This story is over 5 years old.


This New Documentary Explores One of Guantánamo’s Most Baffling Cases

Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, doesn't care about Uyghurs—he cares about pandas.

Still from 'Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd.'

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Patricio Henríquez is arguably one of Canada's foremost documentary filmmakers on the subject of Guantánamo. His 2008 doc, Under the Hood: A Voyage Into the World of Torture chronicled the uses of torture in a post-9/11 world. And in his 2010 film, You Don't Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantánamo, Henríquez uses footage of a 2003 interrogation of Canadian detainee Omar Khadr to tell his story and explore the idea of a "forced dialogue."


Henríquez's latest look inside GTMO concerns 22 detainees from the Xinjiang region of China known as East Turkestan. Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd explores the Kafkaesque experience of the eponymous group, most of whom were sold into custody during the early-goings of the war on terror in Afghanistan, only to be declared not enemy combatants a few years later. Yet they were left in a sort of purgatory in the detention camp as the US failed to find somewhere to release the ostensibly free men. The film gets its Toronto premiere at this week's Human Rights Watch Film Festival at TIFF.

Uyghurs are, after all, Muslims, and have been persecuted and accused of being separatists by the Chinese government for their resistance to the state. Among the many twists and turns in the case of the 22 detainees is the fact that, during the lead-up to the second American invasion of Iraq, for which the US was courting China's approval in the UN, Chinese officials were given "red carpet" access to the Uyghur dissidents while they were in GTMO. Even now, they've been released to places like Albania, Palau, Bahamas, and Switzerland, yet are still effectively considered terrorists-at-large by the Chinese government.

Henríquez, the Chilean-born Montreal-based filmmaker, first encountered the Uyghurs' story while working on Under the Hood, and was compelled to make the film out of an affinity for the displaced dissidents. Henríquez himself fled Chile after being imprisoned during the 1973 coup d'état that saw President Salvador Allende—for whom Henríquez campaigned and temporarily served as press attaché to the First Lady—overthrown by Pinochet. For Prisoners of the Absurd, Henríquez focuses his attention on three of the Uyghur detainees, but also includes extensive conversations with the group's GTMO interpreter, one of their lawyers, and even the US's now-reassigned Special Envoy to close Guantánamo.


Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd by Patricio Henríquez, National Film Board of Canada.

VICE: How did you get into filmmaking?
Patricio Henríquez: I was working in television in Chile before the coup d'état in 1973. I had passed from journalism into documentary already, but I had just made two little pieces before the coup d'état. So when I came here to Montreal, that was a little bit difficult at the beginning, because I didn't speak French at all and my English was as bad as today. One year passed, which is not too much, but at the time it was like an eternity to me, just doing a lot of jobs working in factories and things like that. But I was very lucky that I contacted with some people, filmmakers here who helped me from the beginning. And I can't complain. I got to do my job—my passion.

How old were you when you left Chile?
When I arrived here in Montreal, I was 25.

How did the overthrow of the Chilean government affect your career as a filmmaker?
Of course, I was very engaged with the Allende government at that time. Living in Chile, you couldn't be neutral. You had to have a position. For me, it was not very difficult, because the family I grew up in, my father was a leftist and in the socialist party of Salvador Allende, so I grew up in this reality. When I went to university I was a militant in the socialist party. I began to work as a journalist, and in the first year I was the press attaché for the first lady. I was 22-years-old, she proposed me that, because we used to work for the Allende campaign, and when he won the election, she proposed me that. Of course I accepted. Twenty-two years old and working in the presidential palace. I could just stay there one year. I liked the experience but I knew I didn't want to just be a spin doctor. I wanted to make documentaries and work in television. So in '71, I worked in television, first as a journalist, and then I became involved in the production of documentaries there.


And then of course in 9/11, 1973, everything changed. I was arrested. I was sent to the stadiums where they put regular prisoners. I was one of thousands there. At that time, all the networks belonged to the state, and one for university—you didn't have any private networks. And then all the networks were closed by the dictatorship and all the people were expelled. So I passed two months in jail. A lot of bad things happened inside, but they don't destroy you morally because the strength of the group in there is more important. But this kind of collective fear when you're not in prison, when you're outside the prison—I was not worried, but then you go out on the streets and you see people crossing to the other side to avoid meeting you. And you understand that the strategies of the dictatorship—they freed a lot of people, and then they could put in jail all of the people that they meet outside. So nobody wanted to talk to me. So I had the fear—I was really really scared because I didn't want to be back to jail.

Rushan Abbas

You seem to have an affinity with persecuted people/groups in other parts of the world. Do you see parallels between your story and that of the Uyghurs?
One of the characters [in my film, the group's translator] Rushan Abbas, she came to Montreal for the premiere. She was key to making this film. The guys trusted her, not me. But she said that she trusted me because she believed that I could understand them, even if we came from such different realities. I was really moved by what she said.


How did you find out about the plight of the Uyghurs? How long were you following their story?
I was making a film, the one before the one on Khadr, which was called Under the Hood. This is a film on torture. Of course I was reading everything important related with that, and naturally Guantánamo was a source for me. I remember I read just in the news, I think it was the Washington Post or the New York Times, and they were talking about Uyghurs—that was the first time I even read about them, I didn't know who they were. They were telling the story in 2006 about one of the first groups, if not the first group, to be released from Guantánamo by the US government. (I'm not sure, because they released a lot of other people secretly.) This for me was the first public acknowledgement that they were releasing a group. That was a surprise because, at the time, they were telling everybody and convincing everybody that Guantánamo was the worst of the worst. And then, not only they were released, they were sent to Albania. So I started to read up on them, and their situation in China. Everybody I told the story to had the same feeling as me, that this is a fascinating story to tell in cinema. I have political convictions that came from my past, but I am convinced that you don't make a film just with political convictions. So many times you have films that are a political work, but maybe they're not good cinema or film.


