The human rights group Amnesty International has launched a new anti-torture campaign that’s attempting to capitalize on the viral nature of Internet video to raise awareness about interrogation techniques reportedly used in Guantanamo Bay. The campaign, known as Unsubscribe Me, seeks to rally Internet users to demand that policymakers unsubscribe from policies that condone harsh interrogation techniques. The first of three videos is now online, and it will undoubtedly be controversial.
Produced by Marc Hawker and Ishbel Whitaker and starring Jiva Parthipan, Waiting for the Guards is a film short depicting a prisoner forced to squat in a “stress position,” balancing on two cardboard boxes while a hood envelopes his head. As the prisoner struggles to maintain the position, an indifferent interrogator lounges in the hallway, killing time by pacing around and calling up his daughter on his mobile phone before picking up the interrogation where it left off.
To make the film, Hawker and Whitaker subjected Parthipan to six hours in the stress position. So when you watch the video, his agony is not acting; he’s actually experiencing the interrogation technique first-hand.
Here’s the video. Be forewarned that it’s very unsettling, and not at all appropriate for children.
This week I had the chance to interview Marc Hawker and Jiva Parthipan about their experiences making the film. Here’s what they had to say.
Andy Carvin: How did this project come about? Did you approach Amnesty International or the other way around?
Marc Hawker: We were asked to be part of a consortium in a pitch to come up with a strategy for a campaign to give people a place to make their voice heard in protesting about the use of torture and the abuse of human rights in the so-called War On Terror. We came up with the word “unsubscribe.” It was a simple, but powerful idea – take a word that is widely used on the Internet and politicize it – for people to unsubscribe from human rights abuse. The consortium won the pitch and we devised the campaign concepts together.
As part of the campaign we were asked to make three films on what are called “enhanced interrogation techniques” which are used by the CIA and endorsed by the US government. Amnesty and we believe these techniques are torture and must stop. It devalues what we hold dear in our societies.
Andy: Jiva, what attracted you to the project?
Jiva Parthipan: Much of my art practice is concerned with, the manner in which power is negotiated in the interpersonal, social, geopolitical and sexual spheres. Therefore this seemed a natural choice to make. Furthermore, on a personal note, I was brought up in Sri Lanka and my uncle went missing when taken into questioning by the army. So I am very concerned about torture.
Andy: Marc, how did you convince Jiva to participate?
Marc: We approached Jiva, who is a performance artist, because he both understood endurance performing and also had his own personal political views that were aligned with the campaign. We did not have a problem convincing him to undergo the extreme nature of the filming as he understood the principles and trusted our approach. Both him and us insisted that we would have medical supervision on the set and we would never go beyond what Jiva could bare. We agreed a code word – the word “green,” which Jiva would shout if the pain got too much. Of course, people who are in detention around the world by the CIA in “black sites,” secret prison camps and foreign prisons have no such back up, and no such get-out clause.
Andy: Jiva, were you worried how the experience might affect you?
Jiva: Not much. I have made durational endurance based works before.
Andy: So what was the production process like?
Marc: This was the strangest experience for all involved. We kept the film crew as small as possible, as this was going to be a very intimate shoot. We wanted as little distraction as possible. Everyone knew what was going to happen, so there was a sense of tension everywhere. None of us knew what the experience of filming was going to be like.
What was important to us was to shoot this horror as beautifully as possible. This was a core concept to the filming. We needed to find a way that people would continue to watch something they felt shocked by. So a lot of time was spent composing what the shots would be before we actually started filming.
Jiva: Altogether there were 29 takes. Each time I was put into a stress position and would stop only when my body couldn’t take it any more and I started to squat involuntarily or fall off the box.
Andy: What kind of emotional or physical response, if any, did you have from watching Jiva in the stress positions?
Marc: We were shocked. We knew what to expect, but were taken aback by how quickly the experience became unbearable for Jiva. It was not normal for us to put someone in pain and anguish and keep them there as long as we can. It’s just not a normal thing a director does. There was no acting from Jiva; his moans and shudders and physical shaking shocked us all. Of course, we also had a job to do – to capture it and film it as best we could do.
But it had an effect on us all. There was something surreally religious about it as an experience. The shape of Jiva in the space, his isolation and pain felt very much like a sacrificial lamb. It was very, very strange. All of the crew were hushed; there was none of the usual playing around and jokes. It was a silent set.
Andy: Jiva, were you surprised in any way in terms of how you handled the stress positions, either physically or mentally?
Jiva: I am a physically fit person and swim regularly. Before starting to do my own work influenced by live art and performance art I had trained as a dancer. So holding positions wasn’t new for me. I assumed I would be able to keep a position for about 12 minutes before my body seized. I was surprised that after about seven minutes my body couldn’t take it any more. Also the more takes there were, the less time I could hold the position.
Andy: At any point in the production process did you feel yourself becoming inured to Jiva’s pain?
Marc: Never. When he shouted “green” and we cut, I would rush over to him with the medic and we would make sure he was okay. We brought a journalist and photographer down, and Amnesty were there as well. Everyone was focused on Jiva.
Andy: Even though Jiva was a willing participant, were there any concerns about the legality of subjecting him to this treatment, even if for documentary purposes?
Marc: There were all sorts of legal issues. Jiva had to sign a disclaimer; we had to have special insurance. We all understood that there were difficult ethical issues in what we were doing, but all agreed that the only way to show the obscene nature of these interrogation techniques was to present to the audience the reality in as authentic a way as possible.
Andy: Would you ever do anything like this again, or was it too disturbing?
Jiva: Involuntarily? No. Voluntarily? Yes, if that what it takes to get a point through.
I was lucky. I knew I could stop any time I wanted to. Also, the people around me were very supportive and kind. I knew what was going to happen after the film shoot – meeting friends – and definitely knew where I was. It bears not thinking what it will be like if you were in those positions for much longer, in an undisclosed location and not knowing what was going to happen next. One would tell anything that the interrogator wanted to hear!
Andy: How about you, Marc?
Marc: We are starting production on the next of the three films. This one is about waterboarding, a technique used again by the CIA. This involves pouring water over the cloth-covered head of the prisoner that makes them feel like they are drowning. This film will be different. Waiting For The Guards dealt with the separation of prisoner and interrogator. The “stress position” does not involve physical contact. The next film will. The interrogator is actively physically abusing the prisoner. It is going to be more brutal. We are looking for a way to film this new one with the same empathy Waiting For The Guards has for Jiva. We are at concept stage at the moment, filming in December and releasing the film in Jan 11th, the birthday of Guantanamo Bay.
Andy: How is the video being distributed?
Marc: The video is on YouTube, and we ask everyone who is behind the campaign to get the film out there. It is also on www.unsubscribe-me.org, where people can sign up to the campaign and download Widgets of the film to post on their websites and blogs. There are also MySpace, Bebo and Facebook sites with the film on it. The campaign was designed to encourage campaigning through social networking sites. We’d like to ask everyone to watch the film, and get it out there. The way our society handles itself over the next decade in confronting terrorism is critical. We can’t let our values be destroyed, and we need to hold those ordering, doing these acts, to account.