By Larry Siems
Last week, director Doug Liman—whose blockbuster features include The Bourne Identity, Fair Game, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Swingers—sent out this call for citizen-shot footage for his next movie, Reckoning With Torture:
Ten years after the first prisoners arrived at Guantánamo, not one senior official has been called to account for the torture and abuse of detainees there, in secret CIA prisons, or in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not one of those who was abused has received an apology or restitution for his treatment. And none of the courageous servicemen and women who stood up to stop the abuse have received the public recognition they deserve. The United States, a leading proponent of accountability for human rights abuses internationally, now offers its own model of how not to confront and reckon with torture.
Liman’s film project aims to change that. A collaboration with the ACLU and PEN American Center, Reckoning With Torture: Memos and Testimonies from the “War on Terror” is built around declassified documents detailing America’s post-9/11 torture program. Over the past 14 months, Liman has filmed some of America’s leading writers and actors reading these documents alongside former military and intelligence officers. Now he’s asking all of us to do the same.
Last week, Liman, the ACLU, and PEN launched the website Reckoning With Torture, where users can download the script’s 11 scenes and follow simple instructions to shoot and upload footage of themselves, their families, and friends delivering the readings. Submitted clips are posted on the site and YouTube, so viewers around the world can follow the film in progress. This fall, Liman will select the best submissions and intercut them with footage from the staged performances to create a feature-length movie that stars Americans from all walks of life standing alongside prominent cultural figures reading the record of this country’s torture program.
Taken together, the readings build to reveal both the human cost of America’s post-9/11 torture program and the heroic struggle of many soldiers and intelligence officers to end the mistreatment. But the real drama of the film is more personal: it’s the drama of what happens to each one of us when we stand up and read this troubling record.
This past weekend, I uploaded a clip of myself reading a statement by Khaled el-Masri, the German citizen we mistakenly rendered to torture. Even though I spent the last two and a half years sifting through tens of thousands of documents the ACLU excavated through Freedom of Information Act litigation and writing The Torture Report—an experience that included countless moments of shock and more than a few of wonder and admiration for the courage of those who refused to torture—nothing matched the sensation of standing outside, in the middle of a park, and delivering el-Masri’s statement, of hearing the words I still don’t know why this happened to me hanging in the chill February air.
This, to me, is the most significant innovation of Liman’s Reckoning With Torture film project. By joining in the production of the film, we’re actually doing the work of accountability, which above all means breaking silences and making hard truths heard. The film is not a call for a reckoning with torture, but rather a ground-level record of a reckoning as it is happening.
In issuing his national call for footage last week, Doug Liman said,
I signed on to the Reckoning project because I’m convinced that the struggle for accountability for torture is one of the major moral tests of our lifetimes. I was amazed by the power of the material to persuade and move live audiences. I was hoping that the popularity and success of my feature films would bring new audiences to the Reckoning experience, and I was excited to explore the ways in which the process of making a film could itself become an educational and organizing tool. I can’t wait to see where people take this.
And neither can I. I hope that everyone, especially anyone who has been involved in the groundbreaking video activism that WITNESS pioneered, will contribute clips and spread the word about this amazing project.
Join the Reckoning With Torture Project
Here’s how you can get involved:
- Share this blog post with your network, via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Record a video for the project, directions are easy to follow on the Shoot Your Scene page
- Watch the film as it develops and share updates with your network
You can also watch and share a related video Outlawed: Extraordinary Rendition, Torture and Disappearances in the ‘War on Terror’, which WITNESS produced with 15 other human rights organizations.
Larry Siems is the director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center and the author of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program.