With the events around September 11 and the War in Iraq now moving from current events to recent history, filmmakers are finding more room to explore the more sensitive issues relating to that terrible period. Perhaps the most contentious and controversial of discussions pertains to Guantanamo Bay, the infamous prison where the U.S. held detainees they believed had some connection with 9/11. Writer-director Peter Sattler has chosen Guantanamo as the focus of his debut ‘Camp X-Ray’, a human drama about a connection with an officer and a detainee.
Cole (Kristen Stewart) is one of the new army recruits stationed at the prison to monitor the detainees. Essentially her job is to take shifts in a 24-hour suicide watch on one section of the prison. During her rounds, she finds herself drawn to Ali (Peyman Moaadi), who tries to strike up conversation with the stoic Cole. As her year at the prison progresses though, she starts to feel uncomfortable with the conditions these men are forced to live in and, as her conversations with Ali bloom into a kind of friendship, her commitment and belief in her task begins to quickly unravel.
Capturing the politics and moral conundrums of Guantanamo is a tall order for any narrative, but Sattler’s winning move is to make his focus instead a human relationship. By having Cole connect with Ali on an emotional and human level, it breaks down the barriers that come with culture and politics, and removes a lot of the emotion that might have hampered the film down. As a debut, it’s a tremendously exciting one. The screenplay is well-structured and intelligent, and even if the subplots around Cole’s relationships with her fellow officers hinder the film rather than bolster it, the interactions between Cole and Ali are so naturally and beautifully constructed that, even with their protracted length, they stand as the highlights of the film. On a technical level, ‘Camp X-Ray’ is beautiful filmmaking, especially with James Laxton’s terrific cinematography. Sattler uses all the right tools (recurrent images, careful framing, juxtaposition) just as they should be used, allowing the film to tell its story as strong visually as it does through dialogue. There are lagging moments and a few missteps, but this definitely feels like a daring and fresh cinematic voice finding its feet.
It also helps that his two leads are exceptional. Kristen Stewart is finally stepping away from ‘Twilight’ and fulfilling the promise her career showed before those films. Her performance as Cole is intelligent, interrogative and entirely committed, balancing her tremendous exterior strength and the cracks quickly emerging underneath it. Moaadi as Ali is terrific with a surprisingly playful performance that can quickly turn in any direction. Probably the greatest surprise though is the chemistry between Stewart and Moaadi. Theirs isn’t a romantic relationship by any means, but they make a strong and palpable human connection that goes a long way to making ‘Camp X-Ray’ an emotionally fulfilling experience.
‘Camp X-Ray’ is beautiful filmmaking, especially with James Laxton’s terrific cinematography.
There’s something very lasting about ‘Camp X-Ray’. Its short fallings keep it from being an extraordinary film, but there is something strangely haunting about it, and as a debut it demonstrates Peter Sattler as an exciting new talent. It takes on difficult and controversial material and presents it with exactly the right amount of sensitivity and intelligence necessary. This is an impressive little film, and one that quietly demands to be listened to.
PICTURE & SOUND
It’s a pity Madman have only released ‘Camp X-Ray’ on DVD as the cinematography would look gorgeous in high definition, but its limited release probably doesn’t warrant it. That said, the 2.35:1 transfer is still surprisingly good in standard definition, especially with the washed-out colour palette. Detail is also excellent throughout. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track likewise does its job well, with dialogue nice and clear, and in balance with the subtle sound design.
Along with the theatrical trailer, the only extra on the disc is a short but enlightening making-of (11:21), featuring interviews with Sattler and the cast. They talk at length about the sensitivity required in making the film, the preparation required by the actors and the relationship between Ali and Cole. If anything, it proves that there were some very intelligent minds behind ‘Camp X-Ray’, which explains the terrific work on-screen.