Reimagining, Documenting, and Archiving GiTMO: The Challenges Ahead

Curator's Note

There have been numerous attempts to document and redefine the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay. A broad spectrum of media — including sketches, photographs, diagrams, declassified maps, memoirs, blog posts— attest to the complexity and fluidity of experiences at the detention camp. The array of sources also reveal the myriad voices, who have contributed to the construction, analysis, and reception of GiTMO: habeas corpus lawyers, political cartoonists, photographers, court sketch artists, to name a few.  The vast majority of these resources tend to focus on two components of the U.S. Naval Station: the rulings of the Guantánamo military commissions and detainees' daily experiences. Many aspects of the detainees' lives have still been kept in the dark. As a researcher in the United States, I often consider what tools might be useful to document and archive narratives from the Guantánamo Bay. There are a number of efforts underway: the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, the Guantánamo Lawyers Digital Archive, and the Witness to Guantanamo Project. This is in part why I am so drawn to the filmic drama Camp X-Ray (2014). This is one of few cinematic attempts to reimagine Guantánamo and to reconsider the diverse perspectives of the members of the U.S. military.  It examines the relationship between Ali, a detainee, and Amy, a guard, at Guantánamo.  Ali wants to read the last book in the Harry Potter series and determine Snape’s true character, but no one at the Detainee Library seems to have the book.  There are two aspects of Sattler’s film that really stand out to me. One is his decision to never show us the Guantánamo Detainee Library, even though books are at the very core of his plotline; in this regard, the audience, like Ali, is kept in the dark. The other fascinating bit for me is that Sattler relied upon written documents and interviews to construct his narrative; he never visited the detention camp. Camp X-Ray, the film, is but one example of how storytellers can traverse the complexities of detention. But as we view and hear these stories, we have to think carefully about whose narratives and which ideologies are being privileged.


It seems that this film had the opportunity to bring certain aspects of Guantánamo Bay and government policies to light the way that Rendition did with our torture policies seven years earlier. Rendition also starred a famous Hollywood actor with mass appeal (Reese Witherspoon.) However, Rendition grossed $9.8 million at the box office, while Camp X-Ray grossed $9.8 thousand at the box office, according to Rotten Tomatoes. I know that a major difference between these two films is that one was a major studio film and the other an independent film, but I am interested in what your comparisons would be. I am especially interested in what you perceived to be the goal of the Camp X-Ray film in comparison to that of Rendition and whether you believe the filmmakers were able to reach it, despite the fact that they were missing some key elements such as the library itself and personal experience of the prison.

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