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Imprisoned by the Absurd: Filmmaker Patricio Henriquez on Uyghurs

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By Amir Ganjavie.

Montreal-based, Chilean-born filmmaker Patricio Henríquez has previously made two documentaries examining the issues surrounding abuse at the Guantánamo Bay prison. The first was Under the Hood: A Voyage into the World of Torture (2008), which centers on the treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantánamo. The second was You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo (2010), detailing the story of Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr. Henríquez’s latest, Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, recounts the disturbing story of the 22 members of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority who were imprisoned at Guantánamo for more than a decade. Henríquez took time out to discuss the movie when it recently screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

This is your third movie about Guantanamo. What specific quality of the topic made it interesting for you? How does this relate to your personal experience and career objectives as a documentarian?

Uyghurs 02Yeah, OK. Well, at the beginning I was sometimes asked if I wanted to make a kind of trilogy but no, at the beginning, I just had the first film in mind, which was about torture. That was kind of inspiring for me because I thought of it as discussing about the humanity that’s involved in this kind of situation. So I began to research and this led me to discover other parts of the story, such as how what happened in 2001 is a kind of contradiction but is so rich for a documentary maker. That’s why I’m not the only one since every year many people all over the world are talking and making films about 9/11. And of course my experience as a former refugee coming to Canada from Chile made me aware of this kind of problem.

How do you define as your career objective as a documentarian?

You know, I’m a filmmaker first and that I’m somebody with political motifs. I believe in some principles that are important for me but the first thing is to believe that I have the resources to make a film before political engagement becomes a factor. However, in my case I’m just seeking for things that can give me the possibility to make a cinematic proposal and that was the kind of thing that motivated us to make the film about Omar Khadr that we made with Luc Côté, a colleague who co-directed the film..

In this case with Uyghurs I was fascinated by the story, which I discovered in 2006 while making Under the Hood when I read an article talking about this first group of detainees in Guantanamo that was being released to Albania. Honestly, I had never heard about the Uyghur people before that and so I went to my computer to try to understand and I read everything I could about this Muslim minority in China. I was fascinated by this fact that you have 22 people who were undoubtedly innocent and although they were eventually released they still spent more than ten years in Guantanamo. And then the first question was, why were they not released into the United States since it was the US that created these refugees? Instead, they were sent to destinations like Bermuda, Albania, and the Palau Islands. Things like that came to mind quite a bit and you know these peoples are living their lives but everybody else is making decisions about them and their destinies. They don’t know why this happens and how it it that one day they are in Qandahar and three days after they are in Guantanamo being told they will be released but seemingly never are. Then one day somebody told them that the Chinese secret police were coming to interrogate them and they could not understand this. They are thinking we love American society, we love the United States, because we believe it’s a democratic country and then they are allowing the Chinese police to come here and interrogate us. So these people don’t understand what is going on. And, until the end everybody is making decisions about their destiny and that is fascinating for me and I believe that it could be really a good and interesting subject for fiction and actually I know that Rushan Abbas, the interpreter, has been approached by some producers who are thinking about telling the story in a dramatic work.

How did you convince Rushan to participate in the movie? How did these three wrongly convicted prisoners react to her given her collaboration with American forces? Did they trust her easily?

1010 col movies uyghurs 9213Let me say first that without Rushan I would have never been able to make the film and I was aware from the beginning that it would be very, very difficult to gain the trust of these prisoners since they have been so betrayed by everybody else. Why should they trust me? They don’t know me and then I come from nowhere and propose to make a documentary. Inititally, I thought the best way to approach them was through the American civil lawyers who were handling their defense and ultimately helped them to get out of Guantanamo. The lawyers were actually really generous with me, promising to help but warning that it would be difficult to get Uyghur’s permission. In fact, they contacted their clients and even advised them to accept this opportunity but it didn’t work so one of the lawyers then suggested that I contact Rushan. I did this and told her who I am and why I was interested in making this documentary, and I sent some examples of my other work to the prisoners through her. When the film premiered in Montreal, Rushan attended and introduced the film with me. She was asked by a reporter from the Montreal Gazette newspaper why she agreed to help with the film and her answer moved me. And she said it was because she knew that I had also been a refugee and had been jailed in Chile so she thought that I could understand them. I didn’t know that until then. I had originally just needed an interpreter since I don’t speak Uyghur and I wanted to make the interview them in their language. However, Rushan was not only translating but also helping me with them, and explaining why we should make this film. She told them that it was not only because of them but also because of the general situation of Uyghurs in China. She was the best advocate, and really without her there would be no film.

The Uyghur prisoners seem very relaxed and happy in the movie and it is difficult to see in their faces the traumatic experience of prisoners. What was their emotional experience while participating in the movie? Did it cause them any traumatic experiences or feelings?

I guess, you know when everybody talks about isolation these are the things that last in the prisoners, marking them for their whole lives. Physical torture can heal but the psychological torture is more difficult and people still don’t sleep well for the rest of their lives. They’re remembering that. So, yeah, I think it is emotionally difficult for them to tell the story again. It’s a kind of suffering and I don’t know if that can help them to heal, I really don’t. It depends, you know, on the reception, the audiences, the feedback that they can get back. I was impressed by their calmness and I couldn’t find any trace of in them of hating American people. They still admire and respect American society because they knew that American people were also good to them. They are humble people, and they are very, very simple, you know. I don’t think that these people would become terrorists after that in the same way that a lot of people who were not terrorists before became terrorists after being tortured or imprisoned. These people would be perfect citizens in any country. Unfortunately, a lot of countries including Canada would not accept them after their release because of Chinese pressure. That is why only some small countries like El Salvador who don’t have diplomatic relation with China accepted them.

You mentioned the reaction of the Chinese government. Did you receive any threats or heard about the Chinese government’s opinion on the movie?

Not at all. You know, I’m here, I live in Canada. I feel protected but no, I didn’t have experience any bad reaction coming from China or even the United States. Actually, I went to the United States many times to make this film and I have been accepted, I pass customs every time explaining what we are doing, so no, I didn’t have any bad reactions.

What about the reception of the movie at the international level or festivals? Did you hear any interesting feedback or did you achieve your goal?

Yeah, well you know, the first international screening was a big success and of course Amsterdam is a great festival because all the screenings were sold out. The Dutch have the culture of documentary so they are interested. I’m coming back next week to The Hague for their documentary film festival called Movies That Matter, which is organized in collaboration with Amnesty International. The Hague is an appropriate setting for this since it is kind of a universal city, the capital of lawyers and legal things. And next week I’m going to London to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which will also have a screening at the end of the month in Toronto. The film has also been selected in Brazil and the United States for the Full Frame Documentary Festival in South Carolina, so the film is going to a lot of festivals and the situation is always interesting because very few people know about these people. With this film, I was trying to explain all these kinds of universal problems, international relations, the importance of China, the situation of the United States, and things like that which are sometimes very technical. However, I was impressed that every time the film was presented it received a very emotional reaction with people crying. Maybe this is because we now know what happened in Guantanamo, we have the US Senate committee report telling about horrible things. The Uyghurs probably they didn’t get the worst physical treatment but they got the same psychological treatment as any others despite being absolutely innocent. I think that’s on the conscience of people everywhere.

Thanks for your time and for the interview. Are there any other things you want to add?

I just want to say that this is not only my film but required the talent of the entire crew. And I just want to notice the participation of Michelle Shephard, a great journalist working with the Toronto Star. Michelle was part of this from the beginning; she is my creative producer, and of course, having her on my team was very important because she’s so aware of what happened all the way, always following the construction and content of the film.

Miad Moarref assisted with this interview.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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