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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Film Festival

‘We Are Not Ghouls’: A must-watch testament to US war on terror horrors

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, there have been countless stories of courage, hope and faith illustrating American strength and tenacity in defense of peace, even when hatred, anger and fear dominated much of the country. 

Few are as impactful as the story of “We Are Not Ghouls,” a documentary film on the work of Judge Advocate General (JAG) attorney Lieutenant-Colonel Yvonne Bradley to free Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed.

The movie tells the story of Mohamed — a U.K. citizen and recent convert to Islam — who was unable to return home from a trip to Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks and subsequent American war in Afghanistan. He eventually made his way out of the country through Pakistan in 2002. 

After being detained and spending time in prison in Pakistan for possessing a forged passport, Mohamed received charges of terrorism from the U.S.

For the next seven years, Bradley and other lawyers, journalists and human rights activists worked to corroborate Mohamed’s story of his prison time in multiple countries by the United States government. There were simultaneous movements in the U.K. to prove that the government there was complicit in imprisoning and torturing Mohamed, and other alleged “terrorists” into forced confessions. The search for the truth went to even unexpected corners, with Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen allegedly playing a role in secretly transporting American detainees between these various facilities.

Bradley, a military attorney who volunteered to defend a Guantanamo prisoner, was assigned to Mohamed’s case when Mohamed ended up in the infamous military prison. Human rights attorney Clive Smith also spoke of his experiences with Mohamed’s trial. What followed was a years-long process in which Mohamed and Bradley built up a shaky relationship in the hope of proving his innocence in the court of law and public opinion. 

Bradley was initially skeptical of Mohamed, but she instantly knew something wasn’t right upon receiving the case files from Smith. She would go on to risk her career and arrest to prove his innocence.

In her narration of the events, Bradley did a dynamic job recalling small and large details from her work on the trial. Notably, Bradley’s description of the small moments historical accounts likely wouldn’t contain, such as Mohamed keeping a promise to cook her a “pasta dinner” once he left confinement, masterfully captured the human element behind the incredibly polarizing 9/11 trials.

Bradley’s testimonies of the trial are put alongside spine-chilling voiceovers from Mohamed detailing his horrific treatment while detained. In some of the most unforgettable moments of the film, Mohamed spoke of his genitals being lacerated by a sharp razor or spending months on end in a dark room listening to never-ending audio recordings of people screaming.

The movie often cuts to archival footage of U.S. government officials or proceedings that deny the torture. In a powerful and memorable moment after countless descriptions and recounted details of Mohamed’s torture, the movie cuts to a journalist who asks then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “if any of the prisoners you captured are innocent.” 

Rumsfeld and much of the room around him erupted in laughter.

A tonal shift only comes toward the end of the movie, when it cuts to a speech delivered by then-President Barack Obama, who admits, “We may have tortured some folks.” 

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Bradley’s narration is well-balanced by some of the other key figures in the trial and her life, including Smith, Bradley’s sister Pam Bradley, investigative journalist Stephen Grey and Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld. Vandeveld spoke in the film about resigning his position in the Office of Military Commissions in Guantanamo Bay after deciding he could not ethically prosecute some of these cases.

Director Chris James Thompson — a Wisconsin native and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate — weaves these elements together to allow each individual to speak for themselves, effectively juxtaposing imagery and graphics that complement the story incredibly well. Moments that stood out were overlapping images a Guantanamo inmate had drawn of his experiences being tortured, and the use of playing cards to illustrate the complex JAG attorney structure.

The movie does not delve into the discussion of whether Mohamed was guilty. Rather, it focuses on the question of whether anyone deserves the treatment Mohamed received.

All of these elements effectively come together to create a powerful record of American cruelty in pursuit of the war on terror. The film brings into the spotlight — but leaves the audience to ponder — questions on American ethical values surrounding international leadership, politics and patriotism, among others.

Bradley, her sister and Thompson attended a screening of the film last Saturday as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival, where UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin delivered opening remarks.

Thompson spoke in a Q&A about his motivations for creating the film following the screening.

“Twenty years ago, I was a film student at UW-Milwaukee. One of my classmates was a Jordanian immigrant, his name was Abdel. One day he didn’t show up for school and my professor told us he had been detained by the Department of Homeland Security,” Thompson said. “A week went by, he didn’t show up.” 

“I went to try and see him, and I got to visit him through a glass window,” Thompson continued. “His teeth had been knocked loose and his jaw was wired shut. When he eventually came back, I asked him, ‘What’s going on, how can we help you,’ and he just said, ‘I don’t want to tell you because everyone that gets involved, they mess up their life — so just pretend like it didn’t happen.’”

This experience led Thompson to read books and watch documentaries in an attempt to understand the war on terror and what the U.S. had done to its perceived enemies, he said. His research led him to the book “The Guantanamo Lawyers,” which included essays from attorneys who defended the prisoners of Guantanamo.

Bradley’s essay stood out to him and led Thompson to her.

“I hope that, moving forward, this story is preserved for young people to see a shining example of someone that faced adversity, saw someone who was being oppressed and treated unjustly, and — at a great personal cost and risk — stood up and decided that they weren’t going to be a part of it,” Thompson said at the screening.

Bradley pointed out that the fight for justice for some of these individuals is far from over.

“We’re 21 or 22 years into Guantanamo and it's still open, and there’s 30-something men there who they would never try [in court]. If that was the other way around and we had American citizens being held someplace, detained and not put to trial, we would be out of our mind,” Bradley said. “But we allow that to happen on the other end.”

“There is a solution: try them or let them go. I know that’s controversial, but that’s what due process is about — the rule of law,” Bradley continued. “If we expect to expand that across the globe, we have to start that at home.”

Editor's note: This article was updated at 4:24 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, 2023, to reflect that a quote was said by Yvonne Bradley and not director Chris James Thompson.

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Ian Wilder

Ian Wilder is a senior staff writer and current men’s hockey beat reporter for The Daily Cardinal. He’s a former state politics and features reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.

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