Political Film Society - Newsletter #288 - October 15, 2007

October 15, 2007


Rendition On September 26, 2002, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian engineer was changing planes at JFK airport in New York when he was seized by American officials because his name was incorrectly on a list of suspected terrorists. After being detained for days of questioning, he was ordered by a female CIA agent to be flown to Syria, where he endured ten months and ten days of miserable confinement and torture. After his release, he returned to Canada, seeking justice. Whereas the Ottawa government has paid him $10 million, the only official American response thus far has been an apology from a joint session of House of Representatives subcommittees on October 18, 2007. As explained by Alan Smith (played Peter Sarsgaard) in Rendition, the program began under President Clinton (though President Bush reportedly stopped the practice in 2006 amid an outcry in Europe, where several “ghost detainees” had been held from 2001). Rendition clearly is an effort to portray the Arar case. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born permanent resident of the United States, is flying from a conference in Capetown, South Africa, to his American wife and son in Chicago when he lands at Dulles Airport outside Washington, dc, to change planes. Telephone calls from a suspected terrorist named Ibrahim have been tracked on El-Ibrahimi’s cellphone through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, so he is spotted by an airport surveillance camera, escorted to a secret exit, hooded, held awhile until ordered by CIA agent Corinne Whitman (played by Meryl Streep) to be flown to Tunisia (though filming is in Morocco), and then subcontracted to the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior in the person of Abasi Fawal (played by Yigal Naor), who responds to El-Ibrahimi’s initial plea that he knows nothing about the Egyptian terrorist by having him thrown naked into a tiny windowless cell followed by days of naked questioning that include waterboarding and whipping.

Meanwhile, his frantic spouse Isabella (played by Reese Witherspoon) flies to Washington to ask her onetime beau, Alan Smith, to look into the matter. An aide to Senator Hawkins (played by Alan Arkin), Smith learns that Whitman gave the rendition order, but the Senator urges him not to pursue the matter. Nevertheless, Smith tries to confront Whitman, who pontificates the standard utilitarian argument that it is better to rough up one person if thousands can be saved from death at the hands of terrorists. Isabella also confronts Whitman to no avail. Meanwhile, CIA agent Douglas Freeman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to observe El-Ibrahimi’s interrogation during which he is shocked by the torture and soon concludes that he is innocent. A subplot involves Fatima (played by Zineb Oukach), Fawal’s daughter, who secretly is in love with Khalid (played by Mohammed Khouas), a member of a terrorist group. Filmviewers see the leader of the group giving a pep talk to energize his followers, including Mohammed, to avenge their mistreatment at the hands of an unspecified enemy. Mohammed straps explosives underneath his caftan and heads for a destination in a public square, sets off a blast that kills several persons, including women, children, and inadvertently Fatima, a scene that appears at the beginning and end of the film. Rendition, directed by Gavin Hood, lacks titles at the end to explain the extraordinary rendition program more fully and thereby cowardly misses an opportunity to raise political consciousness to those who may otherwise believe that Hollywood has merely sought yet another way to shock audiences with love stories, sadism, and violence. Instead, responsibility for the rendition program is pinned on Clinton with no mention of Bush, and the Islamic militants are depicted as angry but nihilistic fanatics. Nevertheless, for the effort at a fictional level to describe abuses secretly condoned by the American government, the Political Film Society has nominated Rendition as best film on human rights of 2007. MH