The AFI DOCS Interview: THE TRIAL With Director Johanna Hamilton – American Film Institute


The AFI DOCS Interview: THE TRIAL With Director Johanna Hamilton

THE TRIAL plays as part of the Shorts Program at AFI DOCS at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD on Saturday, June 22 and at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Sunday, June 23. Buy tickets to the screening here.

Alka Pradhan, James Connell and Sterling Thomas are lawyers for Ammar al-Baluchi, one of the five men facing the death penalty for plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. THE TRIAL, directed by Johanna Hamilton, provides a window to reflect on the impact of a rarely seen part of the “war on terror”: a lack of accountability for the legacy of torture and the build-up to the largest criminal trial in American history.

Johanna Hamilton is an Emmy®-winning documentary filmmaker. Her previous work includes 1971, WRONG MAN, PARCHED and PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL. We spoke to her about her newest short film.

AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?

I love telling stories about hidden histories.

AFI: How did you become captivated by this story and what inspired you to tell it?

Ten years ago, in the Bush administration’s early days of the “war on terror,” I began working on a documentary about extraordinary rendition — the practice of kidnapping terror suspects and transferring them in an extra-judicial manner to third countries. These individuals were often tortured. Some, like Ammar al-Baluchi, ended up in Guantanamo.

I filmed a couple of interviews, but, without adequate funding, I was unable to get the film off the ground immediately. I set the burgeoning film aside to produce other films – like PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL and 1971 — but the desire to tell the story of America’s post-9/11 policies has never left me. 16 years on, the story is very much alive.

AFI: What was the inception of your film, and how did you connect with your interview subjects?

A couple of years ago I read an editorial in the New York Times that was decrying the fact that the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the independent expert working on behalf of the United Nations, had never been allowed access to Guantanamo. I was really struck by that, and it took me back to the issues that had preoccupied me a decade earlier.

At the time the person who occupied the role of UN Special Rapporteur on Torture was a friend, Juan Mendez, so I got in touch with him and asked him if he ever had access whether I could come along with a camera. He told me that I should talk to Alka Pradhan, a lawyer on Ammar al-Baluchi’s defense team. Alka and I got on the phone. We had a long conversation that started with her telling me that, sadly, Juan would never get access to Guantanamo. She then told me all about the pre-trial hearings, and I was stunned. I considered myself pretty well informed. I had broadly followed developments at Guantanamo, and yet I knew next to nothing about this pre-trial process.

I had forgotten that there might one day be a trial of the 9/11 accused, let alone that it is likely to be the largest criminal trial in U.S. history. Our conversation ended with me asking her if I could follow the team with a camera. Her immediate response was, “I think we can make that happen.” I went down to DC to meet the rest of the team, and there I followed a delicate process of negotiating access, being very clear on parameters and what was possible. I started filming with them about five months after that initial conversation.

AFI: What was a specific challenge you faced while making THE TRIAL?

There were so many obstacles to making this film that it’s hard to isolate one. And the visual constraints were so enormous it was almost overwhelming. I didn’t have access with a camera to the detainee who was the subject of the film nor to the courtroom. The majority of the information that is the subject of this case is classified. Every shot that is taken at Guantanamo is monitored while filming and then reviewed by government minders who accompany you everywhere.

All that said, no one else has been granted access to document the behind-the-scenes deliberations of any of the defense teams in this case. And the defense team tried to give me as much access as they could without divulging classified information.

AFI: What do you hope audiences learn from watching your film?

I’m glad they now know – if they didn’t previously – that this process is going on in Guantanamo. It’s hard to break through the national narrative with this story. Perhaps they will feel they’ve encountered humanity in a place they least expected it, perhaps it’s a cause for reflection of what is being done in America’s name. And I’m glad they’ve met the forgotten heroes of the most important forgotten battle in a time when, ironically, we are obsessed with the idea of “justice.”

AFI: Why do you think Washington, DC is an important location to screen your film?

DC is the center of where policy is made, and this is where this policy was dreamt up. The team, when they are not in Guantanamo, is in Rosslyn. DC is home to most of them.

AFI: Why are documentaries still fundamental today?

As a journalist and filmmaker, I like making films about injustice. We’re living at a time of enormous upheaval. It’s important to keep telling stories that keep people informed, and possibly want to get up and take action.

Buy tickets to THE TRIAL here.

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