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Complicit: How Should Movie Makers Deal With Torture?

Posted: 17/01/2013 00:00

Who betrayed Osama Bin Laden and led the US Navy Seals to his house? And what role did torture play?

The answer if you are watching Kathryn Bigelow's morally skewed Zero Dark Thirty is a scattering of Al Qaeda terrorists shamelessly beaten to a pulp by their buff CIA interrogators who fess up the vital clues to Osama's Abbottabad lair.

"I'm the motherfucker that found this place", says Zero Dark Thirty's CIA central character Maya (Jessica Chastain) proudly to her CIA boss Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) claiming the dark heritage of a thousand Justice Department approved beatings and waterboardings as her own CV triumphs.

As a serious sort of film maker I am all in favour of movies that try to help us understand the world we inhabit. And there is nothing more serious than democratic states abandoning the rule of law and torturing people. And that is why I have spent the last three years of my life also making a movie about torture.

In Complicit, written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Niall MacCormick, and commissioned by Channel 4 we follow the moral trajectory of a British MI5 agent Edward (David Oyelowo) as he struggles to prevent another 7/7 atrocity on British soil. In Egypt Edward finally confronts his British Asian suspect Waleed (Arsher Ali) and is forced to choose between two morally devastating outcomes in order to save innocent lives. The dilemma Edward confronts is brutal - can torture lead you to the truth?

As one of the producers, along with Jolyon Symonds, of Complicit I have spent most of the last three years probing, testing and thinking about the ultimate moral consequences of Edward's dilemma and how his actions should be depicted in drama.

In the course of our research myself and the writer Guy Hibbert spent hundreds of hours in the company of Britain's intelligence and Muslim communities. We met spies, former spies, whistle blowers, torture victims, imams and terrorists. And before that for a decade I roamed around the Middle East making two documentary series on various kinds of terrorism The Cult of the Suicide Bomber and the history of the Car Bomb for manyriversfilms.

Although Complicit is a drama Guy Hibbert wanted to explore the real life options Edward would be forced to make within the contemporary bureaucratic constraints of the British spy Establishment. Edward, like his real life counterparts, is never issued with a gun. And never shoots anyone. The plot of Complicit is a test of character rather than his James Bond-like shooting skills.

Edward's struggle is a reflection of the wider reality that Britain's War on Terror was never as full on as the CIA's. Generally we held our noses as our American allies or our new found thuggish 'friends' in Jordan or Egypt world battered our suspect into submission for our benefit.

Of course there is no such distinction in English law. Being complicit in a crime is just the same as being the criminal.

We did something else too: we betrayed ourselves. We lost our souls. We abandoned the democratic values of our own state for something medieval; the rack, the forced confession and the recantation. Like torturers everywhere, old and modern, elements of Britain's secret services came to believe that the pain of others would bring us to the truth.

In a discreet little backwater in the Foreign Office we even had our very own 'Minister for Torture' who swiftly rubber stamped the necessary ministerial approvals that rendered legal the process that rendered men like Abdelhakim Belhadj into the torture chambers of monsters like Colonel Gaddafi.

I have even met one such 'Minister for Torture' and chatted in the tearoom on those soft red leather seats overlooking the Thames and MI6's gleaming headquarters on the other side of the river. And when we drank the Earl Grey tea in china cups I, like the minister, never heard any prisoners' screams.

The Palace of Westminster was of course a world away from chains, hoods, secret prisons and hard men coming in the dark of the night for one more session to finally get at the 'truth'. Or the follow up visit, after a discreet interval of few weeks, by 'Tom' or 'Adam' from MI5 or MI6 with their little black rucksacks and digital tape recorders to discreetly pick up the intelligence 'winnings'.

We were very British about it. There were rules and Guidance Notes for Intelligence Officers and the word torture was never mentioned in memos up to Downing Street. We made a moral distinction: the agents of the British state never tortured anyone they just got other people to do it on their behalf. We were as a nation as the title of our film so explicitly states complicit in torture.

And this is the world of nudges, half distinctions and unspoken understandings that Edward in Complicit inhabits.

It is axiomatic in 24 when Jack Bauer pulls out his knife and starts cutting then the bad guy soon starts blabbing. But in real life hunting down Osama Bin Laden or stopping another 7/7 attack is not like forcing someone to reveal their PIN number - a few security digits that could be swiftly checked out. In a global jihad one clue does not lead to another but at best grudgingly reveals a potential suspicious pattern. If torture was as effective as it's public supporters claim then why not try it back at home in the United States?

As we have tried to show in Complicit real life intelligence gathering is a very much more patient, mundane, bureaucratic accumulation of circumstantial evidence. And the moral dilemmas that flow from the use of such intelligence are complex and troubling.

As a film maker myself I support Kathryn Bigelow's right to make any kind of film she wants. In the movies aliens walk the earth, Spiderman swings from the skyscrapers, a hail of bullets miraculously don't kill the lead actor, guns never need to be reloaded and the sordid brutality of a shameful torture programme leads to the bad guy's secret lair. But that is just the movies.

As we spin back and forth in this row over fiction, fact, filmmakers, torture, propaganda and truth here is another vital question worth asking.

How did Osama Bin Laden evade the CIA and the awesome vengeance of the United States Government for a decade?

And no it wasn't by burning his own trash or pacing around under the grape arbour to avoid US satellite surveillance. Or delivering his latest sermons via courier and memory stick to an internet café in Rawalpindi, 40 miles down the road.

The answer if you want to hear it is simple: someone very powerful protected him.

That someone was the top echelon of Pakistan's all powerful ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) spy agency - a sworn enemy of the CIA, the government of the United States and most of the free world.

The word on the intelligence street is that the trail to Osama's Abbottabad door began with just another old fashioned espionage tactic: betrayal for money.

Someone, reputedly a disgruntled ISI major, within ISI sold the name of Bin Laden's courier to the CIA for lots of dollar bills. And once the CIA had the courier's name they used all the power of their technology to follow him home to Osama.

All the CIA torture sessions were a blind lead. It was treachery not torture that brought the US Navy Seals' to Osama's door. A Pakistani Judas is not the sort of material plot line that lends itself to Hollywood but it is the real story behind the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Everything else is just another tale, just another plot line.

In Complicit we deal with a more fundamental truth.

Ultimately, torture does not bring you to the truth. Torture just forces people to tell you something to get the pain to stop even if it means implicating their mother, their brother or anyone they met in the train carriage on their three day jihad training package trip in Pakistan five years ago. Of course what the torture victim tells you could be true but it could also be false.

Torture turns out to be just as unreliable as any other kind of intelligence. And all those who are complicit in torture are damned by their own actions.

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