Edinburgh 07 - Extraordinary Rendition - interview with director, actor & producer
Extraordinary Rendition, which gets its British Gala showing at the Edinburgh film festival tonight (21st August) tells the story of one innocent man who is caught up in the Orwellian nightmare of being 'rendered'. He is abducted and detained, then subjected to constant questioning. After that comes the torture. No reasons are given, nor the right to answer any charges. The film was shot for £20,000 and stars Andy 'Gollum / Kong' Serkis.
Suchandrika Chakrabarti speaks with writer/director Jim Threapleton, lead actor Omar Berdouni and producer Andy Noble on the film's inspiration, their on-set experiences and how they hope to add to the current debate on anti-terrorist strategies.
'Extraordinary rendition', a phrase that has been called 'euphemism of the year'1, has come to signify one of the most troubling phenomena of our times. It involves the dispatch of suspected terrorists to countries that have more relaxed attitudes towards torture than most Western states. Under the policy of the American government, these detainees do not necessarily have the right to a trial; as one legal expert has put it, 'rendition works on the dark fringes of legality'2.
Here, the writer/director Jim Threapleton, lead actor Omar Berdouni and producer Andy Noble, talk about the film's inspiration, their on-set experiences and how they hope to add to the current debate on anti-terrorist strategies.
Q: What inspired you to make a film about this matter?
Threapleton: There is an urgency to this subject.
Noble: We would like to see a greater awareness of the topic of rendition, and hopefully an end to this policy. It was the collective will to be part of something that has a worthwhile agenda.
Threapleton: Rendition is such a harrowing process. The film is about portraying that process, but also about where the victim comes from, and the aftermath. The surrounding material took on a life of its own, such as in the relationship between our central character Zaafir and his young wife. That became a really compelling background to this whole enterprise that we were trying to portray.
Q: Were there any particular stories from victims of rendition that informed the film?
Threapleton: We did a lot of research into such stories. Andy generated a lot of it. He gave me a back catalogue of them to work with. There was one guy who had a Clash song playing in the car on the way back from the airport, and he was reported to the police as a rebel. Then there was Khaled el-Masri's tale, which involved a case of mistaken identity where just one letter in the name was wrong [he was thought to be Khaled al-Masri, an Al-Qaeda member]. It can be just a tiny thing like that which leads to rendition.
"Innocence and guilt are entirely subjective states in that kind of environment" - Andy Noble
Noble: This also leads into the idea that innocence and guilt are entirely subjective states in that kind of environment. Put anyone's life under the microscope and they could be taken to account for certain loyalties, certain sympathies. You're actually moving into the arena of thought crimes. Your actions indicate that you must think in a certain way. Suddenly holiday destinations become a cause for concern to the authorities.
Threapleton: Things that can be interpreted on the one hand as perfectly normal parts of everyday life can, if the intelligence services take an interest in you, be interpreted in a way to suit them. For instance, as we had it, what you did on your gap year could incriminate you... or, if you've used your credit card to donate to a charity that may in fact be involved in other activities. All of these things, that seem so innocent, can be misread.
Noble: It involves an attitude of insidious racism. If you're an Arab – or look like you might be – and you go on holiday to Indonesia, suddenly that's a political act. You may have just gone to the beach, but, all of a sudden, that's loaded information.
Threapleton: Even when we were coming back from Spain the other day, it was apparent that stringent checks on certain people are routine now. There's the feeling of a black cloud of terrorism hanging over the globe. It affects the way that people are perceived. It could be your life that is misinterpreted.
Q: Omar, how did your conversation with Canadian rendition victim, Maher Arar, affect your performance?
Berdouni: I spoke to him when I was in the cell [on-set]. He was very generous with his answers. I asked him questions about his relationship with his wife, how he felt about things afterwards. It was important to ask about his marriage because that is a major focus in the film. I was basically asking him how he dealt with real life after that experience. He said that he couldn't go out shopping, that everyday life became hard, he could barely even go to the post office. Simple things became impossible.
"We used a point of view camera as often as possible, to draw the audience into the scene. It was important to make it as visceral and arresting as possible"
Threapleton: That particular call happened after the interrogation scene, and Zaafir, still in detention and unsure why, has reached a certain psychological stage. The question was, where do we go from here? That conversation with Maher reinforced our ideas of what to do next. Our feeling was to broaden the aftermath, to give it a much larger section of the film. It is also about the weight of the experience. We generated all sorts of elements from that conversation. It influenced the last third of the shoot.
Q: In the tradition of recent films such as Paradise Now and United 93, does Rendition aim to make the audience feel what it would be like to be in such an extraordinary situation?
Threapleton: That's exactly right. We used a point of view camera as often as possible, to draw the audience into the scene. It was important to make it as visceral and arresting as possible. We want to literally place the audience in amongst these moments of torture and interrogation.
Noble: These subjects can often seem dry, especially when discussed in abstract terns by politicians. Point of view camera direction is also a way of conveying the genuine human cost of rendition. The film aims to humanise the individuals caught up in these political systems. We want to show what it is to be incarcerated without trial for nine months, to experience enhanced interrogation techniques, the impact that they have. That's the privilege that the cinema accords you. It gives you a window onto that world. It prods you into using your imagination.
"when you're dealing with a subject matter like this, the mental degeneration of a guy incarcerated over a period of eight to nine months. How many words can there really be?"
Threapleton: We're not partisan in the film, we don't point the finger at people or at organisations. The idea is to present the nightmare journey that is experienced by one guy. We want the audience to experience it, and to ask questions about it. Through that, we really hope to stimulate interest in the subject.
Q: What do you feel that the script without dialogue approach added to the film?
