Review: Guantanamo’s Child Omar Khadr

Omar with Media

None of us knew that Paris was under attack as we watched Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr (dir Michelle Shephard and Patrick Reed) at the RIDM last night. The film is about a young man accused of acts of terrorism and interrogated (let’s be honest, tortured) in Guantanamo. Ignorant of what was happening in Europe, I spent a good deal of my evening reflecting on how people can do horrible things to other people and what I could do about it.  In my head, I fleshed out a reflective piece on how standing up for our values of law and justice for as long as we can —  even to our detriment — is crucial for our survival.


But how can I write that after over a 120 people out for a Friday night of music and drinking were killed by bombs and machine guns? Terrorism is threatens our lives and sense of well-being, and it takes a fresh act to remind us what it can do to our society. Hypothetically speaking, what if the torture of one prisoner revealed the Parisian plan ahead of time? Would I still be in easy agreement with the filmmakers of Guantanamo’s Child that what happened to Omar Khadr is an injustice? Then again, no one can see the outcome of both paths. You can’t see the devastating outcome of an act terrorism and at the same time see the torturous interrogation of the human who reveals the plan ahead of time. Of course, Guantanamo’s Child never once mentions that the enhanced interrogation and imprisonment of Khadr, or any of the prisoners for that matter, resulted in information useful for stopping terrorism. The jury is out (see HERE and HERE for the results of a quick Google search) and I remain disgusted with both terrorism and the injustice done to a captive.

The film starts with Khadr arriving at the house of his lawyer in a very well-edited series of scenes that keep Khadr’s face from the audience. Only when he starts to speak to the media do we see him as he looks today, displacing the photo of the teen Canadian from Guantanamo Bay that Canada didn’t seem to want back.

The film tells us Khadr’s story largely from his perspective, starting when Khadr was just 8 and his family left Canada for Pakistan and then moved to Afghanistan. For religious reasons, Khadr is housed with a group of insurgents who employ him as a translator. His involvement in the group increases. Home videos show Khadr as one of their members, building and planting bombs with a big smile on his face.  Following 9/11, there is an attack on Khadr’s compound. The film details the events that shows how Khadr kills (or perhaps doesn’t kill) an American soldier. With a hole in his chest, shrapnel in his face, and minus his left eye from the explosion of a grenade, Khadr is sent for interrogation at Bagram Air Base and eventually to Guantanamo for “advanced interrogation” for a period of 13 years.

Khadr’s rescuer comes in the form of a Canadian-Scottish lawyer Dennis Edney who waits four years to meet his client at Guantanamo. Edney sticks by him, trying to keep Khadr’s hopes up by telling him about fishing and the mountains. He sees him through his trial and transfer from Guantanamo to Canadian jail. When Khadr is released on bail, Edney, his wife, and two good looking dogs allow the young man to live in their house. They strive to help Khadr recover a normal life while awaiting trial.

Omar Khadr interrogation video with CSIS.

Omar Khadr interrogation video with CSIS.

There’s no getting around that what happens to Khadr is repugnant. He is woken every two hours so he doesn’t sleep, waterboarded, put in stress positions, kept in a cold room, made to roll in his own urine (“The Human Mop”). The list of medieval techniques is staggering, and the fact he would be in 9th or 10th grade while enduring such things, appalling. All this for the death of a single soldier! It seems excessive, though the point is not to punish but to elicit information. How much information can a teen interpreter have in him? You’d think that after the first five minutes, there wouldn’t be much left to tell. But I even felt sympathy for one of the men initially called on to interrogate him, Damien “The Monster” Crosetti. Crosetti confesses how he did some “wild shit” with his “own hands.” Khadr is young, but Crosetti is too —  just 22 and chosen for the job simply because he was kicked out of his unit for a drunken night.

The film does not make light of terrorism. Footage from 9/11 reminds the audience that there is a specific event that prompted collective outrage. However, the film’s most important points are about the dangers of institutions to the individual. Institutions, it would seem, care nothing for individual rights and operate for their own benefit. Khadr ends up in Guantanamo for the arbitrary reason of being able to speak a western language. The first Canadians to contact him are CSIS and they have no interest in his well-being, only in what they can get from him for intelligence. Khadr’s fellow prisoners are released years before he is because they are British citizens. Stephen Harper uses Khadr as a way to show the government’s tough stance on crime and terrorism. The military judge of Khadr’s trial says he is playing a role that he is required to play, like “Micky Mouse at Disney Land.” The film never loses sight that Khadr is a person, a human being, and remains one no matter what happens to him.

Throughout, we hear from Khadr. He is well-spoken and thoughtful, but also a little vacant, a little naive, a little like a man who has spent almost half his life in a surreal, parallel universe. His awkward path in the world is fully understandable. He’s also notably un-vindictive. In one scene he recalls how he decided not to get back at a particular Guantanamo guard who had it in for him. “The only thing I can control is how I feel,” he says. So, it’s hard not to wonder if he is pulling one over on all of us, if he is harboring a seething rage, if he is a true hater of all things Western and calculating ways to mastermind our deaths. Or perhaps he has Stockholm syndrome and has identified with those who have treated him the worst. However, in my own naive way, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at his word. When he says he wishes he could just be an invisible, regular Joe like anyone else, I believe him.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr is playing at the RIDM on November 14 at 6 p.m. at J.A. de Seve Theatre at Concordia University. $9.50/11.50.

About Rachel Levine

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