When you go to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, you
expect the screen to be a window onto the world. Feature-length
documentaries will outnumber fiction films – the ratio this year is 16 to 3
– and even in the latter category, fact will predominate over artifice. You
will get glimpses into Israel and Palestine (Paradise Lost, One Shot), Peru
(What the Eye Doesn’t See), the two Koreas (Repatriation), India and
Pakistan (Born Into Brothels, For a Place Under the Heavens), Africa
(Liberia: An Uncivil War) or Iran (Leila); and however maddening,
disquieting, bracing or astonishing these views might be, you look forward
to seeing them directly, as if through nothing more than a sheet of glass.
What you might not expect – although you get it anyway in this seventeenth
annual edition of the festival – is a riddle: When is a window not a window?
The answer: When it’s in Persons of Interest by Alison Maclean and Tobias
Persons of Interest addresses the cases of about a dozen of the Muslim men
in the United States who were imprisoned after September 11, 2001, on
slight charges, if any at all, and held without trial for a year or more.
You already know, of course, that our authorities shut away many people
back then for nothing more than being named Muhammad. You also know,
without believing a word of it, Attorney General Ashcroft’s claim that he
was rounding up only terrorists, or those who knew terrorists, or maybe
lived down the block from somebody whose second cousin knew someone. But
unless you belonged to the family or legal team of a detainee, you probably
do not know the name and face of anyone who was locked away, nor could you
readily get such information on your own. Our government prefers not to say
who, or how many, it held. (Human Rights Watch estimates the number at more
than 5,000.) So Maclean and Perse have done us a valuable service by
showing some of these people and their families and letting us hear their
stories. Window metaphors suggest themselves: The filmmakers have shone a
light on the situation, or let in fresh air. And, sure enough, the
interviews take place in a bare room with whitewashed walls, with a glowing
window niche at the left..