Disappearing Muslims


When you go to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, you expect the screen to be a window onto the world. Feature-length documentaries will outnumber fiction films -- the ratio this year is 16 to 3 -- and even in the latter category, fact will predominate over artifice. You will get glimpses into Israel and Palestine (Paradise Lost, One Shot), Peru (What the Eye Doesn't See), the two Koreas (Repatriation), India and Pakistan (Born Into Brothels, For a Place Under the Heavens), Africa (Liberia: An Uncivil War) or Iran (Leila); and however maddening, disquieting, bracing or astonishing these views might be, you look forward to seeing them directly, as if through nothing more than a sheet of glass. What you might not expect -- although you get it anyway in this seventeenth annual edition of the festival � is a riddle: When is a window not a window?

The answer: When it's in Persons of Interest by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse.

Persons of Interest addresses the cases of about a dozen of the Muslim men in the United States who were imprisoned after September 11, 2001, on slight charges, if any at all, and held without trial for a year or more. You already know, of course, that our authorities shut away many people back then for nothing more than being named Muhammad. You also know, without believing a word of it, Attorney General Ashcroft's claim that he was rounding up only terrorists, or those who knew terrorists, or maybe lived down the block from somebody whose second cousin knew someone. But unless you belonged to the family or legal team of a detainee, you probably do not know the name and face of anyone who was locked away, nor could you readily get such information on your own. Our government prefers not to say who, or how many, it held. (Human Rights Watch estimates the number at more than 5,000.) So Maclean and Perse have done us a valuable service by showing some of these people and their families and letting us hear their stories. Window metaphors suggest themselves: The filmmakers have shone a light on the situation, or let in fresh air. And, sure enough, the interviews take place in a bare room with whitewashed walls, with a glowing window niche at the left.

Then, about halfway through the film, the camera moves around the room until it offers a glimpse through that niche, which you see is not a window at all. The room is built on a soundstage. The niche opens onto a view of electrical cables and floodlights.

If Persons of Interest had a different subject matter, you might interpret this revelation as a routine gesture of academic skepticism. Yes, the film is a representation. Yes, the stories being told are stories (apart from the claims to truth that they make). But after more than half an hour of listening to people's bewilderment and outrage and sense of betrayal (so many insist that they came to America to be free), after watching these witnesses break down in tears or hunch into themselves or lift their faces as if pleading with an unseen judge, I lost my breath at the sight of that dark enclosure where an opening had been promised. There is no play of appearances in the window that is not a window, no liberating distance from the subject matter or the self, but only suffocation. The outside has disappeared.

And what if I had seen that nonwindow on a different week? I watched Persons of Interest around the same time that Mr. Bush made his reassuring declaration that he would tear down Abu Ghraib prison: a public relations ploy that might have been suggested to him by Homer Simpson, and was pronounced as if under Homer's tutelage. Who else would expect to be praised for destroying evidence, and in a criminal case brought against himself? No one laughed at the speech, though. The giddiness is gone even from the war party, many of whose members now adopt a somber tone to boast of their growing wisdom. Even they know there's no sunshine behind that opening toward which Mr. Bush points, but only machinery for maintaining an illusion.

In this year's Human Rights Watch festival, the films show you Peruvians struggling with their false-front democracy; Koreans grappling with the mutually reinforcing lies of North and South; Palestinians traveling through a homeland that seems to vanish right under their feet (Like Twenty Impossibles, by Annemarie Jacir); good citizens of Illinois tearing holes through the fictitious justice of the death penalty (Deadline, by Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson). Whatever the individual merits of these films -- I believe they're variable -- they all set you thinking about what a real outside might be, there, beyond that window we can't get through.

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