Going where most major media has feared to tread, filmmakers Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse record the testimony and personal stories of a dozen U.S. citizens and immigrants detained and imprisoned after 9/11 in "Persons of Interest." Spartan docu is seldom boring but also rarely electrifying, even though it directs several pointed jabs at U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his get-tough policy aimed at suspected terrorists on U.S. soil.

Going where most major media has feared to tread, filmmakers Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse record the testimony and personal stories of a dozen U.S. citizens and immigrants detained and imprisoned after 9/11 in “Persons of Interest.” Spartan docu is seldom boring but also rarely electrifying, even though it directs several pointed jabs at U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his get-tough policy aimed at suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. Most likely home for polemical docu is cutting-edge cable.

Viewers sympathetic to the Bush Administration’s expansion of federal law enforcement powers may dismiss the pic, because it relies purely on these detainees’ claims. And while it’s true the full backgrounds of those interviewed aren’t supplied here (nearly all are Muslim, with a majority being Palestinian), the pain, terror and frustration of their experiences sounds and feels authentic.

The filmmakers (with designer Deb Devilla) create a spare, cold all-white room to simulate the prisons where the detainees were kept. At points, the immigrants –among the few detainees to accept the filmmakers’ invitation to speak on camera — are asked, among the audible off-camera questions, to re-create (in mime) some of their prison moments.

Salem Jaffer, arrested in upstate New York and held in solitary confinement at a Buffalo internment facility for more than a month, mimics a psychiatrist who has evidently grilled him about being able to fly a plane, as well as his drinking and eating habits.

While it sounds bad enough that father of three and civil engineer Mohammed Irshaid was questioned and jailed for 21 days without charges, Muhamed Abushaker’s case is a nightmare. When officials appeared at his home, the former Gaza Strip resident believed he was being taken to INS offices to receive his Green Card, but was instead handcuffed, never cited and jailed for more than a year.

“Persons of Interest” abounds with such horror stories, though the sheer number of them and the spare presentation tends to reduce their impact.

Crafty inserts of clips from various Ashcroft press conferences and Congressional hearings deliberately undermine the attorney general in the best tradition of Emile de Antonio (“Rush to Judgment”), and guarantee strong post-screening arguments and discussions; if these detainees’ accounts are even half-true, the wonder is why the electronic media in particular has failed to follow the odor of unconstitutional behavior by local and federal law enforcement. Vid-shot production, as deliberately minimalist as it is, is polished, while shooting consistently allows for moments of spontaneity. Lensing happened during the Muslim holy time of Ramadan in 2002.

Persons Of Interest

Production

The Documentary Campaign presentation. Produced by Lawrence Konner, Daniel Massey, Jackie Kelman. Directed by Alison Maclean, Tobias Perse.

Crew

Camera (color, DV, digital projection), Richard Rutkowski; editor, Sandrine Isambert; production designer, Deb Devilla ; sound, William Tsouris ; line producer, Tricia Rosenthal; assistant producers, Astra Taylor, Malinda Campbell. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2004. (Also in Rotterdam Film Festival.) Running time: 64 MIN.

With

Muhamed Abushhaker, Syed Ali, Khadrah Ali, Nabil Ayesh, Mateen Butt, Miriam Hamzeh, Mohammed Irshaid, Salem Jaffer, Amanda Serrano, Faiq Medraj, Syed Shah, Shokriea Yaghi. (English, Arabic, Spanish, Urdu dialogue)
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