responsible for numerous American deaths and his unwillingness to cooperate with the directors is underscored at a couple of key moments in the film. His father's grief and despair over not knowing the circumstances of his son's status is the perfect hook for a filmmaker, invoking sympathy from the beginning. Using edited clips and a few documents found using Open Records Act requests, the filmmakers start to paint a portrait from this opening, asking questions of the viewer more than anyone who could answer them.

The duo made phone calls and eventually arrange to visit the facility, finding the military answers to their questions to be evasive and seemingly in contrast to what their beliefs tell them. The base itself has a gold course, a new McDonalds, and might even get a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise according to their report; all of which serves to show that service in the outpost is considered demoralizing. The initial visit with Mehdi sitting largely silent and one of his press conferences when released paint two completely different looks of his captivity, including claims of being exposed to 30 degree below zero air conditioning and unnamed physical torture. He looked healthy in each but it weakened the documentary early on since people like myself tend to rely on how someone looks as well as what they say and how they say it (the claims of his air conditioned status prove unlikely since a) he wouldn't have any way of knowing what the temperature was and b) personal experience with colder weather tells me that even brief exposure to such temperatures is deadly; unlikely to result in any information given). The methods of interrogation listed as tortures by this point in the documentary were fairly limited and unproven; forcing the crew to tie the events to the proven abuses at Abu Ghraib with pictures circulated on the internet by that point, claims that the prisoners were forced to listen to rap music and Fleetwood Mac songs repeatedly and Mehdi saying a female interrogator came on to him in a sexually provocative manner.

One of the weaknesses of the story was the monolithic nature of the US forces being restricted in what they could, or would, say to them; each having signed a non-disclosure agreement. The soldiers interviewed were done so with a superior present, interjecting on their behalf when a question was deemed inappropriate, limiting the value of anything they said to the most basic of information. No scandals were revealed and nothing pertaining to abuse was uncovered; the claims being that the prisoners were fed, sheltered, given medical treatment, and allowed to practice their religion of choice as desired. The most damning aspect of this section of the documentary was the allowance for deviation from the Geneva Convention due to the special status of the detainees (since overruled by SCOTUS as mentioned earlier). This forced Erik & Tarik to have to use a couple of people unfamiliar with the matter; Torin Nelson, a sergeant who worked as an interrogator in Guantanamo Bay before the alleged abuses and as a private contractor in the same capacity in Abu Ghraib, again; before the bigger alleged abuses were a factor. While self serving and full of himself, Torrin's actual firsthand knowledge of matter was limited to what he "heard" regarding the use of music and sleep deprivation as a tool to gather intelligence from the prisoners, his involvement opened up the use of private contractors as interrogators; potentially circumventing established prison rights protections in place. This angle was touched on during this part of the documentary but aside from conjecture and an opportunity to provide more speculation; once again asked more unanswered questions than it truly backed up. The way he couldn't stand still during part of the interview, actively playing with his dog while talking, struck me as odd but that is just from my personal experience of interviewing people.

Next up was the infamous Brigadier General Janice Karpinski, a gal demoted to Colonel for various misconduct; likely related to her dropping the ball as the American in charge of Abu Ghraib during the scandal involving prisoner abuse. Apparently never having set foot on Guantanamo Bay, she was invaluable as an outspoken critic of the interrogation methods used after having initially claimed no such practices occurred that she knew of. The team went to her home where her sole companions were a couple of parrots. She stated she would have blown the whistle if she had known but also claimed "I know the truth" repeatedly; leaving me wondering which version of her "truth" was indeed true. Her claims struck me more as sour grapes at being held accountable for the scandal than anything else but given that she was in charge during the scandal is probably a good sign that someone used poor judgment in placing her in control so her claims could have merited more validity than she projected; albeit with her own admission that it wouldn't have happened "if I were in control"; forgetting that she was the legal authority in charge of the operation.

