Luc Cote

Luc Côté

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 pre­mière 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 Mon­tréal for the pre­mière 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 92011

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