Camp X-Ray is one of many names by which Guantanamo Bay is known and aptly contextualises writer-director Peter Sattler’s debut feature, which is at its best when focussed on the bare bones of its storyline. A quasi-buddy film, it follows the growth of a muted kinship between rookie guard, Cole (Kristen Stewart), and detainee, Ali (Payman Maadi), across boundaries of religion, intellect and experience. Modestly budgeted and quietly sincere, it efficiently portrays the brutality and humiliation endured by men interned at the USA’s infamous all-inclusive Cuban resort while pointing towards the futility of its existence. A woeful commercial return upon a very limited theatrical release in New York should not deter viewers from affronting a dirty little secret which the Home of the Free seems unable to face.
Adopting the guilty-until-proven-innocent principal employed by US extraordinary renditioners, Sattler is not concerned with mining Ali’s culpability at all. Instead, the director proposes that the soldiers who serve at “Gitmo” are as much captives as those whose cells they patrol; adversaries drawn together in a monotonous stalemate – neither side with the right to pronounce upon the other. The pledge which signs off each roll call – “Honour bound to defend freedom” – is not subtle in its irony but scenes cross cut from the morning call to prayer with the raising of The Flag question the dividing line between belief and blind allegiance.
Sattler’s decision to construct Camp X-Ray so closely around one central relationship constitutes both its strongest and weakest points by simultaneously simplifying and negating the bigger picture. Cole, who has left Middle-of-Nowhereville, Florida, to see the world and make a difference, has her eyes opened by exchanges with the universal, eloquent and charismatic Ali. None of the other detainees can bear to look at a woman, let alone interact with Cole, so is Ali, a western Muslim from Bremen, a fair representation? Nothing too strenuous is demanded of the lead actors here but each does well with the relatively one-note material. Unfairly pigeonholed by the saga that was Twilight, Stewart is wound as tightly as her high bun. All burning frustration emanates from fiery eyes as her stony-faced, stiff-jawed countenance and boyish gait project an enforced toughness in a macho environment. Maadi – superb in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation – achieves more with his eyes through the narrow pane of glass in his cell door than many would with the full width of a screen.
A scene played out in a yard, where the pair are separated by just a chain link fence, offers overwhelming respite from the claustrophobic interior created by Sattler and cinematographer James Laxton. Even long shots of a fishing boat on a company excursion point more towards isolation than escapism, or indeed freedom. Disappointingly contrived mess hall conversations, extraneous characters inserted for little more than padding, a nothing cameo from John Carroll Lynch and a final act that loses its way a little while offering a number of overly convenient resolutions drag down the good work done elsewhere. Nevertheless, Sattler’s decision to do away with the bells, whistles and ever-changing locations of other attempts, means that Camp X-Ray‘s restraint, intimacy and simplicity make it one of the more thought-provoking treatments of post 9/11 America.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens