Their stories unfolded more than three years ago, in the weeks after 9/11, but those who captured these tales in a stark film called Persons of Interest, hope they still resonate.
Tonight that 63-minute documentary will launch the Human Rights Watch film festival at Jackman Hall in the Art Gallery of Ontario, an event that will include films highlighting international human rights violations — from the children of Calcutta's red-light district, to a documentary on North Korean spies.
When filmmakers Tobias Perse and Alison Maclean stood behind the lens and interviewed immigrants who had been rounded up as terrorism suspects in the wake of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, few had started to talk about questionable detentions in the United States in the name of security.
In the time since Persons of Interest was produced, U.S. courts have questioned the status of "enemy combatants" held in the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the fallout from pictures of American soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail has continued for months.
The documentary is filmed in a sparse, white room with only a wooden bench as a prop. Stories are told directly to the off-screen filmmakers.
One successful businessman describes his harrowing year-long stay at New York's Rikers Island jail facility where he was taken after federal agents became suspicious of a son's flight-simulator game. We were living "the American dream," he tells the filmmaker, describing his life before 9/11, and then what happened in the prison located just 18 kilometres from the Statue of Liberty.
While Canadian authorities questioned dozens of Muslim suspects in the wake of 9/11, there was not a similar mass detainment here of what the U.S. administration called "persons of interest" — largely non-citizens detained on immigration infractions or suspicion alone, as they were investigated for terrorism.
More than 700 Arab and Muslim men were taken into custody in the wake of 9/11, usually for minor immigration violations, and held an average of 80 days, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman said this week at confirmation hearings for Michael Chertoff, George W. Bush's nominee to head the U.S. Homeland Security Department .
The closest comparison in Canada was the joint police-immigration task force that detained 23 Pakistani students in 2003 for immigration violations, but who were questioned about possibly belonging to a Canadian Al Qaeda cell. The majority of those students were deported to Pakistan, where they say the terrorism stigma followed them, even though they were not charged with any security offences in Canada.
It's not surprising that Human Rights Watch chose this film (which was first released at the Sundance Film Festival last year) to lead the other Toronto premiers. The group has emerged as one of the most influential critics of the U.S. administration's homeland security policies.
"This is really something different," said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch United States, noting that much of her organization's work has been international.
"The extent of the human rights abuses involved in response to 9/11 by the United States ... really forced us to ramp up our attention to what the United States itself is doing."
Fellner said the administration continues to look for legislative loopholes "so that it could ignore the prohibitions on mistreating detainees."
Perse says the film should still have impact.
"There's still the view that if the government is (detaining people) there's a reason for it. That still exists," said the filmmaker. "When we were watching congressional hearings around homeland security, the policies are really being defended. It's acknowledged, now, that there are bureaucratic or administrative errors, but at the heart of it, the right of the country to detain people, based solely on where they're from is really not being questioned."
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