Sunday, 5 October 2014

At the LFF: "Camp X Ray"

As America heads into a new conflict in the Middle East, the country's filmmakers continue to pick over the last one. Peter Sattler's Camp X Ray offers a fictional slant on subject matter previously broached in documentary form by Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Errol Morris (Standard Operating Procedure), ushering us inside the sniper-manned gates of Guantanamo Bay to depict the relationship between detainees - the authorities' Orwellian term for prisoners - and guards. Kristen Stewart plays Private Amy Cole, a recent arrival at this facility who's marginalised twice over by her standing as both rookie and female rookie; just as she must redact images of women from the month-old newspapers she distributes to her Muslim charges from the library cart, she increasingly finds herself obliged to deny aspects of who she is in order to fit in with her predominantly male colleagues.

As that parallel suggests, the film is at its strongest describing Amy's daily routines. Stewart's natural air of flintiness sits well in uniform: scraping back her hair emphasises the dark crescents under her eyes that speak to sleepless nights in thin-walled institutional lodgings, and that unmistakably unconventional jawline - on her very first shift, indeed, Amy will be socked in the mouth while transferring one prisoner. As she feels the need to shape up, those watchful, slightly hurt eyes convey a young woman's growing sense of alienation from her surroundings. Stewart makes especially expressive the act of flipping down a toilet seat at a communal facility with her foot; more so than the heavy-handed sexual assault that follows, it suggests a woman at the mercy of the meatheads and pussyhounds gathered around her. (And to all those still bemoaning the passivity of the Stewart screen persona, I say sometimes it's possible to make a point out of passivity: Amy Cole becomes unhappier the more she strives to follow orders.)

The film's sympathies are youthful ones, certainly. Amy bonds with one detainee, Ali (Peyman Moaadi, from A Separation), over the Harry Potter books missing from her library cart. (There's a nice mix-up over the meaning of the word "snitch".) Similarly, the casting of Stewart and Prison Break hothead Lane Garrison as the camp's alpha suggests how girls and boys were sent to do a man's job. (By contrast, their supervising officer, played by John Carroll Lynch, appears distant, diffident; he's never around when anybody needs him to be.) Sattler's film could be a sibling to Kimberly Pierce's Iraq-moment Stop-Loss in its mix of good intentions and occasional, naive missteps. I think we probably needed to know more about Ali - arrested in the opening scene while touting a bag full of mobile phones - and what the authorities think they have him locked up for: keeping the grown-ups out of the picture creates a void this bearded Emily Dickinson enthusiast can't help but fill, and there were stretches where I feared Camp X Ray would conclude with a tearful Stewart chasing after this romantic martyr as he's led off to be waterboarded, as though Guantanamo were the world's unlikeliest pick-up joint.

Thankfully, Sattler and his actors are smart enough to resist that commercially minded temptation; instead, prisoner and guard seem to bond more out of a shared boredom than anything else - the boredom that follows from spending 23 hours of every day locked up in a windowless cell with no immediate hope of release, or from having to enforce a stifling and repressive state policy as a way of making ends meet. "How long are we gonna have to keep doing this?," asks Amy of one of her male colleagues. "As long as they can," comes the shrugging response. Camp X Ray flirts with the idea of establishing an equivalent victimhood between American captor and Muslim captive, but its concluding images leave us in no doubt where these characters ultimately diverge: one of them's free to go home, while the other's going absolutely nowhere.

Camp X Ray screens on Thu 9 at 12.30pm in the Odeon West End 2; then at 8.45pm on Fri 10 in the Odeon West End 1; then again on Fri 17 at 9pm at Rich Mix.

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