Though unquestionably biased, eye-opening docu “USA vs Al-Arian” throws the spotlight on a justice system shanghaied by the Patriot Act, leaving a deeply sympathetic family frayed but not quite broken. Branded the most dangerous man in the U.S., Tampa-based computer science professor Sami Al-Arian came through a six-month trial with no charges sticking, but the judge ignored the jury and Al-Arian is still in jail. Norwegian helmer Line Halvorsen constructs a damning portrait of the case by focusing on the trial’s emotional toll. Docu picked up the Tromso fest’s audience prize, signaling further fest play before possible cable pickup.
Halvorsen prefers to sweep under the carpet anything that shows Al-Arian in a less than positive light, and she’s not averse to using his children as heartrending mouthpieces. Docu opens with the youngest of his five kids describing the night in 2003 when the police raided their home, carting their father off and refusing any contact for six months.
The government accused Al-Arian of being the point man for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, coordinating a major terrorist network and supervising its funding. Though better off than an “enemy combatant,” Al-Arian (in the U.S. since 1975) sat for two years in prison before his case came to trial.
Halvorsen interviews law professors and reporters, but it’s the family that gets the most screen time. Thoroughly American, the Al-Arian kids are an incredibly articulate group, held together by their mutual support and the determination of mom Nahla to keep them strong. Phone calls from dad in prison become a daily routine.
Despite years of surveillance, the government couldn’t make a strong case for holding Al-Arian. Even after sifting through 472,000 telephone calls made from the family home since the ’90s — watching Nahla and kids listen to pizza delivery conversations from a decade earlier is especially disturbing — nothing concrete could be found.
Which isn’t to say Al-Arian was an angel. Shots of him at Palestinian rallies shouting “Death to Israel!” can’t be brushed aside by disingenuous comments that he “didn’t mean individuals.” But the jury acquitted him on most counts, deadlocking on a few others.
To end the legal nightmare, he agreed to plead guilty to aiding members of a militant Palestinian group, believing his troubles would be over with a simple but painful deportation. Instead, the judge threw the book at him, sentencing him to a further 19 months before kicking him out of the country.
Halvorsen, backed up by legal experts, presents the verdict as a blow not only to the family but also to American justice.
Helmer obviously gained the confidence of the family, which allowed her to shoot both ups and downs with apparent freedom. (However, once he was sentenced, she was denied access to Al-Arian himself.) Blow-ups from various formats look fine on the big screen, and final song, by Morten Naess, provides a powerful coda.