This is one of the best films of 2015.
Just a few months ago, our President signed the National Defense Authorization Act 2012 after almost unanimous bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, while the media almost unanimously ignored it. This is that same troubling act that permits indefinite detentions of American citizens without trial. There was a time in our recent history when we were debating over trials for so-called Enemy Combatants detained in Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo; the debate was over whether the trials should be military or civilian but the consensus was that prisoners should at least get some sort of a trial.
And, there was a time when we were surprised that the CIA held secret prisons all across the globe. Well, it seems that that time was so, so long ago and we've been so inoculated that now not even the media cares. Now, when we walk through X-Ray machines whose companies were represented by our former Head of Homeland Security, we do not think much about it anymore.
So it is with gratitude that I mention that Line Halvorsen, a filmmaker from Norway, chose to make the outstanding documentary "USA vs. Al-Arian," (2007) chronicling a short period in the life of a family that has been suffering what is nothing less than American political persecution right in our suburbs for over a decade. On the one hand, this is the story of America seeking to keep itself secure. On the other hand, it is the story of the impact these sometimes questionable efforts have on a family.
To help give context to the Al-Arians, I should first comment that they were among a number of Muslim Americans victimized in the 1990s (under Clinton) by Secret Evidence. The idea of Secret Evidence (originally slated for mob trials) was that the accused were not allowed to see the evidence being used against them because it would supposedly affect other cases. It was invoked in the 1990s as part of the process to arrest, incarcerate (for years) one of their relatives, until he was subsequently deported. Meaning, their extended family member was held in prison without being told what evidence was being used against him. While that whole absurd story is outside the scope of this documentary (and I hope it becomes the subject of another full documentary), it was on the basis of then-Governor George W. Bush's commitment to remove Secret Evidence that the Al-Arians (along with Muslims all across the nation) became his dedicated supporters in his 2000 Presidential Election campaign. Not only that, during a campaign stop Bush himself - the darling hero of the Right Wing zealots who today believe it is beneficial to their campaign to vilify Muslims - conspicuously stepped off of his stage to approach Mrs. Nahla Al-Arian and tell her that they worship the same God. Not only that, the Al-Arians campaigned heavily in 2000 for Bush in their home state: Florida. The same election, in the same state that decided the Presidency. So, it is all the more interesting that President Bush himself appears a few times in this film, making statements about his hunt for terrorists.
In this film, however, we learn that on February 20, 2003, Federal authorities raided the Al-Arian's Tampa home, seizing most of their belongings. Decades earlier, their patriarch Dr. Sami Al-Arian came to the US as a seventeen year old student, subsequently getting advanced degrees in his path to becoming a college engineering professor. An outspoken Palestinian critic of Israeli actions and policies against his people, he was now being accused of nearly 200 counts of secretly providing material support for terrorist acts against Israeli citizens, through the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization. This point is the first contradiction that the documentary alleges: he is so outspoken, that he hides nothing. Among his outspoken comments have been criticisms of violence against Israelis. So, he is being charged with being duplicitous via conspiracy. So, second, according to the movie, this case itself is not a terrorism case, but a Free Speech case.
In the process, the government wire-tapped the Al-Arian phones for nearly a decade - again, long before 9/11, the PATRIOT Act, and the NDAA - resulting in recordings of nearly 500,000 phone calls by everyone in the family, including the young kids. Of those 500,000 phone calls, only 400 were selected as evidence. Despite this thorough invasion of privacy, the Al-Arian women manage to release a few giggles listening to their younger voices in these recordings of pizza purchases. That is, until mother - Nahla - stops, disturbed.
Meanwhile, Sami Al-Arian talks to the family, by way of speaker phone. He takes on the role of husband and father through short daily phone calls from prison. The film contains multiple gut-wrenching moments of little son Ali and daughter Lama hoping for the chance to simply hug their father, but being unable to. Those moments of disappointment are hidden by their smiles, but as is the case with their older siblings, their grief gets exposed by their slow, sluggish demeanor and sad eyes.
Otherwise, the Al-Arian household is remarkably quiet. Their lives revolve around Sami's case, involving a daily ritual of preparing for trial, attending trial, speaking to him on the phone, scanning the media for reports. In between, they attempt to conduct themselves as a family through vignettes featuring prayer, haircuts, dinners, and somber, reserved conversation. At the center of the case is Sami, but at the center of the household is Nahla, who maintains order, calm, and composure as the brutal trial rolls on. She wants to tell her kids that all will be well, but she is unable to.
Halvorsen paced this story so carefully that the tension bubbles, waiting for release. An hour into the documentary, after six months of deliberation, when the verdict is delivered, we hold our breath. Nahla is at her end, drained, exhausted, empty, facing a day of reckoning that few of us will ever face. The family is given literally ten minutes notice to race across town to the courthouse to hear the answer. When they arrive, and we hear the verdict, we cannot help but to cry. Even though I've seen the film a few times, I still get choked up watching that moment. I want to tell you the verdict, but I would rather that you watch the film. The information is easily available elsewhere in the internet. I would rather you watch the film first, to try to make sense of the final half hour of the film, for the next few paragraphs will not quite give the answers.
