A white room, a shabby desk, feeble light seeping through a window: The set of Alison MacLean and Tobias Perse's new documentary, Persons of Interest, is deceptively bland. But as 12 stories unfold within its confines -- the narrators are Arab and Muslim immigrants who endured the terror and confusion of post-September 11 detention -- the room begins to resemble less a blank stage set than an existential interrogation cell, a prison block, a waiting room out of Franz Kafka's The Trial.
The men would be fit characters for that master of absurdity, the master of “hope and the absurd,” as philosopher Albert Camus wrote of Kafka, with their burning outrage and bafflement, their struggle to maintain human dignity, awareness of a terrible duality: of the ways in which an antiseptic, bureaucratic world nurses -- and is fueled by -- its own darkness. Some of their stories are even flecked by Kafka's gallows humor, as in the case of Saleem Jaffer, who found himself hauled in for questioning because he was sitting in a rental car outside a Burger King. He was later absolved of all charges, including the “unauthorized use of a rental vehicle,” but the case cost him $25,000 in legal fees.
Persons of Interest puts faces to a horrifying statistic: After 9-11, more than 5,000 suspects were rounded up and detained, according to Human Rights Watch. Not one has been convicted of crimes related to the terrorist attacks. The 12 stories here shed light on the little-heard experiences of the detainees and underscore a harsh irony: that many came seeking the social liberties they felt were compromised in the Palestinian territories, Algeria, the Sudan -- only to get locked up in the land of the free.
As for the reasons for the arrests, one was detained, he tells us, because police found his son's flight-simulation video games, $200 in foreign currency, and a ticket stub from family friends' visit to the World Trade Center. Another was hauled in because the deli where he worked had postcards of the World Trade Center up on the freezer case. The list of offenses goes on -- the most severe being expired visas or illegal immigration status -- but none connects the men to terrorist plots.
Not surprisingly, the agents of the U.S. war on terrorism come out looking like the true criminals. The documentarians splice in damning footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft banging the pulpit about the efficacy of the war on terrorism.“war,” the efforts that are keeping terrorists off the streets. The only member of the authorities heard from in the film, he's made to look like a reckless fear-monger, a hypocritical buffoon. Like the majority of political documentaries this year, Persons of Interest is unapologetically one-sided. But unlike nearly any other “real life” film this year, it takes pains to reveal its artifice, the metaphoric scaffolding behind the set.
Persons of Interest displays a curious, faux-naïf quality to its filmmaking: A boom mic drops down into the frame, the interviewers' questions and commands (“Can you be sure to say, ‘My brother?'”) seem forced and stagy. But then the filmmakers peel back another layer. We follow a man around as if he were a singer backstage, preparing for a performance -- and indeed he is, a nephew who breaks out a few tender bars of song for his detained uncle. The children of another imprisoned man run roughshod over the room, turning it into a playground; they stand in the window and show us that it is not a window at all, merely a cutout in a wall, lights and wires behind it. There's no outside to this room, no exit in the Sartrean formulation, and only the claustrophobia of entangled human tragedy. The wife of a detainee holds up a photograph, we hear the squeaking of a baby behind her, but we never see its face. Why not? I wonder, only to find out that the baby's father has never met his own child. As for the released detainees, they become players in their own stories, not just victims giving their testimony -- somehow the directors' purposeful, ersatz clumsiness gives the men's stories the power and ambiguity of art. Is it all true, what they say? Who can know, or judge?
Persons of Interest manages to re-create in its audience the feelings of the men: confusion, anger, a sense of powerlessness before the question of how to interpret these experiences, presented here so starkly and abruptly. One of the men admits to feeling like reality is capricious and uncertain for him: “It doesn't feel like whatever is mine is mine anymore,” he says. Others found family and friends falling away, while another is alienated from “the dark ages of our religion” of Islam and “one-dimensional religious leaders who profess and harvest hatred,” just as his adoptive homeland imprisons him unfairly.
The documentary seems to conclude on an upbeat note: the families sharing food and then posing for a group photograph. And then come the harsh postscripts laid over the faces: a litany of failed businesses, soaring legal expenses, families split apart by deportations and health problems, wives who may never see their husbands again. There is no picture-perfect happy ending for these families, only dark questions and the struggle to make meaning from a broken American dream.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.