Tonight (Thursday, February 19) you have one shot at seeing a compelling new documentary at a/perture cinema at 6:30. Co-director Eric Juth, an adjunct instructor in the Art Department at Wake Forest University will be on-hand for a Q & A session following the screening.
Mary: Congratulations on completing Ghosts of Johnston County! For people who don’t know anything about the story, how would you describe the film?
Eric: Thank you, Mary. Ghosts of Johnston County is a story about a struggle – ongoing for over 9 years – lead by a core group of North Carolinians who are demanding accountability for torture and other human rights abuses committed during the “war on terror.” The focus of this group, and the link to North Carolina, is Aero Contractors, a secretive air transportation company based at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield. Flight records and witness accounts testify to the key role that Aero played in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition program,” transporting over 30 individuals (at least) to secret detention facilities abroad at the behest of the CIA. At these facilities detainees were held indefinitely and routinely tortured during their interrogations. Importantly, there appears to be no credible evidence linking some of the former and current detainees to terrorism.
One former detainee is Abou El-Kassim Britel, an Italian citizen whose story is woven into the film. Britel was flown by Aero Contractors from Pakistan to Morocco in 2002. He was brutally tortured at both of these locations, and to this day suffers lasting physical and psychological damage. It is for people like him, who suffer in silence and remain mostly invisible to the public here, that the activists are compelled to work.
Mary: You started working on the film as a graduate student with a co-director, Michele Ferris-Dobles. How did you learn about this story?
Eric: I have been aware of the practice of extraordinary rendition since 2005 or 2006 when reports about the program first began to surface, in the New York Times and The Washington Post, for example. That there was an ongoing effort in North Carolina to expose the state’s involvement with this business of “torture taxis” came to my and Michelle’s attention through an article published in the February 9th, 2012 edition of The Washington Post: “Ten years later, CIA ‘rendition’ program still divides N.C. town.” After coming across this article, we decided to investigate the situation in Johnston County, to see if there might be a story that lent itself to documentary storytelling.
Mary: What was it that drew you to the story in addition to the inherently dramatic tensions that emerged in this rural community?
Eric: The film is largely structured around the home-video footage of Johnston County resident Walt Caison. Caison documented many of the public protests and vigils on his personal camcorder. I am not sure if we would have had a film were it not for the footage provided by Caison, (or at least we would have had a drastically different film.) There is an immediacy and presence in his footage that I am not sure Michele or I would have been able to capture, especially as outside observers to the situation. The idea of composing the film in “dialogue” with Caison’s footage appealed to both of our sensibilities; it displaced our role as “authors,” allowing the story to “speak for itself” in some ways.
Mary: I’m sure there were challenges in telling a story about a secretive CIA operation. After all, the idea is not to draw attention to a program like this. What was the biggest challenge in making this film, and how did you and Michele address it?
Eric: A major challenge for us was in trying to represent the perspective of Aero Contractors and/or their supporters. Admittedly, despite us generally being in agreement with the sentiment of the activists, we were not interested in making an advocacy film for them. What we were trying to do was understand the situation in Johnston County, and present it in as nuanced a way as possible. For example, I spoke to Airport Director Ray Blackmon over the phone. I had a very productive conversation with him, and when all was said and done, I was only was asking for him to offer his thoughts about the activists – nothing about Aero Contractors directly. To his credit, he seriously considered participating in the film. But in the end he declined the offer after having discussed it with the airport Board of Directors. Fortunately, I was able to track down footage from a European television documentary from 2008 that briefly includes footage of Blackmon. Since our film is largely constructed around archival materials, we were able to weave this footage into the story. (Even in the footage we appropriated, Blackmon declines to be interviewed, but at least that camera crew captured his refusal….)
Mary: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share with readers?
Eric: A key motivation in making this film was to show that the U.S. Government’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture by proxy during the “war on terror” has not been forgotten, despite the current administration’s decision to “look forward and not back.” If the film can be said to be an activist film, it is to counter to this “politics of forgetting.”
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