National Geographic: Inside Guantanamo


In April 2009, National Geographic released their documentary Inside Guantanamo, about the U.S. military prison based in Cuba housing detainees from around the world.

National Geographic was allowed unprecedented access to the prison for three weeks. There were a few caveats of course. They were not allowed to film or go inside the seventh camp of the prison, which houses the most serious of detainees. They were not allowed to interview or film the faces of detainees. Guards had to be given pseudonyms. And all footage had to be approved for national security purposes.

On top of those limitations, it’s quite clear the film itself – that is to say, the presence of the cameras – impacts the behavior of the guards and the detainees. For instance, the detainees actually played to the cameras at different points trying to explain their incarceration or decry their treatment.

As Neil Genzlinger said about the documentary in the New York Times, “Everything in the program, of course, has to be taken with a grain of salt: the soldiers all do and say the right things; the former prisoners (the ubiquitous Moazzam Begg is one) are nonthreatening as can be; and, under the restrictions imposed on the film crew by the military, the current prisoners are not heard from in direct interviews or even seen (thanks to blurring).”

The film juxtaposes smaller human interactions in the film in regards to the day-to-day operations of the guards with the former detainees of Guantanamo. On the other hand, the bigger picture of the documentary dichotomizes civil rights lawyers and groups with former members of the Bush administration and other senior officials at Guantanamo over security and liberties.

Given the limitations of the documentary, it is the former that bears the most weight in at least suggesting what should be the obvious point: that the guards and the released detainees are human beings. Whether they’re playing to the cameras or not in terms of their behavior, they’re still humans that are, in their mind at least, trying to do what’s right or speak to what they think is right.

As the film notes, in the early days once the United States went into Afghanistan, the United States essentially offered bounties for information leading to suspected terrorists. Given such an arrangement, undoubtedly, some of those suspected terrorists brought to Guantanamo were going to be innocent and some were going to be legitimate. And as the film notes, some later released detainees would go on to commit acts of terrorism.

Much of the film resembles what you would imagine finding inside any prison within the United States: detainees resist the guards with any means they can such as utilizing toothpaste, towels or their own feces. Contrarily, the guards man their posts 24/7 and try to reason with the detainees (even though they do not speak Arabic).

However, Guantanamo was not always such a banal place. In the earlier days, much of the directive at Guantanamo was focused on “intelligence gathering” or in less euphemistic phrasing, “torture.” Eventually, those practices were ended sometime after 2004 at Guantanamo at least (the film notes the CIA in black sites within Iraq and elsewhere still engaged in the practice).

In a telling statement, a guard at Guantanamo said, “If I was a prisoner of war somewhere, someday, I’d want to be treated fairly and impartially too.”

Nevertheless, that period of time along with the widely publicized Abu Ghraib incident helped to drive an infamous image of Guantanamo. As some of the released detainees suggested, such an image is pivotal to encouraging more jihadists against America.

Towards the end of the film, they address the force feeding of detainees.  On one hand, there are the senior officials that argue, “We can’t let them die,” and others, such as the United Nations in a report on Guantanamo, which stated detainees can refuse to eat, as it is their right.

Overall, the film does not pretend to offer solutions to the question of, “What should we do about Guantanamo?” or take a side on the quintessential security versus liberty question in the wake of 9/11 and the initiation of the “War on Terrorism.” That said, given the limitations of the documentary, I thought they did a fine job covering the more day-to-day human stories, letting each side air out their reasoning and giving us that “inside look” into a notorious place.

I could spend much more time addressing claims made within the film with respect to my own views, but I’ll save that for another piece. Suffice it to say, one of the better moments at the end of the documentary featured detainees at the prison doing the traditional Islamic Call to Prayer.

Whether or not you’re a Muslim, Christian, agnostic, atheist or what have you, the Call to Prayer is majestic, beautiful and soothing to listen to.

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