Persons of Interest (Allison Maclean and Tobias Perse). New York: First Run/ Icarus Films, 2004.
This award-winning film portrays the experiences of isolated, fearful, and defenseless Arabs and Muslims detained by the US government in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as the ordeals of their families. Family members were sealed off from each other, from society and from information about why the arrests were made, where the detainees were held and what their eventual fates would be. In the end, all of the Arabs and Muslims picked up in the immediate post-September 11 dragnet were released, although many were deported. Not one was charged in connection with the attacks. Their names remain under seal. Persons of Interest, so named because the FBI categorized the detainees in this way — “of interest, of special interest, of high interest, interest unknown” — tells the stories of a handful of them.
The directors, Allison Maclean and Tobias Perse, effectively capture the insecurity of being held incommunicado by setting nearly the entire film in an austere, narrow and colorless room where a disembodied voice speaks to the standing, prop-less “person of interest.” The anonymous, unseen interrogator conveys the sense of unbridled power standing behind a system that arrests, detains and places in solitary confinement persons who have been accused of nothing but membership in particular religious or ethnic groups. The detainee is decontextualized — stripped down to his ascribed essence — in an attempt to represent the homogeneous and dehumanized Arab/Muslim imagined by the persons who ordered and made these arrests. A success of the film is that it fails to dehumanize. The subjects come off as incredibly human, persons who chose to live in the United States for the same reasons as others, to support their families and live in dignity.
One hears the ring of selective enforcement in the former detainees’ descriptions of their arrests and detention. One man says that the main evidence against him was a postcard of the World Trade Center taped to the deli counter where he worked. A Latina married to an Arab speaks of “thousands” of armed agents entering her building shouting: “Does an Arab live here?” Others describe being stopped by police and asked where they were from; once arrested, they were asked whether they knew how to fly, were religious or attended a mosque. One woman described her son’s bail as ten times higher than that of a drug dealer. Another man relived the experience of being led in shackles down a prison hall, hearing on the loudspeaker as he was brought into an elevator: “Special package from one to nine.”
The film reports that more than 96,000 anonymous tips were reported to authorities after the attacks, tips that provoked FBI visits to people’s homes and workplaces. One man was arrested outside a Burger King after a member of the public called the police. Asked first by the police where he was from, he was detained, held in solitary confinement for 30 days, and eventually released. Charges of “unauthorized use of a rental car” were dropped. In the process, he spent $25,000 in legal fees.
The sense conveyed by many of the former detainees and their family members is that life in the US is no longer the same: anything you have does not feel like yours, because it can be taken from you at any time. This sense of “homeland insecurity” matches the findings of my study of Arabs and Muslims in metropolitan Chicago, who report feeling the watchful eyes of others observing their performance of everyday tasks, such as checking the mailbox or loading the trunk. Minor infractions, such as the late delivery of a rental car, have the potential to become life-altering events.
Persons of Interest is about families as much as it is about individual detainees. Wives relate their fear at not knowing the whereabouts or the status of their husbands. One woman who finally gets to visit her husband is rendered speechless when she sees him emaciated, in handcuffs and chains, with the eyes of a “crazy person.” In the end, some families are literally split apart by the outcomes of these arrests, as spouses must live in two different countries and children lose a parent.
It is extremely difficult to depict on film what it is actually like to be imprisoned, shackled and held incommunicado in solitary confinement. One of the last persons to be interviewed in the film effectively recreates some of this experience. He spent 382 days in prison, 100 of them in solitary confinement, sometimes reminiscing about his life and other times feeling he would never see freedom again. The film shows that former Attorney General John Ashcroft was true to his word. “Terrorists among us be warned,” he said. “If you violate your visa by one day or if you violate a local law, we will work to ensure you stay in custody as long as possible.” Substitute Arab and Muslim non-citizens for terrorist and you have the government’s policy.
Persons of Interest is a riveting, well-paced and important film that documents a time in American history that must be subjected to public scrutiny. All Americans should watch it. The film does not offer analyses or provide answers, but it does offer rich material for what one hopes will be discussions of that next level of responsibility for members of a democratic society.