Perhaps the strange thing about the Al-Arian family is that they so thoroughly believe in the system. They so thoroughly believe in American democracy. More than that, they maintain such decorum throughout the entire process. Not long ago, after I received some death threats (for defending Jews against bigotry), I repeatedly contacted the FBI, and was ignored. Considering that the FBI's reputation is now overshadowed by its long project of hiring moles to preach radicalism in mosques, while also fooling dimwits into detonating fake bombs, I have few hopes in them. As a result of my experience and their notorious practices, when I get calls from so many of my friends after they've been called by the Feds (and there are so many of these calls), I cannot help but grumble like a Chicago Southsider, thinking of all these authorities as crooks with badges. Naturally, I tell my friends to get lawyers and speak honestly and politely, so perhaps I believe in the system too. The Al-Arians, on the other hand, conduct themselves with such poise that they represent America at its highest levels of dignity. Surely, they will continue to do so.
In the final half hour of the film, Sami Al-Arian is still held in prison. The government wants to continue trying him. The government subsequently offers plea deals calling on Sami to pay restitution for crimes against victims even though he was acquitted of those specific crimes. His concerns about his family's well-being likewise take their toll on him. As his voice gets scratchy and soft, Sami sticks to his principles. The film draws attention to the strange nature of the prosecution's plea deal: the same prosecutors who, along with the President, and the Attorney General, told the world that he is a dangerous terrorist, are willing to let him go if he agrees to a deal. If he is a real terrorist, then the government would not release him. If, however, the government is trying to score political points, then they will advertise their supposed victories across the world, at the cost of this family's well-being, and then eventually wash their hands of him. And, that is apparently a lesson here: when someone is seeking political victories, they will march through, no matter the cost on the lives of good people.
Strangely, even the activist judge disregards the jury's decisions, and takes it upon himself to fire off a long line of insults against him in court. More, he sends Al-Arian to a "Special Housing Unit" that sounds like a polite name for Solitary Confinement; something he is familiar with considering that he already spent two and a half years in Solitary prior to trial. The film tells us that Sami gets transported a thousand miles away from his family, reduced to a single phone call per week. We feel Nahla cries that barbarians have more humanity than these people.
Now, a few years after the film's original release, their struggles continue. I sought permission from the Al-Arian family to publish an essay on this movie, because I did not want trolls and bigots to add to their struggles. With his usual dignity, their eldest son Abdullah consented, and also mentioned that Sami has been living in Virginia under House Arrest since 2008, and is waiting on a judge's ruling to see if he will have to testify in an unrelated case, even though he was already informed he would not have to. His ordeal continues because a vindictive Virginia prosecutor ignores documents signed by one of his colleagues in the Department of Justice.
I watch this movie as a critic, impressed by its polish, as well as its fairness. It would be too easy to side with the Al-Arians and make the Federal Prosecutor look like a demon. Rather, the Prosecutor is portrayed as someone who also believes in the system, and is doing his job according to its rules. The problem is that the case is clearly a sick joke. It is hard to avoid disgust, watching the Prosecutors manhandle an Israeli family of a child killed in a bombing, by parading them in front of cameras and flashes, illustrating that the Prosecutors care very little about them either, except to win more political points somewhere.
I watch this movie as a Muslim, a lifelong Chicagoan, an American citizen, sickened. If this film existed in a vacuum, I would ask, "What has happened to our country?" But this story began before the NYPD used Federal funds and CIA assistance to show vile propaganda against Muslims, before they started spying on Muslims. This story took place before the current presidential campaign, in which nearly all of the GOP candidates found time and opportunity to vilify Muslims as though that wins points with their supposedly religious supporters. This story took place long before these drumbeats of war against Iran. This story took place long before our President, himself often accused of being a closet Muslim (as though being Muslim is anything but a compliment), signed in the NDAA. I almost feel as though it is too late to ask what has happened to our country. Our previous President George W. Bush took the line from our Cold War propaganda against the Soviets that the terrorists "hate us for our freedoms." While that line itself is nonsense, if we pretend it's true, then we see that the terrorists have already won. The PATRIOT Act has been in place for a decade, and I am sure it is being used (as you read this essay) not only against Muslims, but also Latinos, African-Americans, Tea Party and Occupy supporters. Prior to that, we had the Omnibus Counter-terrorism Act of 1995, and prior to that we had Secret Evidence. For the Al-Arians their story began long ago.
But, if more of us maintain the level of dignity and resilience we find in the Al-Arians, then there is always hope.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
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