In Person

Luc Cote

Canadian director Luc Côté has spent the last 35 years traveling the world and making documentaries focusing on important social issues. His most recent film, You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo (which I reviewed here), made with his creative partner Patricio Henriquez, tells the story of the youngest inmate in Guantanamo, Omar Khadr, using the only footage made publicly available of an interrogation that occurred in the infamous detention center.

Though the movie has been shown extensively internationally, it has received a cold reception both in Canada and the United States. In early December, Côté spoke with In These Times blogger David Szydloski about the problems he faced making and distributing the movie, as well as the positive effect the film has had despite these challenges.

You released the movie in Canada in October 2010. Since then you’ve taken the movie all around the world. What’s been the general reaction to the film?

It has been tremendous really. Everywhere we’ve been—South Korea, Argentina, all over Europe, wherever—its been great. The only challenge we’ve had is in the cinemas. Its tough to attract people to come and buy a ticket and go to the movies. But otherwise, 95 percent of the reviews have been positive and we have won a lot of prizes at different world festivals.

At the same time the film is also creating a reaction that we really like, in the sense that, people are not just saying “It’s a great film,” they are also saying, “Wow, what can I do? I feel ashamed that all this is happening and that I’m not doing anything.” So that kind of response has been great, and it has been that way wherever we’ve taken the film.

I remember last year we were in Holland, and we had a special screening with 55 judges from the court of appeals there and after the film we had a two hour question and answer and the judges who were just appalled and said that they wanted to do something, like write to the Prime Minister of Canada. In fact, a lot of people have been writing to the Prime Minister asking how he can be an accomplice to what’s been done to Omar. We have even shown the film to prisoners here in Canada, and the prisoners had the same reaction! So, It’s been a great adventure, really.

Politics

I understand that after the movie opened in Canada, you were invited to go to Ottawa and show the film to members of the Canadian parliament. How did that go?

It went well and at the same time it was exactly what we expected from that screening. The screening was organized by the Bloc Québécois and we invited all the MPs and a lot of MPs showed up from all the opposition parties, but none from the Conservative Party, which is in power. So, we left copies for all their caucuses, saying “Well if you don’t want to come to the screening you can watch it whenever you want,” but we haven’t had any reaction from them, so we don’t know if they’ve seen it or not.

Media

Tell me about some of the difficulties you ran into to making the film.

Usually in Canada you always need a television station to make a documentary because the culture has to be sponsored by the government some how—otherwise it would be impossible to compete with the American market. And Patricio and I have been making documentaries for many, many years, and we always had help from the government to make them, but with this one everybody just said we’re not really interested, and no one said why, even though we knew why. No one had the courage to come out and give us the real reason. Instead it was always “Oh, we are in a financial squeeze right now and we can’t do this.”

It’s really scary right in now Canada. A lot of these cultural agencies have been practicing self-censorship because they are very afraid of a reaction from [the current Conservative-led] government. We know this government doesn’t like the [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], we know they don’t like The National Film Board of Canada, we know they want to cut cultural spending, and they are just waiting for opportunities to cut it. So everybody’s very careful, they are walking on eggshells. Now, these television stations aren’t always told “You can’t finance such-and-such project,” but they know that if they do finance the project, they will get into trouble later on.

We understand their position, but at the same time it’s kind of sad to see.

You’ve already said you’ve taken the movie all over the world and won many awards. What has the reaction been at festivals in Canada and the U.S.?

We’ve done a few festivals in Canada, but the major festivals didn’t want to take the film—and these are festivals to which we’ve usually gone to with our other movies—but with this film they were scared and wouldn’t accept it. But, we know we have a good film. You Don’t Like the Truth has opened and closed many festival all around the world.

We opened one festival, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montréal—in fact it was the premiere of the film—but the director of the festival denounced the film by saying he didn’t like it. You know, he was scared since he was getting money from the government to organize the festival.

In the U.S. we have had almost no festivals, though we were at the Film Forum in New York City and they were great. Also, the U.S. reviews have been positive—except for the New York Post, which we thought was great because we knew we were doing something right if they didn’t like us!

The U.S. networks weren’t interested in showing the film either, though in Canada we were eventually able to find three different networks that broadcast the film in both English and French.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of how you created the film?

Well we first saw some of the footage on the news, it was only 10 seconds long. Then in July 2008, the footage was made available by the Supreme Court of Canada, and Omar’s lawyers put a ten minute edited version of it on the web that showed the most appalling parts of the seven hours of material and this version was picked up by the news everywhere.

Once we saw it, the first thing we wanted to do was use it to make a statement before the upcoming Canadian election denouncing the way the Conservative government was handling the case. So we gathered our friends who we usually work with and we asked them if they wanted to give some of their time to help us to make a short film to put on the web. That’s what we did for 2 months, editing and gathering the material and putting it on the web, just as citizens wanting to have a voice. While we were putting that together, Patricio and I realized we had the potential for a great film so we decided, “Let’s try to make a feature film out of this.”

So we approached Télévision de Radio-Canada—the French CBC—and they were interested in the project from the beginning: they had seen what we did on the web and decided it was a great idea and they wanted to put some money into it. Then, two weeks before we were going to start production, we got a call from them saying that they had to cut their budget, so the funding of the film was going to be cut. At that point, we had to revise everything and see if it would still be possible to do the project. So that’s how it started.

