CAMP X-RAY, or: Compassion Is a Revolutionary Act

camp-x-ray_kristen-stewartOne of the best films of 2014 stars Kristen Stewart. Get over it.

The film is CAMP X-RAY and it’s a testament to the power of human drama. It also happens to take place in a world where humanity is considered unpatriotic – the world of Guantanamo Bay.

Pvt. Cole (Stewart) is sent to the detention center, just one of many fresh young recruits. It is her first deployment and her first time leaving the United States. The guards at Gitmo live a life of routine. They are told early on that their job is not to make sure the detainees don’t escape, it’s to make sure they don’t die. They are also told to call them detainees and not prisoners. Prisoners, after all, are protected under the Geneva Convention.

Every one of the detainees incarcerated is a suspected terrorist, or at least they were at one time. The guards pace the same hallway in a circle, looking into the cells. This is repeated, non-stop, for hours on end. The chances of the detainees doing anything to harm themselves or others are slim. None of them has more than a minute of privacy, before a soldier peers into their cell. In an attempt to wrestle power from the guards, the detainees spit out insults, rant about the poor conditions and take part in petty rebellions against their jailers. Occasionally, they also throw spit, urine or feces.

Cole is the target of one of these attacks on her first day, and another just a few days later. Both attacks come from the belligerent Detainee 471 (Payman Maadi – A SEPARATION). The list of infractions from 471 is a mile long. He refuses to behave and time has not calmed him down. He has been imprisoned at Guantanamo for eight years.

Cole has no intention of getting to know any of the detainees, especially 471. She only wants to be a good soldier. She is committed to the Army and believes in her assignment. Besides, this is the best opportunity to get as far away from her small Florida town as possible. But as she gets to know this prisoner, whose name she learns is Ali, the black and white nature of her work is replaced by layers of gray.

Ali is different from other detainees on the bloc. He is angry, but he doesn’t spout Islamist rhetoric like the cleric who continually screams at Cole for being a woman in uniform. His rage is instead aimed at the very fact that he remains imprisoned in the first place, and perhaps it’s aimed inward as well.

Cole and Ali continue to talk, always separated by fences and walls that are as symbolic as they are literal. In a telling scene, Cole tells Ali that she joined the Army because she wanted to do something important. Ali reacts to this with all too much understanding. Whether Ali was an active terrorist or not, it is suggested that, along with so many others, he was once swept up in the insanity of jihadism for the same reasons. Cole doubts whether she is a good soldier, Ali doubts whether he is a good man.

There are plenty of outside influences within CAMP X-RAY. Cole is torn between her growing friendship with Ali and a culture that views any attempt at understanding the enemy as a borderline treasonous act. She tries to blend in with her fellow soldiers in a number of clumsy and regrettable ways, only to still wind up ostracized for her inability to conform completely. It doesn’t help that Cole is a woman in a male-dominated military. The only other woman we see is a soldier who gets along with her troop, mainly because she hooks up with a commanding officer. This character has no lines of dialogue. Her male companions likely don’t care to hear anything she has to say anyway.

Still, CAMP X-RAY is essentially a two-person drama. The strength of the film lies in a great screenplay from first-time director Peter Sattler. Even more important and ultimately outstanding are the performances by Stewart and Maadi. Both of these characters start the film with the emotional barriers forced upon them by their circumstances. And yet, those barriers melt away so gradually and subtly that it never seems like cheap sentiment. Stewart and Maadi give two wonderfully pitched performances that allow the film to stand as tall as it aims to.

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This is the point in the review where many readers are rolling their eyes, assuming they haven’t already checked out completely. Stewart is persona non grata for a lot of people because she starred in a successful yet hated film series, THE TWILIGHT SAGA. She wasn’t terrible in the part, since every character expressed the same, strained, noncommittal mannerisms she did. Due to the overly romantic writing of the source material, no one gave a great performance in that series, not even the classically trained, award-winning actors. But since she was the star and focal point of the series, Stewart has been unfairly chastised as a bad actress. To that, I would simply interject with: SPEAK, WELCOME TO THE RILEYS, ON THE ROAD, ADVENTURELAND, THE RUNAWAYS, INTO THE WILD and UNDERTOW. Those films are overlooked or have most likely not been seen by many of the loud internet critics that have continued to condemn Stewart. And that’s the problem.

It’s true I never took the TWILIGHT series personally as I wasn’t the intended audience for the films. I even gave a couple of the installments pretty good reviews. I realize that if you are someone who was a teenager during the four-year period when the saga was in full swing, any qualities, or lack thereof, within the films might hit closer to home. And let’s face it; the character of Bella Swan is practically a poster girl for vacant women who desperately need to discover their independence. But if you look at social media, or even some review sites, you’re sure to find people who call TWILIGHT one of the worst films ever made. Really? In over 100 years of cinema, this is the worst? Such a hyperbolic statement tells me that you are either an angry teenager or you haven’t watched enough movies. Whatever the case, you have no idea what you are talking about.

In CAMP X-RAY, Stewart skillfully conveys the plight of a young woman, torn by her duty and professionalism and her awakening to some of the complex layers of a changing world. The fact is that Stewart has always been a good actress and I’m interested to see what her post-TWILIGHT career has to offer. She is tackling some intriguing projects, of which CAMP X-RAY is only one. I only hope the audience will let her flourish, because she’s certainly capable.

The only way different cultures of any nationality are likely to heal the wounds that exist between them is by understanding. And yet, we have institutions where understanding is considered weakness. If we look at our enemies as humans, it prevents the machine from going on. CAMP X-RAY is a subtle, intimate look at this struggle. It remains remarkably objective in presenting two sides of a conflict. Some might be turned off by the film’s unwillingness to get on a soapbox and loudly proclaim its politics. For myself, I want to thank Sattler for writing and directing a film that forces the viewer to invest more thought in both the differences and similarities between the two cultures. There are far too few dramatic films from 2014 that force us to examine our feelings about how we see the world. CAMP X-RAY is a film of refreshing honesty.

The military doesn’t want Cole and Ali to talk. The jihadists don’t want Cole and Ali to talk. In the early 21st century, nobody wants to talk to anybody and opening up your heart and mind to another is a revolutionary act. CAMP X-RAY takes place in a real-life war zone where each side is separated by mere inches and where the lights are on at all times. And yet, even under these conditions, nobody sees anything.  The Best.

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RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

2 thoughts on “CAMP X-RAY, or: Compassion Is a Revolutionary Act

  1. Well put. “Camp X-Ray” simple message of humanity and integrity is only overshadowed by the brilliant acting and chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi. What a wonderful film, it’s a shame that these performances were not recognized by the Spirit Awards.

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