Documenting Canada's 'war on terror'

| June 10, 2011

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For any documentary filmmaker, gaining the subjects' trust is a challenge. But how do you break through to men who are still in the midst of a Kafka-esque ordeal of torture, secret trials, and constant surveillance?

Director Amar Wala and producer Noah Bingham are grappling with these issues as they film The Secret Trial 5, a crowdfunded documentary that takes a personal look at Canada's "war on terror." Their subjects, five Muslim men, have been held for over a decade using security certificates, a controversial measure of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) that allows non-citizens to be detained indefinitely. Hassan Almrei, Adil Charkaoui, Mohamed Harkat, Mahmoud Jaballah, and Mohammad Mahjoub each spent two to seven years in prison, but have never been charged with a crime. Their lawyers and human rights groups have expressed strong concerns that the secret "evidence" against them is little more than hearsay, obtained by foreign agencies using torture.

Wala, who moved to Toronto with his family from Bombay when he was 11, first learned about security certificates from one of his professors at York University. "It's something I never would have believed existed in Canada," he says. His award-winning narrative short, The Good Son, told the true story of Mahmoud Jaballah's young son Ahmad, who was asked to translate for his father during a CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Services) interrogation in their home.

He was relieved in 2007 when the Supreme Court declared security certificates to be unconstitutional. "At the time, I naively thought, maybe I don't need to need to make another film on this, because [the certificates] will be gone soon," he recalls. But the Conservative government re-introduced the process as Bill C-3 a few months later, with few substantial changes. Meanwhile, the men were slowly transferred to house arrest, under the harshest conditions in Canadian history.

"Their home essentially became a prison, and the family members that served as sureties became full-time jailers," he explains. When Mohamad Mahjoub took the drastic step of asking to be returned to the prison unit in Kingston that had been specially constructed for them -- known as "Gitmo North" -- Wala knew that he had to keep telling this story.

"I couldn't imagine what it took for him to go back to a judge and say, these house arrest conditions are worse than jail. Put me back in jail," he says.

Wala then teamed up with Bingham, who he had met when they were both film students at York. Together, they have been working for the past two years to capture the unique stories of these men. "We decided it was really important to include all five stories -- we think it creates a holistic picture of the total impact of security certificates," Bingham says.

Jaballah lives under house arrest with his wife and six children, as cameras in their home track their every move. Mahjoub found the conditions so oppressive that he decided to live separately from his wife and young children. He was recently prevented from going to mosque for prayer, the latest in a seemingly endless string of indignities. Harkat's Canadian-born wife Sophie has had to take on the role of both supervisor and spokesperson. Charkaoui and Almrei's certificates were quashed, and they are attempting to reclaim some semblance of normalcy in their lives, while still fighting to clear their names. Charkaoui has returned to his wife and four children; Almrei, the longest-held of the Secret Trial 5, has no family in Canada, and has experienced much of his saga in crushing isolation.

In the midst of these ongoing struggles, the filmmakers are striving to document as much as possible. "We've grown closer with all of them," Wala says. "They've opened their lives, their doors to us." They have been able to spend time with Mohamed and Sophie Harkat, but requests to visit Jaballah and Mahjoub, or to film in the detention centres in Montreal in Kingston, have so far been ignored by the government.

Beyond the very real physical barriers, there are also personal walls to scale. "[They] distrust the media because sometimes there have been... unfavourable stories," Bingham says. Many national and local news reports have painted the men as "terror suspects" with little context about the lack of charges against them. "It's hard for them to predict or control how they're being portrayed. Emotionally, you're talking about men that have been in prison for seven years, and on house arrest. Of course they have a distrust of sharing personal stories with people."

Yet getting the men and their families to be themselves around the camera is crucial to the success of the project, Wala says. "The difficulty from a storytelling standpoint will be getting our audience to see these people as real human beings -- not just an Arab or Muslim name." That human portrayal is possibly the only thing that can counter the Islamophobia and terror hysteria that has made it possible for this situation to continue for so long.

Indeed, these are the big questions at the heart of the film. "How much are we willing to sacrifice in the name of security? How far is too far?" Bingham and Wala ask. They point to the rendition and torture of Canadian Maher Arar, as well as three other Muslim Canadians, all of whom were tortured, only to be found innocent. These are not isolated cases, they argue, but rather proof of "the Canadian government's misguided fear of its Muslim population."

They believe that if Canadians knew the full story, we wouldn't tolerate this situation. And they're taking it one step further: they believe that Canadians will be curious enough about the story to help them fund the film.

Their innovative crowd-funding approach "evolved out of necessity," Wala admits, after trying the traditional method of hobnobbing at film festivals and pitching to funders. "I'm still pretty new to the film business, and naively I was like, 'Why wouldn't they want to make this film?'" Then he read about the U.K. climate-change documentary, The Age of Stupid, which raised 800,000 pounds over four years, simply by asking for small donations online.

"It was an eye-opener," he says. "They had an issue that people really cared about... It seemed like a great fit for us." After doing their homework on crowd-funding and independent film distribution, they decided to "just go for it." Their website features a high-impact animated teaser for the project, and encourages donations of any amount, even a dollar.

So far, they've raised $15,000 -- about 13 per cent of their final goal of $114,500. "It's more than enough for us to keep going. It keeps us from having to use the old independent film method of maxing out credit cards," Wala jokes. He's clearly excited to see their approach working as planned. "Crowd-funding is a great tool for young filmmakers, especially in Canada, where it's getting harder and harder to get a documentary made."

This funding method means that they don't have to sacrifice their vision to an executive producer, Bingham adds. "In reality, those people have final cut... You either have to have a lot of faith and trust in the people you're working with, or you need to let go of some control. In our case, as filmmakers, and just personally, with these issues, we didn't see that making sense."

Crowd-funding also throws the traditional sequence of production out the window. Fundraising and filming are simultaneous. "It's never going to be, let's raise all of the money, and then let's start filming," Wala says. "We don't have that luxury... We're creating content as we go."

They have been posting short video clips, photos and blogs on their site as they shoot interviews with families, lawyers and human rights experts. The pitch is simple: if you want to learn more, donate, and the film will happen. "We're encouraging interactivity with the project as well," Bingham says. "We want people to feel involved, and be involved, with the process."

Budget conscious, they are reaching out to potential supporters through Facebook and Twitter. "We don't have a big marketing machine behind us.... Social media is a great tool for us," Wala says. "But we also see the importance of hitting the pavement, and meeting people face to face."

As they tour around the country, spreading awareness of security certificates, and the film, they are building their audience. "A lot of people might not know much about this issue, but they'll give us a bit of money because we're young artists and they like what we're doing," he says. "Our goal is to have people who had no idea that security certificates exist help fund the film.

"At the end of the day, this affects all of us. Are people okay with this happening in their community?"

To get a look at the film so far please click here.

Sara Falconer is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.

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