Whether you’re a guard or an inmate at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, the place, as depicted in Camp X-Ray, is a living hell, but not in the most obvious ways. It’s not a rank dungeon with clanging torture chambers. This relentlessly dour first feature, directed and written by Peter Sattler, was actually shot in an abandoned juvenile prison in Whittier, California, just outside Los Angeles. As you observe the 24-hour-a-day surveillance in which guards, two to a shift, go round and round, peeking into each room every three minutes to make sure a detainee hasn’t attempted suicide, you have the sickening sense of people locked in a miserable, dehumanizing ritual from which there is no exit. We learn early in the film that the word “prisoners” is not permitted because it would support the argument that those behind bars are subject to the terms of the Geneva Conventions.
Everyone, inmates and guards alike, is behind bars. For the guards, who circulate like rats in a maze, there are the strict rules of standard operating procedure, or SOP. One scene shows a particularly obstreperous inmate about to be force-fed, but breaks off just as a feeding tube is inserted into a nostril. If the scene had gone further, Camp X-Ray might have been unbearable to watch.
The movie takes extraordinary pains not to be an exposé of harsh prison conditions or to show acts that might be construed as torture. It is studiously neutral about the guilt or innocence of the inmates, including the detainee Ali Amir (Payman Maadi), on whom it focuses.
At the same time, it shows the fury and hatred the inmates feel toward their captors. The attitude of the guards toward their charges is summed up in a disgusted official’s description of his job as “baby-sitting a bunch of sheep herders.”
By staying mostly indoors, the film takes on a creepy, metaphysical dimension. For all we know, the 24-hour watches could go on until the end of time, because here there is no time, just repeated action in a sterile setting where the lights never go out. (The real-life Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo actually consisted of chain-link cages from which detainees were transferred more than a decade ago.)
The movie begins with a quick shot of the World Trade Center attacks and the arrest of Ali, who is grabbed from behind in Bremen, Germany, and blindfolded. Then it jumps ahead eight years to observe the arrival of a new Army private, Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), at Guantánamo. Camp X-Ray is the first film to prove that Stewart can really act, and it makes excellent use of her sullen, enigmatic screen presence. We learn that Amy grew up in a small town in Florida where she felt confined.
As the days pass, Amy stoically endures humiliations that include being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier and smeared with a detainee’s feces, all the while remaining an obedient cog in a military machine.
The core of the film is the combative, unlikely and ultimately caring friendship that develops between Ali and Amy — whom he calls Blondie, breaking down her reserve by badgering her with questions. One of Amy’s tasks is to supply the detainees with reading material. The one thing Ali wants than more anything is the latest Harry Potter book.
Gradually, Amy’s defenses crumble, and signs of light begin to glimmer through her glum, robotic demeanor. Where a less austere movie might imply the development of a romantic attraction, there is no suggestion of an erotic undercurrent. Ali is desperately lonely, bored and despairing of ever leaving Guantánamo. Maadi, the Iranian actor who starred in A Separation, brings as much dimension as an actor could to a role that deliberately omits any back story. Although abrasive, manipulative and angry, his character has a likable human side.
Despite the movie’s gripping performances and the verisimilitude of many elements, I simply don’t believe the story. Why, for instance, is Amy permitted to engage in long late-night conversations with Ali, which gives parts of the film the stiffness and artificiality of a play? When Camp X-Ray finally turns sentimental, you may feel betrayed.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Payman Maadi, Lane Garrison, Joseph Julian Soria, Ser’Darius Blain, Cory Michael Smith, Julia Duffy, John Carroll Lynch .
Writer-director: Peter Sattler.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 117 minutes. Vulgar language, attempted rape, scenes of torture. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.