They don't resonate with anyone, right? Clearly, the story here was worth telling.
These Uyghurs, they never really knew why they were living what they were living. They didn't even—even if they were in Afghanistan for 9/11, they didn't know what was happening in New York. Because they were isolated, and they didn't speak the language of Afghanistan. So they knew nothing. And when the first [US] bombing came, they didn't understand what was happening. Everybody fled, so they just did that. Then they began to understand what was happening with them once they were in Guantánamo. Just this part of the film—people knowing nothing about their destiny, and a lot of other people deciding for them. They don't know that they are the subject of discussion about the war in Iraq. These people were not intended to come to Guantánamo, or to come to Bermuda. They never dreamed about that. So they are just, as one of the characters says, they were just pawns in a chess game. Everybody was playing with them until today.

The most absurd thing, to me, was that for a good part of that time, they didn't even know that they were technically free. Or at least, deemed not enemy combatants. There was just nowhere for them to go.
The other part of the story for me was that I could talk a little bit about China. About international relations, about how China is directing so many things today. [In the case of] our government, and Mr. Harper, Canada was asked to help by the American government. They proposed to us to accept Uyghurs. If the request had been made in 2004 when Harper had just arrived, he probably could have accepted them, because of their ideals' [appeal] to him—they are anti-communist, pro-capitalist, and liked the western countries. They see the United States and Canada as their allies against China.


I'm sure that at the beginning, Harper could have accepted them. But since a long time, Harper understood that he can't apply his human rights vision to China. Actually, when Canada was being asked to accept Uyghurs, China gave to the Canadian government a big honor: they sent pandas. [Harper] was in the airport in Toronto accepting them. He doesn't care about Uyghurs, about human beings—he cares about pandas. That was the same day that the people from Idle No More were in Ottawa asking to speak with the prime minister. The group that went to Palau, that was always seen as a temporary solution. In 2010-2011, the state department was asking Australia and Canada to accept these people from Palau. When I went to make my research, they were asking me a lot of questions about Canada, and at the beginning, I couldn't understand how they were so informed. They told me that there was a possibility that they could come to Canada. So they asked me, if they participate in my film, is that good or bad for us. And I couldn't answer that, because I am not in the head of the Conservative government. I told them it could be both. It could be good that people know your story, but it could be bad because the government could also want to keep that secret. My fear was that they wouldn't accept to do it. But in the end they agreed.

Still from Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd

Were the three main characters eager to have their story told? And how did you decide to focus on the three main subjects in the film?
I had read their story before going there. I had the wonderful cooperation of the lawyers in the United States who defended them, the civil lawyers who went to Guantánamo, [two of whom are in the film]. They helped me a lot and even shared with me their own research, which was very accurate because they're lawyers. They sent me all the materials they had that allowed me to understand a lot of things. Of course I couldn't talk about a lot of the things. I knew who were, for me, the most interesting, and actually the three of them were in my short list. Some of them are really humble people, who were really shy to talk in from of the camera. I just lost one person who I found very interesting, but he didn't want to participate, more for security reasons, because he feared for his family in China. I could understand that.

You've explored Guantánamo before in the case of Omar Khadr and your exploration of the torture in Under the Hood. The fact that you've done these films, how difficult is it to get access? Does it help or hinder your process?
Thank you for this question, because nobody has asked me that. American society is so rich. And rich for me in that the kind of society that's able to live with contradictions. For me, if you have contradictions in a society, then the health of the democracy is good. The US made horrible things, in Guantánamo, in this world, but inside the system, you have people that are so honest, so clear, so transparent. I'm talking about the Special Envoy to Close Guantánamo, named by Obama. He's just extraordinary. When you talk with diplomats in every country, it's so difficult to get something interesting from them. And surely, he didn't tell me everything, but what he told us, told this film, is incredible. It's somebody who isn't denying that Guantánamo is a mistake. I'm happy that the American society isn't just Bush and Dick Cheney and people like that, it's also the lawyers who went there—lawyers who worked for this big company in Boston defending big companies. [The bankruptcy lawyer representing the Uyghurs] is really genuinely attached to human rights. Later, after the film was finished, he told me that, "My flag was flying over a place where we were torturing human beings." These people deserve a documentary about them: 500 lawyers going to defend the enemy, the worst of the worst, just because they wanted to make sure the law was respected. Incredible.

Do you have people coming to you now with more stories, cover-ups, etc.?
It's hard making a documentary about the US because there are so many great documentary filmmakers there. But, what is a very moving thing is that, when we presented the film here in Montreal for the first time. The small community, about 50 Uyghur families who live here, a part of them came to support the film. At the end, and old Uyghur came to see me and he said, "Thank you very much," and had a tear in his eye, and he told me this sentence: "Thank you for telling our story. Thank you for keeping our memory. Because we don't have filmmakers to do that." And I had never thought about that. Maybe you have people in the diaspora trying to do that. But in China, of course, even if they exist, they will never have support to make films. It's a responsibility for me. And they are inviting me to tell more stories on the Uyghurs. Unlike in Tibet, they don't have the Dali Lama, so no one knows about them. It's something that I consider seriously because I respect them.

Follow Chris Bilton on Twitter.