Representing incarceration in Persons of Interest and The Oath

by Christopher Barnes

Speaking explicitly of the War on Terror, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that in our multimedia-saturated age,

“The shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets, but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally” (xi.)

As proof of the power of images to shape such perceptions, Mitchell observes that while the Obama administration may have released the Bush administration’s infamous torture memorandums,

“What is not public . . . is the visible evidence that would show what the consequences of these memos were for actual human bodies. It is a testimony to the widespread conviction that images are more powerful than words, that the Obama administration was willing to release the verbal memos, but not the visible manifestation of their effects” (129).

Questions of visibility and invisibility are indeed fundamental to understanding how the War on Terror has been conducted, and more specifically, how they structure its politics and policies regarding who the United States imprisons in its military prison sites and how they are treated. Michelle Brown recognizes such a tension between the visibility and invisibility of these practices and sites when she argues,

Through indefinite detention, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and new legal categories, such as that of the unlawful enemy combatant, a penal architecture was established which resulted in practices intended to be clandestine, invisible, and, simultaneously, common, acceptable, and global" (124, emphasis mine).

The prison system of the United States’ War on Terror, as Brown points out, is paradoxical insofar as it is seemingly invisible and shrouded in secrecy while simultaneously existing as a publicly acknowledged part of the Bush and Obama administrations’ tactics in prosecuting alleged terrorists. This article examines two critically under-studied documentaries that, I argue, explore and interrogate the constitutive relationship between vision and indefinite detention in the War on Terror: Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse’s Persons of Interest (2004) and Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2010). I contend that both films use the figure of the talking head to address and undermine structures of invisibility in the War on Terror to show how these structures enable the continued apprehension, detention, and torture of alleged terrorists. This includes not only drawing attention to the invisibility of the prisons and prisoners themselves, but it also involves an attempt to complicate and dispel many of the misguided and pernicious beliefs about Islam and Muslims that have served as a pretext for a limitless war against terrorism.

Persons of Interest’s self-reflexive use of the talking head convention both reminds viewers of those who cannot testify in front of the camera and also points to the ways that sight and the act of looking structure how we profile and categorize certain bodies as “dangerous.” These interviews also reveal the frayed social bonds that result from the aggressive policing practices of law enforcement after September 11. The Oath, on the other hand, is centered around two men: Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo Bay prisoner, the plaintiff in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and a former driver for Osama bin Laden, and his brother-in-law Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard who, at the time of filming, was a free man driving a taxi in Yemen. By following their intertwined and divergent paths, the film raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the War on Terror’s tactics for interrogating and prosecuting alleged terrorists.

A brief visual essay —
Persons of Interest
and The Oath

I want to first briefly outline some of the representational strategies used by both films, which I then contextualize within a broader framework of documentary film studies as well as within documentaries that address the surveillance and imprisonment of Muslims and Arabs after September 11. From there, I will then discuss in more depth how these representational strategies are used to criticize the secrecy and opacity of the War on Terror’s prison systems.

The spare interview room in which Persons of Interest is set acts as a visual metaphor for both the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of the interviewees.

Some interview subjects reenact aspects of their imprisonment, drawing our attention to their invisibility as prisoners. Here, Salem Jaffer, at the request of Maclean, imitates the manner in which the FBI psychologist speaks to him while he is detained.

And here, he mimics how he would go to the wash basin in his cell to splash water on his body.

Nabil Ayesh sits against a wall to show how he would pass the time in his cell.

Muhamed Abushaker reads a letter he wrote to his wife Karima Osman while he was in prison. Their interview speaks of another possible looming separation, in which he may be deported to Palestine and her to Egypt, while their daughter is an American citizen with rights in neither country.

For those who have been deported or are still detained, loved ones function as interview substitutes. This is another way to show the continued invisibility of those who are imprisoned and cannot speak for themselves. Here, Amanda Serrano shows the camera her wedding photo.

These interviews make visible the deleterious effects that the mass arrests have on families and communities by showing us families who have been torn apart. Here, one of Shokreia Yaghi’s (whose husband was deported to Jordan) son holds up a family photograph.

In other cases, even if the families remain intact, they often still discuss the stress and fear of further surveillance persecution by the United States government. Here, Mateen and Naz Butt discuss the feelings of precarity that have struck their family after Mateen’s arrest.

Overall, these images of both individuals and families help to humanize those who are unfairly and maliciously maligned as terrorists.

The Oath‘s opening shot is footage of Salim Hamdan’s interrogation by the U.S. military after his capture in Afghanistan in 2001. This is the only time in which we see Hamdan in front of the camera, rendering him a spectral presence within the film. The inclusion of the computer screen’s edge in the opening shot self-reflexively calls attention to ways in which Hamdan is only available through various layers of mediation; he never appears in front of the camera to speak for himself.

