Kristen Stewart probably wouldn’t have been my first choice casting for a soldier stationed at Guantanamo Bay, but somehow she’s managed to pull it off. Stewart plays Amy Cole, a young girl who joins the army in the hope of escaping her small town life, however her dreams of a tour in the Middle East don’t come to fruition, and instead she is posted as a guard at the infamous “Gitmo”. Here she faces the daily struggle of trying to fit in with the other soldiers, but more importantly, the internal strife caused by her befriending of a detainee.
Payman Moaadi assumes the role of Ali, a prisoner from Germany detained 8 years previously on charges that we can only assume are terrorism-related. The initial relationship between Cole and Ali is understandably frosty, she is a new recruit out to prove she can handle the rigours of the army, and he is, well, a prisoner who doesn’t think he should be there. Both have very clear facades, Cole’s being that of an army drone who doesn’t care about her wards or their problems. Ali’s is more complicated, he is clearly an intelligent man, overall a peaceful man, but the years inside Gitmo have taken their toll and he struggles under the giant thumb of the American government. Most of his “acting out” (e.g. throwing a cup of faeces over Cole) is not because he’s a crazed extremist or because he hates westerners, they’re just a man trying to exercise what little bits of his life he still has control over.
It’s clear that Cole didn’t join the army because she loves military life or the idea of fighting for her country, in reality she just needed any means to escape the doldrums her small Florida town. Because of this disconnect from her employers, she finds it much easier to connect with Ali when he tries to converse with her as she patrols the cell block; there’s no siren in her head blaring “He’s a terrorist! He’s a goddamn terrorist!”, instead she just sees a human, not someone to order or interrogate, but someone to talk with. As the film develops, the setting of Guantanamo Bay becomes less important and can be seen more as a way of framing the conversations between our two protagonists; Cole vs Ali, prisoner vs guard, West vs East. Sometimes these conversations are charming and even funny, such as Ali’s genuine despair at Cole not being able to find the final Harry Potter book in the library for him. Others cut into some more poignant issues, the Ali’s and other detainees legal status for example.
The dynamic that develops isn’t what you’d call friendship, more a mutual respect between humans who see that they’re not as different as the immediate surroundings make them out to be. Cole’s superiors are much more committed to a black and white world, they view the military’s main purpose as espousing a very particular set of ideals on the world, and don’t take kindly to the level of grey that Cole and Ali’s relationship brings to Gitmo. It’s a lot easier to run a base when all of the guards believe the detainees are inhumane and dangerous, rather than potentially innocent people caught up in a net of questionable intelligence and military activity.
I was pleasantly surprised by Camp X-Ray, the performances from Stewart and in particular from Moaadi help to localise some very big issues, which might otherwise have been lost in the ether had the film been less focused. Kristen Stewart should never be cast as a soldier, but it works here because Cole isn’t really a soldier, she represents the everyman, acting as a vessel for everyone who doesn’t like to think in black and white.
4 / 5
Dir: Peter Sattler
Scr: Peter Sattler
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi
Prd: Gina Kwon
DOP: James Laxton
Music: Jess Stroup
Run time: 117mins
Camp X-Ray is out now on DVD