Omar Khadr Tells His Side of the Story in New Documentary
Guantanamo's Child tries to answer the question of who Omar Khadr—a convicted terrorist or an abused child soldier—really is.
"He's a murderer. He's a terrorist."
That's how one man describes Omar Khadr in the opening minutes of Michelle Shephard and Patrick Reed's documentary, Guantanamo's Child: Omar Khadr.
The Harper government agrees with this assessment. But to many others, Khadr's a victim, a child soldier. A kid who got caught up in something he didn't understand and who paid dearly for it.
The facts are these: on July 27, 2002, 15-year-old Khadr was involved in a firefight in Afghanistan that left one US soldier dead. He was then captured by the US, held in a prison in Bagram for three months, tortured, interrogated, and ultimately transported to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he'd spend the next ten years of his life. In 2010, Khadr signed a plea deal and was convicted of five war crimes, including murder. He was sentenced to eight years, and in 2012, he was transferred to a prison in Alberta to serve the remainder of his sentence. But on May 7 of this year, the now 28-year-old Khadr was released on bail while his Guantanamo conviction is appealed in the US.
In Guantanamo's Child: Omar Khadr, Khadr is finally given the chance to tell his story. Shephard and Reed followed Khadr during his first few days of freedom and spoke to him about the events that led to his imprisonment, the last 13 years of his life, and the extreme challenges that still lie ahead.
VICE sat down with Shephard and Reed to talk about their documentary, which premieres September 14 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
VICE: Michelle, you've written extensively about Omar Khadr, both as the Toronto Star's national security reporter and in your 2008 book Guantanamo's Child. Why did you want to make a documentary?
Michelle Shephard: I think one of the frustrating things about the story over the years is that I had been writing so much about it and the debate in Canada really stayed the same. And I felt that it would be great if people could actually see him, decide for themselves, and he could tell his side of the story. That's why I wanted to do the documentary and I was lucky enough to meet up with Patrick and go from there.
You've reported on this story since 2002, but you only got to speak with Omar in person for the first time earlier this year. What was that experience like?
Shephard: Being able to speak with him was the biggest challenge of the documentary because we had fought for so long to get access to him, and when he came back to Canada we assumed we'd be able to do these jailhouse interviews. We fought, but the Canadian government wouldn't allow us to do that. So it did take him getting bail to finally meet him, and we had a couple days with him. It was really rewarding to finally be able to ask him the questions that I know I've been dying to ask for many years. It was great for Canadians to be able to see him, too.
Patrick Reed: It was a challenge as a filmmaker because usually when you're making a film about somebody, you can spend a lot of time with them before the cameras start rolling. In our case, we had two half days with him. That's not a lot of time to gain somebody's trust. We'd met him and literally 60 seconds later the camera is starting to roll and you have to get what you can in the limited amount of time you have. So it was a challenge.
Going into that first interview, did you have any preconceived ideas about who this guy actually was? Did anything surprise you when you actually met him?
Shephard: I think, probably more than most people, I had a good idea of who he was just because, at least from a distance, I could watch him grow up over the years in Guantanamo. And together we'd interviewed so many people who'd had access to him. So we'd heard a lot of stories about him. And a lot of that was consistent with who he was. Probably what was most surprising is that, I thought after spending half of his life, essentially, in prison, maybe the first couple days of freedom—which was the time that we were with him—he would be completely overwhelmed. And he wasn't. And I think that's probably his survival mechanism kicking in. I think he learned over the years how to survive in prison and he was a lot more serene than I expected him to be.
Reed: Yeah. I expected him to be pretty bitter. I mean how can you not be? He spent half his life in prison. He'd been tortured, he came back home to Canada and it took him a couple years before he could get out. And, in our case, he said he wanted to talk to us and he wasn't allowed to. But he was very chill, he was very relaxed. Some people who have seen the film will respond to that and think,Wow! This guy is almost like a philosopher, he's so centred, this is amazing. And other people will see it and say the guy is a charlatan. He's a survivor, if you want to be nice about it, or he's somebody who's pretty good at manipulating the media and knows how to be on camera.
He addresses that in the film. He says that people are going to think he's a fake.
Reed: It's a tough one. He also says in the film that he doesn't really like publicity. But he comes out and there's a scene in the film that a lot of people would have seen just in the media of him addressing this throng of reporters—which is scary for virtually everybody—and the guy looks like he's had handlers for his entire life. He's very charismatic and very relaxed, but there's this duality because, at the same time, he says, "I was reluctant to do it. I really just want to become a regular person and I really just wish all the attention would go away and I could move on with my life." Some people look at that and think, Well why are you so comfortable on camera then? So he's a contradictory guy who has lived a very extraordinary and difficult life.
