Celebrities traipsing through the Sundance Film Festival would seem to be among the most unlikely people to lead a serious discussion on the shadowy war against terrorism.
CIA "waterboarding" is not really a subject best discussed amid plans to go snowboarding in Utah's mountains, and "Gitmo" seems unsuitable a topic during gondola rides.
Yet as U.S. President Barack Obama tries to navigate America's way back up some slippery ethical slopes, activists want certain discredited counter-terrorism practices consigned to history. And as Washington seems reluctant to hold specific officials responsible for past rights abuses, activists are turning to Hollywood to shame the Bush administration.
One of the weapons in the war on some of the insalubrious methods of the "war on terror" has been Reckoning with Terror, a series of readings by celebrities of documents chronicling the government's post 9/11 activities. The Sundance edition, held inside the Egyptian Theatre on Park City's main drag on Saturday, saw luminaries of varying wattages - including Robert Redford, in a ski vest, no less - attempt to get the filmgoing audience to pause from the screenings, skiing and networking for long enough to hear some true-life tales about state-sanctioned "torture" during the past decade.
Actor Ellen Barkin ( The Big Easy) read a military interpreter's account of abusive interrogations in Kandahar. Writer E. Annie Proulx (whose short story eventually became Brokeback Mountain) read a testimonial from a German Muslim, describing how he was snatched in Macedonia before being sent away for months of rough questioning in Afghanistan. Even young America Ferrara (of TV's Ugly Betty fame) was on hand, reading from the transcript of a Kafka-esque Guantanamo Bay military tribunal.
"As much as I would like people to pay as much attention to me as they do to Robert Redford - they don't," said Jameel Jaffer, a Canadian-born lawyer with the ACLU who helped organize the event.
"What we want to do is create a cultural and political climate in which accountability is not just politically feasible but seen as imperative," he said.
The readings, minimally staged, were put together from ACLU documents by a Hollywood director (Doug Liman, the director behind Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the Jason Bourne series). Years before WikiLeaks encouraged would be whistle-blowers to steal state secrets , the ACLU went to court to persuade judges to free classified documents from the hands of clandestine agencies.
And to lend events street-cred, a couple of former U.S. government interrogators-turned-writers also took part. "My experience is that harsh interrogation techniques never worked. I did over 300 interrogations and I never used harsh techniques," said Matthew Alexander, a former military interrogator who has since authored a book called How to Break a Terrorist.
At their best, the readings were chilling - such as when President George W. Bush's legal memos justifying "enhanced interrogation techniques" were juxtaposed with the Red Cross's chronicles of the complaints of Abu Zubaydah, the "high-value" al-Qaeda suspect who was pretty much the guinea pig for those same techniques (including waterboarding). There doesn't really seem to be much daylight between what was planned for him and what was done to him.
The content of the readings spoke to highly systematized government complicity in what many people would regard as torture. Still, one might well wonder whether preaching all this to an audience of the converted at Sundance makes a lick of difference.
"No one's under any illusions that this one event is going to change things dramatically - but it can contribute," Jaffer said.
Writer Naomi Wolf ( The Beauty Myth), who was among the presenters, acknowledged "It's a very precious context we are all in." She said she planned to blog about her participation, in hopes that her Facebook fans and readers of her Huffington Post column might take heed of the event. Maybe, she said fancifully, teen idols like Justin Bieber could even be persuaded to participate in the future.
The Reckoning with Torture program has been performed in a handful of U.S. cities to date. There are hopes to stage the event soon at the Lincoln Center in New York and possibly in other countries - including Canada - if there is interest.