Personal

I saw an interview with you where you mentioned there was a “struggle to keep the focus on the interrogation” because of other stories kept popping up wherever you looked. How were you able to maintain focus on Omar’s story?

In the beginning, when we were doing the interviews in England and Australia with Omar’s ex-cellmates, we would talk to these guys before the interview and all of their stories were so incredible but we knew that if we started following their stories there would be no end to it. So, in the editing process, we kept reminding ourselves “This is great stuff, but does it relate to Omar? Let’s keep him as the focus.” All of us—the editor, Patricio and I—were very clear on this.

Was it hard to find people to talk about Omar?

For the most part, it was extremely easy. Of course, with the politicians it was more difficult. For example, Colin Powell refused to be interviewed because he said he forgot the meeting he had with Bill Graham [Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada from February of 2002 to June of 2004, who is interviewed in the documentary] where he talked about Omar Khadr. The head of CSIS also refused to be interviewed, as did the CSIS agent who actually did the interrogation that is captured in the video—we knew his name and we knew people who knew him but he didn’t want to appear on camera.

Everybody else, the ex-cellmates and even the torturer Damien Corsetti [a military interrogator at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan who is also interviewed for the documentary], told us that “if it’s about Omar Khadr, I want to be a part of it,” because everybody felt an incredible injustice was done to this kid. They also felt a lot of compassion and love for him and they wanted to speak out.

We also approached some people who talked to us that we didn’t have any time to fit in to the final edit. So, for example, we interviewed James Yee, who has an incredible story of his own, and was more than happy to talk about Omar.

I thought the testimony of Navy Lt. Cmdr William Kuebler, one of Omar’s U.S. military counsel, was really effective. Was it hard to find American military officials to talk about Omar’s case?

These guys were totally open. For example, the psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired American brigadier-general who visited Omar at Guantanamo, wanted to talk to us.

Ltc. Kuebler, who is a soldier first and then a lawyer, denounced the military commission system and said “Look, I’m a conservative and I have all these conservative values, but I recognize that in this case, this doesn’t work and these military commissions are illegal and I don’t believe in them for anybody, especially Omar Khadr.” For us that testimony was astonishing.

One thing that struck me—and many other reviewers—was the “amateurish” interrogation of Omar by the CSIS agents.

We thought it was amateurish too! We couldn’t believe it! I mean, as documentary filmmakers we know one thing: Whether or not you agree or disagree with the person in front of you, if you want that person to talk to you, you try to be an accomplice with this person—you try to have compassion, you try to listen, you try to get that person in your camp so they trust and have confidence in you—and this CSIS interrogator, he starts off okay, offering Omar some McDonalds food, but it doesn’t take very long to see that this guy has no compassion for Omar. How do you expect to get something in return when you have that kind of attitude? It was bad.

Did CSIS make any official or non-official response to the film’s release?

No, we just know that they have had the film and they had watched it. Actually, after the film was released, one day I got a call at home and this guy introduced himself, I don’t remember his name, but he introduces himself like, “Hi, I’m George from CSIS and I want to buy a copy of your film.” So I said sure, you can buy a copy from the distributor. Obviously he just wanted to make a statement but it was a pretty funny thing. Of course, afterwards I called the distributor and they haven’t heard from him, but we know CSIS has copies of the film—I just hope they didn’t pirate them!

Culture

I understand that Omar’s seen the movie twice?

He’s seen it twice, both times just before his trial. His lawyer, Dennis Edney, was in Montreal for the premiere of the film, on his way down to Guantanamo. He asked us permission to show Omar the film, and of course we were delighted about it, and he also asked us if he could show it in court at Omar’s trial.

After Omar had seen the film, Dennis told us a story about showing the movie to Omar in his cell, where he was chained to the floor, and how Omar sat in front of a computer and watched the whole 100 minutes of the movie without saying a word, glued to the screen. After it was over, Dennis said that he saw Omar goe back into his shell, just as he had the first time Dennis has spoken to him about his torture at the time Omar had written his affidavit about what was done to him. We were kind of surprised to hear that at first, but then we understood—it was the first time he was seeing his mother, it was the first time he was seeing himself as a kid, and seeing himself crying and being in that state. Also, he was reliving his torture.

Following this reaction, Dennis asked Omar later if he wanted to see the film again, saying that he thought Omar needed to see something else in the film: that a lot of people are behind him. So Omar watched it again with a psychologist and his reaction was quite different—he laughed at seeing some of his ex-cellmates, and he was moved by seeing his sister—so he had a very different reaction the second time he saw it.

Was the film used at the trial?

No, the judge refused to show the film.

The Guantanamo and the “War on Terror” are emotional topics for many people and, as a result, a lot of the media about them are very heavy-handed in delivering their message. But You Don’t Like the Truth, though its clear where you stand on the issues, the presentation of the footage doesn’t come across as moralizing.

That was very important for us. I think the film speaks for itself. You don’t have to hammer the point in. We were also very lucky to have some people on the other side, like Damien Corsetti, who give a lot of credibility to the film. So we didn’t need to say much, we just needed to be witnesses.

Also, the style we selected and the form—not only the content but the form of the film—like keeping the security camera footage in its original form, was important to us because we wanted to give the audience the perspective that they too are behind that closed door watching the security footage. This way they can make their own decision.

The interviews we included of other people were just to give the viewer context for the footage. We didn’t feel like we needed to do any more than that.

—David Szydloski, January 9, 2011