Recovering gently following our attendance at what has become a contender for The Best Wedding Ever, The Writer and I demolished coffees and pancakes at Senzala on Sunday morning before heading to the Ritzy for an early showing of Kathryn Bigelow’s much-lauded and Oscar-tipped Zero Dark Thirty, because if there’s anything that says “chilled out Sunday”, it’s a little bloodshed and high-octane excitement in the hunt for one of the terrorists who defined the geopolitics of the last decade (no, really. It’s just how we roll).
There’s been much made of ZDK in the press – but less for its completely brilliant screenwriting, directing and acting than for the scenes of torture which take place early on, as CIA agents interrogate suspects they believe are withholding information about their cohorts and future planned attacks.
The scenes are, without doubt, bloody and uncomfortable to watch. Seeing people strung by chains from the ceiling; beaten; and waterboarded doesn’t sit well whilst you’re casually munching on the popcorn.
That the film included these scenes has led commentators to denounce ZDK as “pernicious propaganda”, with “zero opposition expressed to torture”. Critics fear it could lead people to believe that it’s a legitimate way to secure vital information.
Maybe it’s that I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to extreme violence, but I don’t think that any of the torture scenes in the film glorified the process; it didn’t endear me to the characters performing it or convince me of their humanity; and I certainly didn’t come out of the film thinking that it was a necessary evil, even when conducted in the aftermath of a terrible, tragic incident in which so many people were killed.
Whatever your position on it, a quick look at just a couple of the photos which came out of Abu Ghraib clearly show that torture happened during the years after 9/11. “Enhanced interrogation” techniques were admitted to by Dick Cheney during his time in office (on which note, anyone who’s idly wondered whether waterboarding is all that dreadful would do well to read Hitchens’ personal account of the process, which might crystallise your view).
The scenes in the film make horribly uncomfortable watching, and they don’t show the US or the CIA in a very flattering light. But the problem isn’t that they’ve been documented in a film – I’m with the director when she says that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement – the problem is that they happened at all.
Since the topic came up during both philosophy and politics courses at university and I was forced to really consider my position, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t consider torture ever to be a valid course of action. I like to think I’m not naïve, and that the murky worlds of international terrorism sometimes mean that the normal rules of play are suspended. Sometimes extraordinary measures need to be taken. But I still don’t believe that torture is ever acceptable.
The film, on the other hand, is utterly brilliant. But I wonder whether the politics surrounding it will mean that it doesn’t garner the awards in the US that it deserves. Because just last week, a former CIA agent was jailed for his part in whistle-blowing on the US’ programme of “Rendition, Detention, Interrogation”. He didn’t torture anyone, but he made it clear that other people did. So far, he’s the only one who’s gone to prison. Which rather puts the attitudes around state-sponsored torture into sharp, cinematic-quality relief.