“Extraordinary rendition,” “torture,” “civil rights,” “national security.” Though these are words that are bandied around in the news and popular consciousness a lot these days, they are also faceless, shapeless concepts that are difficult to fully understand. Yes, they may receive brief media attention from time to time, but they almost always fade from public consciousness. As the television journalist in the film “Hotel Rwanda” (played by Joaquin Phoenix) said, “people will say ‘That’s terrible’ and then go on eating their dinners.” The same could be said with our government’s terrible excesses of its prosecution of the “war on terror.”
Enter the film “Rendition,” released by New Line Cinema October 19th. “Rendition” is the story of an Egyptian-born Muslim, Anwar El Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwalli) who is detained by the CIA after a suicide bombing somewhere in North Africa (unintentionally) claims the life of the local CIA station chief. El Ibrahimi, a permanent U.S. resident married to an American woman (played by Reese Witherspoon) and living the American Dream in suburban Chicago, is linked to phone calls to a known terrorist overseas believed to be behind the terrorist attack (which, incidentally targeted a local chief of police, not Americans). El Ibrahimi could not explain the phone calls, and thus the CIA counter-terrorism chief (played by Meryl Streep) tells the interrogator to “put him on the plane.”
El Ibrahimi is then sent to said North African country where he is tortured brutally by his Arab interrogators, because, as Streep says in the film, “The United States does not torture.” The acting station chief, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is sent to observe the interrogation, but eventually cannot stomach what is being done, and he orders him released and flown back to the United States. The story is actually more complex than that, but then again, so is the story of terrorism, religious extremism, and the tension between national security and civil liberties, which the film captures quite well.
Of course, no film about the Middle East is complete without young men shouting “Allahu-akbar,” but radical Islam is almost an afterthought in the film. It would have been a little easier to watch if this was portrayed as a completely fictional scenario, but “extraordinary rendition” is an actual practice of our government (can you say “Maher Arar“?). That this could happen to anyone makes the film all the more disturbing.
“Rendition” happens to be one of the best researched Hollywood films about the Middle East in recent memory. True, there is a risk of audiences coming away from the film thinking that Arabs are nothing but brutal torturers, with a side commentary of female oppression in Arab society seemingly forced into the film. But there is nothing this film depicts that is not actually occurring in the Middle East today, which is truly sad.
Which is precisely the point. Hollywood has an enormous impact on the American public psyche and consciousness, and the film industry can play a very constructive role in helping to educate society about what is happening in the world around it. Although no one wants someone else’s version of morality forced upon them – Hollywood’s sexual morality, for example – there are things that are universally accepted as wrong: genocide, torture, slavery, and the like. A well-made feature film can go a long way to help make these concepts become “flesh.”
Despite some of the negative reviews “Rendition” has received, it remains an important film. Just as “Hotel Rwanda” helped show audiences the horror of what happened in that country (and the world’s indifference), “Rendition” helps us understand the insult to American values that “extraordinary rendition” truly is. The film also raises a number of questions, which any good film should do. Is the suicide bomber the only terrorist? What motivates someone to become a terrorist? Does torture work?
“Rendition” reminds us that Benjamin Franklin’s famous statement still remains relevant today: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.