Hamdan’s absence is also registered in the domestic sphere, as his family poses for a photograph while holding a picture of him.

The film often cuts to compositions of the Guantánamo Bay landscape; neither the prison, nor Hamdan, are present in any of them, signaling the opacity of the prison and the invisibility of the detainees and their suffering.

Janet Hamlin’s courtroom drawings are the only images we get of the trial and of Hamdan as the defendant.

Our introduction to Jandal and his son Habib contrasts sharply with Hamdan’s absence. Jandal is often charming and gregarious in front of the camera. Hamdan’s absence from his family’s life becomes even more starkly defined by the many private moments we see with Jandal and Habib…

…such as when he provides religious instruction to him or helps him get ready for school.

Often, Jandal is filmed driving in his taxicab through the Yemeni capital Sana'a. As opposed to Hamdan’s imprisonment and immobility, these scenes often emphasize Jandal’s mobility.

We also see him as he meets with and provides religious instruction and counseling to young men interested in jihad.

All of these moments challenge the viewer consider how we conceive of dominant, Western depictions of terrorism or of terrorists.

Representing absence

As this brief visual essay shows, both films use numerous representational strategies to address the structures of invisibility that govern these prison sites. Both films are also part of a much longer history within both documentary film and documentary film studies regarding how one represents that for which no photographic or filmic record exists, or for events or situations that exceed representational possibilities.

Questions of representational excess and of absence are often directly engaged by films about historical traumas. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), which avowedly eschews all archival representations of the Holocaust in favor of personal talking head testimonies from those who survived it, witnessed it, or aided in its perpetuation. Through its unrelenting focus on these talking heads and its return to previous Holocaust sites, Shoah engages in a dialectic of past and present, bearing witness to the historical trauma of the Holocaust while also gesturing to the impossibility of its representation. Other films, such as Rithy Panh’s S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), bears witness to the Cambodian genocide that took place under Pol Pot’s regime. It, too, relies on the clash between past and present, as Panh brings two survivors of the genocide and some former guards and torturers from the Khmer Rouge to the S-21 prison site. Panh uses archival documents from the Khmer Rouge regime and other representational strategies, such as former guard Khieu Ches' reenactment of his daily routine while overseeing the S-21, to allow the traumatic past to enter into the present moment. And through animation, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) literally illustrates Folman’s repressed memories regarding his culpability as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces that were responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Other documentary filmmakers have addressed the questions of visibility and invisibility from the perspective of legal justice. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) uses reenactments of different witness testimonies of a crime scene to point to the ways in which one’s personal memories and subjectivity impact legal cases. The highly stylized nature of the reenactments betray the lack of credible witnesses, and what we are left with is a set of recollections about an event that no one saw. In a different vein, documentary filmmaking has enabled the “Forensic Architecture” research team, led by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, to use architecture as a lens for capturing often unseen or invisible daily violence in areas such as the West Bank or in Syria. As Weizman explains, while forensics has traditionally been used to affirm and solidify state power,

“The direction of the forensic gaze could also be inverted, and used instead to detect and interrupt state violations” (10).

For instance, through a series of interviews with former survivors of the Saydnaya Prison in Syria, the Forensic Architecture team uses architectural and acoustic modeling to reconstruct the prison’s architecture based on the prisoners’ memories, providing images of a site where no cameras are allowed.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Persons of Interest and The Oath are in dialogue with many of these issues. There is no concrete, visible evidence of the violence suffered by those imprisoned, nor is there a way to visually approximate the mental and emotional toll that detention and deportation has had on the families of the victims. Instead, these films use a set of different representational strategies that bear witness to the experience of imprisonment.

Post-9/11 documentary representation

Since its inception, the War on Terror has been conceived of as a war whose success, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted, would hinge on the United States’ ability to “work sort of the dark side” and “spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world” (Cheney). Indeed, while the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have often been marked by moments of spectacle that have circulated across the internet and on television, military efforts have also relied on and benefitted from a limited visual field that leaves much of their actions clandestine. Persons of Interest and The Oath are but two of several documentaries[2] that have attempted to illuminate this dark side of the War on Terror and have tried to understand exactly what happens to the detainees in the military prison sites where they are held.

