New England Law screening of “The Response” - Mar 14, 2012

A screening of "The Response" and panel discussion will take place at New England Law | Boston on March 14, 2012.

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Charlottesville, VA DailyProgress.com: Film a ‘Response’ to Guantanamo trials"

While attending a class on homeland security at the University of Maryland School of Law, actor and screenwriter Sig Libowitz came across transcripts of detainee hearings at Guantanamo Bay.

While attending a class on homeland security at the University of Maryland School of Law, actor and screenwriter Sig Libowitz came across transcripts of detainee hearings at Guantanamo Bay.

“I remember vividly sitting there in the back of that room and felt like my breath had been taken away,” Libowitz recalled.

He immediately realized that he had “no idea” of what was happening in the secretive tribunals that weighed the fate of an estimated 558 “enemy combatants” imprisoned at the United States’ military detention center in Cuba.

And he realized that showing the world the inner workings of such tribunals would make a gripping movie.

“I was tired of films and books trying to tell me what I should think about this,” said Libowitz, who has played roles on “The Sopranos” and “Law & Order.” “I wanted to put the issue out there, but trust the audience. Let people think.”

Libowitz took excerpts from the transcripts and wrote a film around them that depicts the shadowy — some say Kafkaesque — legal proceedings. The result of Libowitz’s vision, a 30-minute drama called “The Response,” was screened Saturday before a crowd of 150 moviegoers as part of the Virginia Film Festival.

The movie centers around the fate of a detainee named al-Aqar played by Aasif Mandvi (a correspondent on “The Daily Show”) who is tried by a panel of three U.S. military officers, played by Peter Riegert (“Animal House”), Kate Mulgrew (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and Libowitz.

During the first half of the film, al-Aqar pleads his case before the three officers after being imprisoned for four years in Guantanamo, suffering alleged beatings, endless interrogations and no access to legal counsel.

In the proceeding — called a combatant status review tribunal — al-Aqar is chained to the floor and questioned about charges of terrorism. He says he cannot defend himself against such charges without seeing the classified evidence against him.

Over the film’s second half, the military officers convene behind closed doors to discuss the case. The officers weigh al-Aqar’s claim that he was innocent against the American government’s view that he is a terrorist bomb maker responsible for the deaths of 40 U.S. soldiers.

The film aims to show both sides of the story, rather than serve as a piece of propaganda for either side of the debate.

“This is someone’s life,” Libowitz said. “In these few minutes before the tribunal, this is him defending his life.”

Riegert said he accepted the role because the film has no agenda other than to show the audience what is happening and to make them ask themselves what they would do if they held such a man’s freedom in their hands.

“The higher the stakes, the more interesting the drama,” Riegert said. “In this film, the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

Riegert, whose character is named “Col. Jefferson,” added that he worries America’s decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has severely damaged the country’s reputation around the world.

“If we are mocked as hypocrites, that’s terrifying to me,” he said.

Libowitz and Riegert appeared on a panel discussion following the film that was moderated by Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate who writes about legal issues.

Lithwick called “The Response” effectively and concisely tells the story of what happened to detainees swept up in Afghanistan and Pakistan following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

“This movie has achieved in 30 minutes what I have attempted to achieve over the last seven years,” she said.

Also on the panel were two lawyers, David Dickman and Agnieszka Fryszman, who have represented detainees incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. They said the film reflects the frustration they have experienced in trying to represent detainees they believe had no reason to be imprisoned. Many of them, they said, were captured far from any battlefield and were handed over to U.S. authorities in exchange for lucrative bounties.

“The law of war is there for a reason,” Dickman said. “The Geneva Conventions are there to make some sense of civility out of the madness. … From the beginning, our government has determined that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to these people. They’re just in a black hole.”

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Yet if it closes, what ought to be done with the detainees?

Some are undoubtedly terrorists, the panel said, while others are probably innocent. Many of them have been locked up for seven years. Even if they were innocent when they were imprisoned, are they dangerous now after so many years of harsh treatment?

“I don’t want anybody released who shouldn’t be released,” Dickman said. “I just want the people who shouldn’t be there to be able to go home.”