'Guantanamo's Child: Omar Khadr': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A sympathetic introduction to a man who grew up under the worst possible conditions.

He was enjoying "enhanced interrogation" when he was too young to start drivers' ed.

An NPR report this week detailed a movement in which some criminal justice experts are working to change punishment policies for offenders from 18 to 25 years old, arguing that their brains are more similar to those of juveniles than adults. If the mainstream is willing to consider revising the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach to, say, a 22 year-old who might have a productive life ahead of him, perhaps we're ready to reconsider what we did to Omar Khadr, a 15 year-old boy who was given the Rumsfeldian "worst of the worst" treatment for over a decade starting in 2002. Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard follow Khadr's long imprisonment and eventual release from both sides, but lean strongly toward the boy in Guantanamo's Child, one more persuasive denunciation of the inhumane things the United States (and Canada, in this case) did in response to the 9/11 attacks. Their subject's strongly appealing personality should help the doc combat auds' fatigue with this sort of report, boding well for small-screen exposure.

Khadr, a Canadian citizen whose family moved to Pakistan when he was 8, then on to Afghanistan, was not a bystander in clashes between American forces and the Taliban: He was working as a translator for militants and, as home videos show, had become close enough to start making explosive devices with them that were intended for U.S. troops. "I wasn't thinking very much of the morality" of these acts, he admits today, and the film strongly suggests it was Khadr's father that put him on this path. He almost died in a U.S. raid, where he is accused of throwing a grenade that killed an Army medic, and was taken to Bagram Air Base for questioning.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

One of his interrogators, Damien Corsetti, appears here, bathed in shadows as he recalls his job. "What I've done with my own hands ... willingly," he admits, was "some wild s---." Colleagues knew him as The Monster, and he clearly views his treatment of Khadr and others with shame. Between his testimony and that of many others, we hear of the ghastly things done to the child, which include all the usual abuse and some less familiar practices — like the "Human Mop" treatment, in which Khadr was forced to urinate on the floor and to clean it up by rolling around in it. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay after Bagram, spent a decade there, and was transferred to Canadian prisons.

Footage of interviews in which Canadian intelligence officers met with Khadr at Guantanamo show a terrified teen, nearly broken by physical and mental abuse. But speaking to us now, he and former cellmates (who have also been released) show that "nearly" is the key word. "My emotions were the only thing I had control over," he says, and despite being locked up with jihadis for 13 years, he insists that his allegiances are to his native Canada and that he has no sympathies with those waging war on the West.

His warm positivity in these interviews (conducted early this year, after Canada's supreme court ordered his release) certainly has much to do with relentless advocacy by Dennis Edney, a colorful Scottish-Canadian lawyer who worked toward his release for a dozen years (the first four of which he wasn't even allowed to meet his client) and has become a father figure. Scenes of these two together leave little doubt that, whatever terrible things he did as a child soldier, Khadr wants nothing more as an adult than to live a just and peaceful life.

Production company: White Pine Pictures

Directors: Patrick Reed, Michelle Shephard

Producers: Patrick Reed, Michelle Shephard, Peter Raymont

Executive producer: Peter Raymont

Director of photography: John Westheuser

Editor: Cathy Gulkin

Music: Mark Korven

Sales: Films Transit International

No rating, 79 minutes

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