“This is a war zone.”
At one point in Peter Sattler’s drama “Camp X-Ray,” a commanding officer (Lane Garrison) says that to a group of new recruits who have arrived at Guantanamo Bay to become guards for the “detainees” held indefinitely there. He intends it to remind the soldiers that, though their duties consist of cleaning floors, serving meals and watching prisoners day after mind-numbing day, they should consider themselves on a black-and-white battlefield, and the detainees their enemies.
But the statement comes true in another way, as Sattler shows how life in Guantanamo mirrors the uncertain gray of the War on Terror. “Camp X-Ray,” now out on DVD from IFC Films, could have been a political polemic, of course. But writer-director Sattler keeps the drama small and intimate, between two people, focusing on the minutiae of daily life inside the prison and letting us draw the moral implications.
Kristen Stewart continues a run of terrific indie-film performances in playing Cole, a small-town Florida girl turned soldier who is assigned to Gitmo. Stewart is very skilled at using a character’s external mask to not quite hide her real feelings, which makes her perfect to play Cole. Cole must not only mask her growing misgivings about Guantanamo from the detainees, but she must hide them from her fellow soldiers, mostly gung-ho males.
There’s a scene early on where Cole, eager for her peer’s approval, volunteers for a team tasked with subduing an angry prisoner. She takes a shot to the mouth, causing it to bleed, which she knows is a badge of honor to her fellow soldiers. Stewart allows her a fleeting little smile of pleasure that the audience sees, not her squad mates.
Cole keeps the requisite emotional distance to the detainees, but eventually finds herself drawn to a chatty prisoner named Ali (Peyman Maadi, who played the husband in “A Separation“). He badgers her and asks her questions, complains how the prison library only has the first six “Harry Potter” books but not the last one (a detail inspired by Sattler’s research, apparently). Her defenses lower just enough to see him as a human being. And once that happens, she can’t go back to just seeing him as an “enemy combatant.”
“Camp X-Ray” runs a little long at just under two hours, with Sattler lingering at length on the mundane life of Guantanamo, the boredom etched on the faces of both captor and captive caught in a situation with no endpoint in sight. There are flashes of abuse, of prisoners denied sleep or forced to shower in front of women, but the focus is on the ordinary humiliations, not the extraordinary.
What seems extraordinary is that, in the midst of this system, and with both Cole and Ali so thoroughly programmed by their respective sides in the War on Terror, they can connect as human beings. (It helps that Ali is likely innocent, swept up in a post-9/11 net by mistake and then forgotten, although we never know for sure.)
The way Sattler stages their conversations, their faces are uncomfortably close, separated only by cross-hatched Plexiglas. I don’t know if I believe such a friendship could flower in such circumstances, but we leave “Camp X-Ray” wanting to think so.