Robert Rae reviews.
The small Edinburgh cinema was sold out. The event was a showing of Ashish Ghadiali’s fine new film The Confession, followed by a Q&A with its subject, Moazzam Begg. In the city where the comedian Reginald D Hunter opened his set by asking ‘What have they done with all the black people?’ an unusually high proportion of the audience were Muslim women and men. The reason soon became clear. Begg, despite his brutal treatment at the hands of the state and its allies, quietly and charismatically chooses to speak out on behalf of the latest ‘enemy within’, the British Muslim community.
Birmingham born and bred, Begg was imprisoned, stripped and shackled, subjected to rendition and tortured in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Cuba. Then, most recently, he was detained in Belmarsh prison, never being tried let alone found guilty. In The Confession we see an intense and thoughtful man, filmed from an acute angle that places us in the uncomfortable position of the Agent (familiar from shows such as Homeland), who, standing outside watching through mirrored glass, considers both the honesty of the detainee and the performance of the interrogator – a parallel enhanced by Nitin Sawhney’s evocative score.
Begg demonstrates how he survived as he offers considered and detailed answers to probing questions, faltering only when asked why he signed a confession of association with Al Qaeda when held in Bagram. Typical of survivors of torture, he only briefly alludes to its reality. The principal objective of torture is the destruction of the ego through ritualised humiliation; the dilemma for the filmmaker is whether forcing the point would repeat the torture.
The film portrays a private man with clear boundaries – his wife is only heard and not seen on film. He comes across as motivated by the kind of mixture of humanitarian and ideological concern that led British socialists and anarchists to join the International Brigades in the 1930s – the difference being that Begg has never lifted a weapon in anger. It is his refusal to condemn the right of a people to take up arms in self-defence when faced with annihilation, such as the Muslim population of Bosnia, whose massacre he witnessed first-hand, that has led to his imprisonment as a terrorist.
In the post-film chat a different person emerges – still articulate, but a self-deprecating and gently humorous Englishman, slightly embarrassed by the fuss but duty bound to tell his truth. His father, an upstanding bank manager, sent his son to a good Jewish school and brought him up to value tolerance and respect integrity. If Begg didn’t happen to be brown-skinned and Muslim, the media might portray him as one of those stoic British officers who survived the POW camps by refusing to be anything less than decent regardless of the brutality of their Nazi or Japanese captors.
On a personal level I couldn’t help but think about the Provisional IRA’s military campaign. I was the product of a devout Catholic education, a seminary in the north of England in the 1960’s, and through a sense of shared identity felt a strong empathy with the Catholic community in the north of Ireland, when the Rev Ian Paisley railed he did so against ‘my people’. Like Begg I adopted a nuanced analysis of the conflict, which allowed me to condemn civilian casualties while understanding the context of imperialist history and the reality of state repression. Disturbingly, The Confession left me wondering whether Muslim communities would react as they had in the North of Ireland, where disaffected young men found purpose in armed struggle, and communities rallied behind them. The reality of armed conflict is far from romantic and it would be a tragedy of massive proportions if communities today were driven in a similar direction.
We must treasure the humanity of people like Moazzam Begg, who refuse to allow the brutality they have experienced be turned into hate. This is an important and intelligent film, which quietly and carefully explains, to those that choose to listen, the complex relationship between the ‘war on terror’ and the communities whose cause Begg elegantly champions.