Threapleton: There are incredibly naturalistic moments that wouldn't have come about from two years of me writing and re-writing dialogue. That process could never approach the spontaneity of the performances that we had on set. The flipside of that coin is that, on occasion, trying to get a scene to a conclusion or a climax could be difficult. Constructing strict directions to work with spontaneity was hard. It was a case of feeling our way through it.
Q: That must have been as difficult for a director as for an actor, because you always have an endpoint that you need to get to.
Threapleton: You're always looking for the shape of the scene, making sure that it boils down to a dramatic point. It actually became a process of reduction. We'd start very dialogue-heavy, trying to get ideas going, then we'd strip it away. In fact we'd sometimes end up with no words at all. When you're doing early lessons in screenwriting, you're always told that if you can leave out words, so much the better. The strength of the story comes from a certain silence.
Noble: That's good when you're dealing with a subject matter like this, the mental degeneration of a guy incarcerated over a period of eight to nine months. How many words can there really be?
Threapleton: The film's not about direct accusations or politicising the experience, it's about this universal idea of one innocent man lost in this machinery. We wanted to avoid words like 'terrorist', 'Al-Qaeda', all of those terms that could just become flags that the movie waves as a way of legitimising itself. That would have been very dull. For instance, during the interrogation sequences, it was important to find clever ways of being ambiguous. It was a fascinating opportunity to have so much unspoken, with nothing ever quite clear for Zaafir. There is nothing for him to hang onto, to plead his cause. It's just the wrong guy in the wrong time. His life is irrevocably changed.
Q: How did you prepare for the torture scenes?
Noble: Water-boarding is something that is incredibly specific to descriptions of rendition. It was important for us to get it right; for it to feel as terrifying as possible. We had an excellent stunt supervisor with us for the day, and we discussed it with him.
"Water-boarding is an approved enhanced interrogation technique. However, it contravenes UN law because the person being subjected to this treatment believes that they are going to die."
Threapleton: Basically, the victim is strapped to a board, and then tipped up so that their legs are higher than their head. A piece of gauze or muslin is stretched over the mouth. Then a stream of water is poured onto them.
Noble: It doesn't sound like much when you describe it, but it's an interrogation technique that's been honed over hundreds of years. What it produces in the mind of the victim is the absolute certainty that they are drowning.
Threapleton: It produces a physical reflex action which is concurrent with death by drowning. However, because your lungs are higher than your head, it's in fact impossible for you to drown. Our stunt supervisor is a surfer, and I've done a bit of that, and we were discussing the fact that it must just be like being held under a wave for a minute or so. He felt that he would be able to cope with this for a couple of minutes.
Noble: We decided that we'd try it on him, before we tried it on Omar. So we strapped him to this bed, inverted it, and we stretched muslin over his mouth and began to pour water over his head. He said beforehand that the only reason to stop would be if he actually used the word “Stop” clearly so we said, okay, fine. So we began pouring the water, and literally, about two seconds later, he turned his face, and there was something wrong and he said “Stop.”
Threapleton: This told us that this is clearly not a process that you can mess around with. We wanted to be sure about it before trying it with Omar. When I read about it, I thought, this can't be that bad. But when I saw this guy's reaction... it was horrifying.
"The danger of international terrorism is clearly there, and it has to be addressed. There are many complex problems, and no easy answers, but extraordinary rendition is always the wrong solution to the problem."
Noble: This is an experienced stunt guy, he's done a lot of stuff, he's been in James Bond films... We do think that the sequence in the film does justice to what we're talking about. Water-boarding is an approved enhanced interrogation technique. However, it contravenes UN law because the person being subjected to this treatment believes that they are going to die. That's why it's coercive.
Threapleton: That's a mock execution, outlawed under the UN law. The semantics of the word 'torture' are now being complicated by international law, in terms of justifying these campaigns. The vocabulary is so pliable... it feels like being hoodwinked.
Noble: So if your description's something else, it's justifiable... but it still isn't legal.
Q: By setting the initial action on the streets of London, are you trying to warn us that it could just as well happen here?
Threapleton: Obviously we're fictionalising a collection of accounts, but we have created the possibility of rendition occurring here.
Noble: It's the big “what if?” hanging over the film. It's not important where it happens. British airspace and airports have been used to transport victims of rendition, so it's not stretching the limits of credibility to suggest that it could indeed happen in the streets around here. That will have a certain immediacy for the audience. In that sense, it is primarily a British film, but I think that it will also resonate with audiences around the world.
Threapleton: The danger of international terrorism is clearly there, and it has to be addressed. There are many complex problems, and no easy answers, but extraordinary rendition is always the wrong solution to the problem.
Noble: It encourages torture. It ignores due process. It circumvents UN law. It's important to get the story out there. The systems of international law are there in place to deal with terrorism; the argument is that extraordinary rendition is required to gain information. There is information on these acts. However, the only response has been an institutional shrug of the shoulders.
Threapleton: There's also a feeling amongst the public, that they can't stop what's going on. When more people are voting for Big Brother than are going to the polling booths... that's a travesty. Films such as Syriana and Road to Guantanamo are important in raising awareness of such political issues.
Noble: People feel disenfranchised by mainstream politics. People do care. We know that there's a lot of support out there; the response to our blog in particular has been very positive. The power of cinema is to engage with an interest in such concerns. The aim of Rendition is, above all, to instigate change.
For more information on Rendition, check out the blog
1 Gerard Baker, 'Non! Enough renditions from an iPod generation with no sensitivity chip', The Times, 30th December 2005.
2 Dr. Liaquat Ali Khan , 'Friendly renditions to Muslim chambers of torture', The Daily Star, 7th June 2005.