Rendition concerns the "extraordinary rendition" of Egyptian-born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who is suspected of ties to a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. El-Ibrahimi is tortured, on behalf of the CIA, in an unnamed North African country. While his wife (Reese Witherspoon) struggles to secure his release, the CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to monitor his interrogation grows increasingly skeptical of the methods being applied.
Though Rendition is problematic, it does raise questions about American involvement in the practice of torture. Mark Danner, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror and The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History, discusses these questions with SFR.
SFR: What percentage of those tortured are actually middle-class Americans with PhDs, who are married to beautiful Oscar-winning starlets with connections to US senators?
MD: [Laughs] Well, of course [Witherspoon] is not an Oscar-winning starlet in the movie, she's a housewife. Obviously, the circumstances depicted are unusual if you compare the family to others who have been involved in renditions. On the other hand, the inspiration—though I can't speak for the screenwriters—must be Maher Arar, a Syrian man who was intercepted on a connecting flight at JFK and was rendered back to Syria, where he was very badly mistreated. The Canadian government produced quite an extensive report and it seems quite clear that his rendition was a mistake. The connections were very improbable. One could say it's not typical, but it's also not outlandish. It seems to have happened in at least one very well-documented case.
Did it strike you as unrealistic that El-Ibrahimi would be captured and tortured on such scant evidence? He had only gotten a few calls on his phone.
It's quite possible that someone could be picked up for very similar reasons. This is thought to be very strong evidence-to actually have telephonic connection to someone who is known as part of a terrorist group. Intelligence agencies are trained not to believe in coincidences.
Have the photographs from Abu Ghraib made images of Americans committing torture cinematically acceptable?
It's quite clear that images of torture exert a morbid fascination that's been well known and remarked upon as far back as Plato's Republic, in which there's a little exchange about the inability to turn one's eyes away from scenes of horror. The waterboarding is quite vividly depicted. The position in which [El-Ibrahimi] is suspended is dramatic and horrifying. But one didn't need Abu Ghraib to know that that's the way the procedures generally work. We've known that for a long time. If you go back to The Battle of Algiers, there are very famous scenes of torture.
You've written a lot about how we've moved into the 'age of the frozen scandal.' There was once this narrative arc from 'revelation to investigation to expiation.' Now we just get revelation and thenâ€¦nothing. With the increasing psychological blur between reality and media, have we now moved into an era where the arc is from revelation to mediation to fictionalization and finally to sublimation?
Yeah, it's one of the weird things about this movie. You said sublimation? I would say there is this gentle melancholy thing watching it—'Oh how horrible, how horrible'—while it's going on. Not something that's happened but something happening.
Any final thoughts?
Well I just think it's a remarkable thing that we can be in a political world where we've decided to do these things, and we can go to a feature film depicting them and they continue.