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A Look Inside Guantánamo

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April 5, 2009

Miss Universe, Venezuelan Dayana Mendoza, raised eyebrows earlier this week, after proclaiming “Guantánamo Bay is soooo beautiful” in a blog posted on the pageant’s website. The Miss Universe Organization, which organized the beauty queen’s visit to the naval base, quickly issued an official statement defending the visit in response to the debate Ms. Mendoza’s glowing account sparked.

And though the post no longer appears on her blog, it’s hard to ignore her comments, which said in part:

This week, Guantánamo!!! It was an incredible experience…We also met the Military dogs, and they did a very nice demonstration of their skills. All the guys from the Army were amazing with us. We visited the Detainees camps and we saw the jails, where they shower, how the recreate themselves with movies, classes of art, books. It was very interesting… The water in Guantánamo Bay is soooo beautiful! It was unbelievable…I didn’t want to leave, it was such a relaxing place, so calm and beautiful.

Relaxing? Calm? Beautiful? Really? Ms. Mendoza’s account begs the question… what is Guantánamo really like?

Any complete answer needs to start with the detainees’ accounts, many of which have already been published — including Murnat Kurnaz and Moazzam Begg’s published accounts of their imprisonment at Guantánamo.

Explorer: Inside Guantánamo, a new National Geographic Channel documentary premiering this Sunday April 5, 2009 at 9 p.m., provides another rare, glimpse of Guantánamo. Explorer’s crew spent nearly three weeks at the naval base in August of 2008 — at a time when the fate of Gitmo was up in the air — with the mission to document as much of the detention facility as possible for the public record. And while it’s important to keep in mind that Guantánamo in 2008 is very different from Guantánamo in past years, the documentary provides the first view of day-to-day life on parts of the base.

Although the crew was not allowed to interact directly with any of the approximately 240 men who remain there detained there, the documentary captures some candid moments of daily life at Gitmo. In one scene, a guard attempts to help a detainee chose a library book between a collection of Louisa May Alcott stories and Stephen King’s It. In another, a detainee — clearly aware of the camera crew — shouts “Never, never, I am here for seven years, I never get my rights.”
We had a chance to pose some questions about the making of the documentary to Director and Producer, Bonnie Cohen.

[ACLU] Your access to the inside operations of the prison was unusual. How did you gain access?

[Cohen] National Geographic Channel (NGC) gained access to the prison and the daily life. Jon Else and I were brought in after the access was obtained. NGC spent close to 2 years negotiating with Pentagon officials, ironing out the details on what would be necessary in order for us to tell the story. We got tremendous access from the military.

[ACLU] Did you have an Arabic-language translator with you while you were filming so you knew what the detainees were shouting at the time?

[Cohen] We did not. All of the Arabic dialogues were translated afterwards.

[ACLU] How much footage did the Gitmo censors have to edit out? Were the censors willing to compromise at all?

[Cohen] There were a couple of things that we shot that we weren’t going to be able to get off the island with, but the officials were always willing to talk. For instance, when we filmed the scenes of the hunger striking block, there were concerns about what it shows. We explained if we didn’t show this, we would be missing an important part of the story — including the adverse condition under which the guards work around the clock.

[ACLU] The guards seemed very open and forthcoming in the documentary. Was it hard to find guards who were willing to talk? Is there any worry about retribution for speaking so candidly, and even sympathetically, about the detainees?

[Bonni Cohen] Jon Else and I spent a considerable amount of the time gaining the trust of the guards, hanging out with them for the first few days without filming. We spent a lot of energy on that. And we also let the guards know we were open to their stories. Although our politics may be skewed in one way or another, we didn’t have biases when it came to the guards. We felt strongly that their stories needed to be heard, and what we found was that they were enormously appreciative of that. There is no substitute for the time you spend with them, being there at every meal, every roll call, and so forth. Of course, there were some initial reticence based on reasons of personal safety or anonymity — and some didn’t want to talk to us at all — but the guards started to open up. Hopefully, what we know how to do is to get people to tell the story, and get to the essence of who they are.

[ACLU] What were your thoughts and expectations about Gitmo before visiting the base? What surprised you most about Gitmo after spending time there?

[Cohen] I had the same type of preconceived notions Americans have after having seen the images in the press. It’s very hard not to have a bias going in there. I was surprised to find a prison well run by professional guards who are doing what is an extremely difficult and exhausting job. I was also surprised that I wasn’t feeling as depressed by the place as expected, despite its being an incredibly sad situation on both sides.

[ACLU] What do you hope people will take away from the documentary?

[Cohen] I hope that people will come away with a deeper understanding of our service people — that our military is a volunteer organization, and they all believe they are doing it on our behalf. No matter what your politics are that needs to be recognized. The military doesn’t make policy, but executes policy. That’s evident when you watch the guards navigate complex issues. I hope people also realize that when we elect an official into the office, their policies become our responsibilities as well.

Tune in to the National Geographic channel tonight— April 5 at 9 p.m. for a look Inside Guantánamo (and if you happen to miss it, the encore is Wednesday, April 8 at 8 p.m.).

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