How did Omar feel about telling his story? Was he anxious or eager to do the interview?
Shephard: He didn't actually want to. There was a period when he was in prison and he agreed to do the interview, but when he actually got out, he didn't want to do the interview. It took us spending some time and convincing him. He says in the film, "My greatest wish would be to just disappear and become an average guy." As we said to him, "Well, that's not going to happen. At least not for a long time." But it did take some convincing to get him to speak. At first, he was pretty reluctant to talk. I would say it wasn't the easiest interview. We both interviewed him over the course of a couple days and we both have very different styles. I think in the back of my head I was thinking a lot of the time that this was someone whose been interrogated for so much of his life, which makes it hard to talk to him in some ways. Because you don't want to mimic the interrogator. At the same time, you want to get at the truths and you know that he probably knows how to answer questions. So it was kind of tricky.
Reed: The other thing [is that] it's the first two days [and, as he says in the film,] he feels like he's on this freedom high. He talks about the fact that he didn't sleep at all the night before, because there is that obvious element of, Is this a dream? I don't want to sleep. What am I going to wake up to? Because he goes from a situation of being in prison to the next day being in a suburban house in Edmonton, basically with an adopted family—his lawyer and his lawyer's wife—and all of a sudden, you've got all the choices in the world. What are you going to do with your day? It does become a bit overwhelming. And [in the film] he takes us up into his room and he's very comfortable with us being there, I think partially because the entire experience for him at that stage of his life was so weird and so uncomfortable that, OK, so a camera's in my room? Like what the hell am I doing out of prison anyways? This is so strange, so let's take it to the next level. And then, you know, he can't even open his window. The basic life skills. You go from 15 [years old] and then you wake up a number of years later and the world's changed and what are you going to do next?
Patrick, I wanted to talk to you about your motivations for doing the documentary. Your last film, Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children, explored Romeo Dallaire's attempts to end the use of child soldiers, specifically in Rwanda, South Sudan and the DRC. But the way we perceive and treat child soldiers in those countries is very different from how Omar has been treated. Was there something about that juxtaposition that drew you to the story?
Reed: I've made some films about child soldiers, particularly in Africa with General Romeo Dallaire. Within one documentary we do touch very briefly on Omar Khadr and [how] people seem to really get behind the issue of child soldiers in Africa, but when it becomes a Canadian, Omar Khadr, it becomes far trickier for a lot of people. Or they take a very strong stance either way, often negatively against him. So he was on my radar. But I didn't start this film coming from an activist perspective or thinking, This is going to change things. As a filmmaker, what really interested me about him is just the idea that everybody seemed to have an opinion on this guy. A very, very strong opinion often. And he's obviously lived a complicated life and has great notoriety. So it's just that opportunity to meet with him and then also meet with all the other people who surrounded his life and show the complexity, allow him to tell his own story, have his story challenged by other people who he's met and then let the audience decide. So my initial motivation was it's a great story and it's a complicated, polarizing figure. So let's explore that.
You filmed the moment when Omar first speaks to the press. This was the first time the Canadian public ever heard from him. Do you think that Canadians' perceptions of him have changed a little bit since that first media interview?
Shephard: I think so. Just from a very unscientific poll of people coming up to me, making comments, or emails you get. For so many years, the dial never moved on that story. And anytime I wrote about that story I would get the angriest emails. And sometimes, on the same story, from both ends—the far right and the far left. So there were always these two groups that had very strong opinions. And then a grey area in the middle. I think that press conference was probably the first time that the dial moved a little bit and people thought, Oh, well, maybe I don't have this story exactly right, or Maybe he's not quite the monster he's been portrayed to be.
You interview a lot of very high-profile people, including Guantanamo's chief prosecutor at the time, a former CSIS official, and cell mates of Omar's. What challenges did you experience getting these people on camera?
Shephard: In some ways we were kind of lucky with the timing because enough time had passed in this case and [from the time of] his guilty plea and what happened in Guantanamo. I think some people were finally willing to tell the story—or their side of the story. We have someone who was at the firefight, one of the special forces soldiers there. He does talk on camera and we were really excited to get that interview, but he used a pseudonym, so there are still some sensitivities around the case.
