'The Sound of Torture': Bergen Review

Sound of Torture Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Bergen International Film Festival

Sound of Torture Still - H 2014

Disturbing doc makes a faraway crisis personal

A radio host in Sweden is a lifeline for African refugees

Bearing witness to atrocities being committed against a population of refugees most Americans won't even have heard of, Keren Shayo's The Sound of Torture focuses on Eritreans who are kidnapped while migrating across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel. Thousands have been taken by Bedouins there; we hear their shocking stories through the ears of Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean broadcaster living in Stockholm who has dedicated her radio show to their cause and struggles to attract the West's attention. This short but upsetting doc (Shayo's first) should help with that, moving viewers at fests and in human rights-oriented special screenings.

Captives are given cell phones so they can call relatives and plead for money — $25,000 is a typical ransom, one that loved ones must struggle to gather from far-flung relatives and community members. But many also call Estefanos, who puts them on the air while also counseling the relatives (most of them now living in Tel Aviv) trying desperately to save them.

We hear the voices of people who are surrounded by torture, who have found a few minutes to beg outsiders to do something to help. We listen to stories of pregnant women who give birth while chained, men who are locked up with rotting corpses, of girls raped many times every night. We see a man's face as he agonizes through a phone call with his imprisoned wife, who doesn't think she can keep their newborn alive. She answers his questions about their conditions and treatment, but there's a long, meaningful silence when he asks if she has been raped.

Estefanos takes a trip to Tel Aviv, where she meets many she has helped over the years. Most of the reunions are joyous, but one woman suffers a terrifying flashback to trauma immediately after they embrace. The activist also goes to North Sinai, getting as close as she can to where she thinks hostages are kept and trying to decide how much to believe locals' claims that only around ten "outcasts" in this community would participate in such crimes. Given the intensity of the material, Shayo is notably unmanipulative, letting events and her protagonist speak for themselves: When Estefanos reports trying to get the E.U., U.S., and the U.N.'s Human Rights Council involved, only to find them unconvinced, she doesn't need to plead the case to make a viewer horrified at their inaction.

Production company: Trabelsi Productions

Director-Screenwriter: Keren Shayo

Producer: Galit Cahlon

Executive producer: Osnat Trabelsi

Director of photography: Daniel Kedem

Editor: Ayal Goldberg

No rating, 61 minutes