Within this larger corpus, there are multiple documentaries that reveal a preoccupation with the visual nature of torture and imprisonment under the War on Terror and explore the limits of how it can be represented. Some of these documentaries, such as Channel 4’s Torture: The Guantánamo Guidebook (2005), Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo (2006), and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008), engage with these limits by self-consciously revealing what they do not, or cannot, know about what happens within the prison sites. They point to how the opacity of the military prisons enable the torture of detainees and also prevent informed debates regarding the role these prisons play in the War on Terror. Unable to see what goes on inside Guantánamo Bay, Torture: The Guantánamo Guidebook simulates the environment of the prison based on declassified United States government documents and military manuals. Volunteers agree to spend 48 hours as detainees in a makeshift prison, subject to a lighter version of the abuse suffered by detainees in Guantánamo Bay. These simulations reenact torture without ever fully capturing the violence and humiliation of the “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And as a docudrama, The Road to Guantánamo reenacts the torture of the “Tipton Three” in an attempt to both approximate the violence of their imprisonment while also pointing out how this violence is shrouded in secrecy and rarely enters the public visual culture. And focusing on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Morris’ film Standard Operating Procedure is interested in what the Abu Ghraib photos can, and cannot, tell us about the abuse and torture inside the Abu Ghraib prison or of the military milieu and culture that helped enable it.

Other post-9/11 documentary films address the invisibility of Muslims and Arabs who have been unfairly surveilled and/or arrested under the guise of combatting terrorism. These films, like Persons of Interest and The Oath, offer more expansive definitions and portrayals of Muslims to Western audiences. Two documentaries that address the mass arrests of Arab, Muslim, and Sikh men shortly after September 11 are Brothers and Others (Nicolas Rossier, 2003) and Lest We Forget (Jason DaSilva, 2003). Like Persons of Interest, these documentaries give a voice to those who were unjustly detained by the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Brothers and Others also offers an opportunity for victims of the arrest to talk about how the profiling and arrest disrupted their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Lest We Forget draws historical parallels between the persecution of Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs after September 11 and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. By juxtaposing these parallels, the film makes the argument that the national security response to September 11 has perhaps changed in form — from concentration camps to detention centers — but is still rooted in tactics of racial profiling and the revocation of civil liberties.

Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest takes its title from the U.S. government’s classification of people who, after September 11, were suspected to have some link to terrorist activity. Days after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Justice Department cast a wide net in its search for suspects.[3] The mass arrests of individuals – primarily Muslim men – often yielded little to no actionable intelligence. The arrests illustrated the ways that brown South Asian and Middle Eastern bodies were sites upon which national fears and insecurities about terrorism were projected. Markers of difference, such as skin color, accent, nationality, and dress, constructed a hypervisible subject to be vigilantly watched, distracting attention from the violations of human rights and civil liberties of thousands of innocent Middle Eastern and South Asian individuals. This visual dialectic between the extreme visibility of a small set of Muslim men and the invisibility of those who suffered injustice at the hands of federal law enforcement is of central interest in Maclean and Perse’s film. The interviews in Persons of Interest render its title and the label applied to the interview subjects ironic, as their links to terrorist activities are non-existent, indicative of how little interest they were to U.S. national security.

Spare in its presentation, the documentary consists of twelve interviews of people who were either detained shortly after September 11 or whose family members were detained and, in some cases, deported. While some who were formerly detained are there to talk about their imprisonment, spouses and siblings stand in as proxies for the loved ones of those who were still being held or who had been deported. Others use the interviews to discuss the ways that their imprisonment isolated them from others, leaving them unable to contact their family or their lawyers. The interviews also challenge caricatures and stereotypes about Muslims, simultaneously reaffirming their humanity while also contesting the faulty and racist logic that justified the arrests in the first place.

The documentary navigates a tension between the immediacy of the interview subjects’ testimonies and the sheer amount of stories of unlawful detentions that remain untold. Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker argue,

"When testimony does occur, the presence of a given story sharer…highlights the absence of others who are not, or are no longer, present" (6).

The testimonies in Persons of Interest function similarly. Furthermore, the black and white intertitles visually reinforce this interplay between the visible and the invisible. Even the film’s title screen is completely black before individual letters of the title begin to appear one by one, replicating the experience of something once invisible becoming visible.

The shadow archive

The film intersperses these talking head testimonies with archival footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft speaking at press conferences or at Congressional testimonies. Much of what Ashcroft says about the scope and the nature of the arrests are directly contradicted by the testimonies in the film, revealing the mendacity of the Bush administration’s national security response. Furthermore, Ashcroft’s inclusion encourages the viewer to draw comparisons between the privileged speaking position he holds and the positions of the interview subjects. In this context, then, he is a representative of and talking head for the Bush administration. While Persons of Interest provides a necessary corrective to the damaging stereotypes circulating about Muslims, the film also uses Ashcroft’s presence to encourage viewers to consider the racialized and gendered dynamics inherent in talking head conventions and the ways that certain bodies are imbued with the authority to speak while others are marginalized. The film’s testimonies thus contradict many of the statements Ashcroft makes, but his inclusion also lays bare the ideological construction of his authority.