The last portion of the documentary was more of an attempt to tie things up, bouncing from one interview to another, one clip to another, even showing Mehdi remaining silent when asked what he was originally doing in Afghanistan. One of the failings of the team was that they show the hapless army Lt trying to explain why the prisoners were yelling so loudly in their native tongues, implying it was the result of them being tortured but failing to follow up by presenting their tapes to independent translators who could have cleared the matter up conclusively. Just as the questions unasked speak volumes as to the political leanings of the documentary, something like this appeared a deliberate attempt to further steer the viewer in a direction other than the truth since enough of it was discernable. Were the prisoners yelling "please stop playing Fleetwood Mac", "how about those Mets", or "please turn up the heat"; we'll never know. The end result is that Mehdi, alive and looking in good physical health, was shown at the end of the movie with few of the questions posed by the filmmakers answered before the credits rolled. The chapters of the movie were:
1) A Swedish Citizen
2) In Guantanamo
3) Military Corruption
4) Torture Chambers
5) Interrogation Techniques
6) Non-Disclosure
7) Not A Coincidence
8) Private Contractors
9) An Unconventional War
10) End Credits

In the end, most documentaries these days seem to feel the need of catering to a particular audience in order to prove successful. From a casual glance of the caricatures on the front DVD cover mocking President Bush, form Secretary of Defense Rumsfield, Secretary of State/National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (who was never even shown in the documentary, further betraying its agenda), a hapless prisoner and a friendly looking black dog until the ending credits; Gitmo: The New Rules of War was clearly a piece of well meaning poli-cheer for those opposing the current administration. That said, it did provide a slight view of some of the issues involved with the topic of how detainees are treated prior to the SCOTUS ruling last summer establishing Geneva Convention protections on such prisoners and it is undeniable that while a lot of people might favor far harsher treatment of such prisoners, especially since American prisoners of war have been decapitated, physically tortured, and otherwise harmed in far worse ways by the other side, standards of conduct have to be maintained. In essence, part of taking the moral high ground means following international standards of conduct regardless of how the other side in a conflict acts in response. If we believe our ideals are superior to theirs, we can't use the philosophy that the ends justifies the means, lest we lower ourselves to their level. Looking back to the fictional movie Dirty Harry where Clint Eastwood's character essentially beats a serial killer to try and save the life of one of his many victims, a young girl, we need to collectively decide if we want to project those same civil rights we want for ourselves onto combatants from other countries in compliance with the Geneva Convention or discard it altogether. Documentaries like this one, however flawed, at least have the benefit of raising the issue though I thought the DVD was so flawed in how it was handled that I rated it as a Skip It so your mileage may vary.

Picture: Gitmo: The New Rules of War was presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 ratio color as shot by directors Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh from Sweden. The nature of such a documentary is that the clips used varied in quality, as did the footage shot by the two man crew. It was common to see heads cut off, misframed shots, and lighting that looked amateurish in nature, some grain and minor artifacts observed in the process. The bitrate of the movie hovered in at about the mid 3 Mbps rate, looking like a cable access show at times but never exactly hampering the heavy handed messages. In all though, the visual elements were the least of the problems with the movie; the propaganda styled editing taking a queue from guys like Michael Moore (though to their credit, they were far less likely to take things out of context and reverse engineer them than he would be).

Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital English with a bitrate of 192 Kbps. The level of separation was minimal, the dynamic range varied with the source material just as the visual material did, and beside my disappointment that some of the passages were not translated when the question about what was said was raised as a discussion point, it wasn't bad. Questions regarding the editing of the audio clips were not as major as the video but they were a factor towards the credibility of the documentary.

Extras: Sadly, the only extra was a paper catalog of other titles on the Docudrama label.

Final Thoughts: Gitmo: The New Rules of War seemed to me to be another example of the Bush bashing so popular these days. The supporting documentation and "witnesses" were extremely weak and yet the overall point that how the prisoners were treated worse than we would care to admit was made. Granted, it wasn't made any better than that of the general media articles that came out while this was still being shot, but it tried to make a stronger case and ultimately failed due to a lack of substantial sources. The technical matters were sketchy and the replayability of the material highly questionable as well but the biggest problem with the documentary was the reliance on those with an axe to grind; completely unnecessary since the official documents stated what the crew was looking for better than the interviews did. In short, Gitmo: The New Rules of War was a significantly flawed documentary designed to appease the far left more than a detailed look at the treatment of POW's in Guantanamo Bay as it was supposed to be; providing very little that wasn't already known and forcing half baked ideas as truths too often so it had limited value to me.

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