Reed: I think the main reason why people talked to us was because of Michelle, because she wrote a book, obviously, about Omar Khadr. And the thing that is particularly special about the book is that it either pissed off everybody or everybody seemed to find something about it that they'd like. It's pretty rare that the Special Forces guy who was there, the hardcore US military true believers in the War on Terror, read the book, and liked the book. And then you've got people on the other side who have been very supportive of Omar and his advocates who also liked the book.
Shephard: It's a product placement for the book.
Reed: No, but it's an unusual situation because usually there is such a battle in terms of—you can often get people from one side to talk to you, but [it's rare] to get people who have different opinions to respect your past work, in this case, and open up because they trust the fact that you're going to be relatively objective, as far as you can be.
Shephard: This goes back to what you were saying earlier, that Patrick had no intention of making a point-of-view film. We didn't go into this with an activist mindset. We did it very journalistically. So, in that sense, we wanted to tell all sides of the stories and I think people trusted us to do that. Some people in the film see him as an absolute victim, some people see him as an unrepentant terrorist. And we said, "Let's give all their voices some air time."
And there are some people in the documentary who have some very strong opinions about the political system and the role it's played in Omar's case. There's a scene early on in the film where [Omar's lawyer] Dennis Edney tells a group of reporters that Harper is a bigot. Later, a CSIS official says that Harper probably hasn't read the Khadr file and Omar's just been wrapped up in a political agenda. Was there any sort of political message that you wanted to send with this film?
Reed: It's not so much a political message, I think it's a human message. What we focused on, or what we discovered, is that the amount of people who were very intimately involved in Omar's case, in Guantanamo Bay, in the War on Terror, many of them were transformed or their opinions changed, largely because of Omar. In the sense that they could have strong opinions and principles about what they were doing when they were interrogating people, when they were basically doing these Kangaroo Courts in Guantanamo Bay, but then on top of it all, when you're dealing with the fact, you're looking across at somebody and he's 15 years old, and he speaks English and he reads similar magazines to you and you start to think, This is weird. There's something not right about this. It's just one of those gut-level checks about I've got to look in the mirror and maybe reevaluate what I'm doing. So to me it's less a political thing. People who work with CSIS, people across the board, because of him as a kind of symbol, really did change their minds about things.
Shephard: I think the only thing to add that is that you've heard over the years people who have talked in the political arena about him and what the comments were in that arena were so different from the people that actually know him and work with him. From the bureaucrats, from the former head of the counter-terrorism intelligence unit. There's always been that disconnect. So in that sense, I think that does come out. It wasn't our intention to bring that out in the film, but it does come out that he was a political pawn in a much greater drama.
People have been following Omar's case in the news for more than a decade. Why do you think they should see the documentary?
Reed: I think people should see it largely because it's a great story and it forces you to ask basic questions about how you see the world. And whether you want to come at something from a position of simple judgement, or whether you want to open your mind and have your mind challenged, and possibly changed through the course of 90 minutes. In the same way that many of our characters in the film had their own lives changed when they experienced Omar, when they met him. I know a lot of family members who would've been very gung-ho, pro-War on Terror, and hearing Omar might change their minds about things. Probably not. Hearing somebody like the US military interrogator who is like the biggest true believer and tortured some guys and thought he was doing things to get revenge, and seeing that guy change throughout the course of the film and say, "I look at life in a different way now," that would convince them to reconsider things.
Shephard: I think that's why his story has always been so interesting. His own story, of course, is compelling and incredibly surreal. But he represents so much more. He represents how the world really changed after 9/11 in incredible ways. Every little part of his story has a piece of that. So, I think, while of course it's a documentary about Omar Khadr and his saga, it really is about the last 10 years.
Omar's Guantanamo conviction is currently being appealed in the US. So the film ends and you naturally want some kind of conclusion, but there isn't really one yet. What do you think is next for Omar?
Shephard: From what I understand he's now off to university. Still trying his best to fly below the radar and stay out of the attention.
Reed: I think one of the most touching things, for me, at the end of the film is just his admission, "What am I going to do next?" It's not the usual question that people who are in their mid-20s ask about what kind of job am I going to get? Or where I'm going to go? Am I going to hang out with my friends? It's the larger question about what am I going to do next when I can actually finally relax and crawl under my bed and cry? And deal with what has actually happened to me? Not perform for the camera, not be a symbol, just be myself. And that's probably going to be a pretty difficult, messy place to be for a while.