Looking at the ways in which queer mediamakers have used the talking head to bear witness to the AIDS epidemic, Roger Hallas argues that this convention in documentary film has been “deeply implicated in the disciplinary function of dominant media representation” (37). Hallas draws on Allan Sekula’s theorization of the shadow archive to explain its implications for the talking head’s role as a regulatory mechanism within documentary film. The shadow archive, according to Sekula, is the reservoir of images to which all photographic portraits belong, a “generalized, inclusive archive” that “encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain” (10). Within this corpus of images, Sekula identifies two opposing, yet related poles: the honorific conventions, linked to bourgeois photographic portraiture, and the repressive conventions linked to the popularization of physiognomy and phrenology amongst law enforcement as a method of determining criminality and classifying criminal bodies. Sekula argues that the meaning of all photographed bodies is produced through the interdependent relationship of these two poles. Hallas contends that we find the correlate of Sekula’s honorific subject in the “authoritative figures of the newscaster and the expert witness” and the repressive portrait in the “objectified other of documentary film and television news” (41). The figure of the suspected terrorist, marked by things such as their brown skin, accent, and dress, is in part constructed and constituted by the white, American body, which signifies its belonging to U.S. society in a way that the Middle Eastern or South Asian body cannot.

There are no crowds or audiences waiting to hear the interviewees’ stories. At the same time, with no crowd to blend into and nowhere on screen they can hide, the empty room renders them hypervisible. They are solely subjected to the scrutinizing gaze of the camera and viewer.

In terms of September 11, the widely publicized visages of the Muslim hijackers, as well as other imagery such as videos from Muslim-majority countries of people in the streets allegedly celebrating the September 11 attacks, are part of a much larger reservoir of images that pathologize Muslims and Arabs as inherently violent, all of which contributed to a suspicious atmosphere in which anyone who appeared to be Muslim (including many misrecognitions of Sikhs as Muslims) was far more likely to be surveilled or subject to violence and hate crimes. Sunaina Marr Maira argues that after the September 11 attacks, “the media widely publicized the faces of the nineteen Muslim male hijackers” which obscured “the faces of the over 1,500 Muslim men detained by the government in the months following 9/11, without a single proven charge of terrorism” who remained “invisible to the public; their detention was secret and their names were not released until the government was challenged in court” (59). The interviews in Persons of Interest challenge dominant depictions of Muslims in the Western media and also offer – to return to Sekula’s shadow archive – honorific images of Muslim individuals and families, inviting viewers to consider the invisible ruined lives and futures caused by the arrests.

Furthermore, they allow interviewees a space to give a more nuanced viewpoint on Islam and the challenges the religion faces. The interviewee Syed Ali, for example, points out that the literacy rate amongst the population of 1.1 billion Muslims is slightly under 40%, allowing uneducated religious leaders to hijack the faith and preach perverse, violent interpretations of Islam. Syed points to the very real material forces that affect religious beliefs and interpretations, providing a far different perspective than the Islamophobic rhetoric that treats the religion as inherently violent.

Invisibility and imprisonment

Many of these interviews with those who were formerly imprisoned evoke the dual nature of feeling both simultaneously hypervisible and invisible. Practically all interviewees recount the flimsy evidence and justification for the arrests in the first place; Nabil Ayesh, for example, opens the film recounting being pulled over by a police officer and arrested for what amounted to little more than simply being an Israeli Arab. But at the same time, as some interviewees explain, while they are subjected to extreme levels of scrutiny and suspicion, their arrests render them practically invisible. Some interview subjects highlight this invisibility by reenacting their imprisonment. In these moments, the interview room becomes a site of performance, and the spare mise-en-scene visually approximates the sparseness of a prison cell. These reenactments, which I have briefly described in the above visual essay, bring the past into the present and confront viewers with memories for which there is no visible evidence.

In Faiq Medoraj’s case, for example, (the evidence for his arrest was that he had pictures of the World Trade Center taped to his deli case at work) the film visually evokes his disappearance into prison with a black intertitle.

While the intertitle is onscreen, Maclean can be heard asking, “Were you charged?” Medoraj responds, “Charged for overstay. That’s what they charged me for.” The use of the intertitle during this exchange visually inscribes multiple sites of absence: the absence of his time and experience of imprisonment, along with the absence of evidence that justified his detention in the first place. The impoverished representations of either interviewee reenactments or of the intertitles point precisely to this lack of evidence and to the flimsy justifications for their arrests.