January 29, 2014



The Dramatic Competition at Sundance this year featured a pair of films that were largely built on duologues between two strong protagonists.  Attention was mostly–and properly–focused on Whiplash, which ended up winning both of the Festival’s top prizes, but Peter Sattler’s CAMP X-RAY is also worthy of some note.

Camp X-Ray is set at Guantanamo Bay, and it doesn’t try to hide its opinion that the place is generally shameful, not just imprisoning men who may (or may not) be innocent with minimal due process, but mistreating them as well, using the technicality that they’re “detainees” and not “prisoners” to exempt them from the protections of the Geneva Convention.  (At one point, an inmate who’s misbehaved is subjected to the “Frequent Flyer Program,” moved every 2 hours from one cell to another for several days in a row so that he can never sleep.)  Mostly, though, those issues are kept in the background.

The main concern of the film is the relationship that very slowly builds between a new guard, Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), and the prisoner Ali (Peyman Moaadi, who played the husband in A Separation).  Ali is a somewhat unusual inmate, prior to his arrest a resident of Bremen, Germany, rather than the Middle East, and clearly well-educated–much more so, probably, than Cole.  Ali is desperate for some kind of human connection after years isolated in a small room where the lights are never switched off, and he tries to reach out to his new guard by talking about books (he’s a Harry Potter fan); she’s suspicious and hostile, and he responds very badly to her refusal to interact.  (Even Cole notes the Silence of the Lambs undercurrent when speaking to Ali through the small window of his cell.)  Gradually, though, they find a sort of rapport and even trust.  

Sattler plays fair:  although Ali claims to be innocent, we never know for sure if he was a terrorist or not, or even what the details of his purported crimes are.  We, like Cole, have to take Ali as possibly a very bad man, despite how charming he can be when he chooses.  Naturally, a great deal of the film’s weight rests on the two stars.  Stewart may not have the widest acting range in the world, but her aura of antsy discomfort and awkward intelligence work very well for Cole; she’s believable as an outwardly confident soldier who becomes increasingly distracted and rebellious as she learns more about the world she’s in.  Moaadi has the much showier role, and he’s marvelous, both taunting and yearning as he fights his own sometimes violent bitterness and tries to forge a connection with a person who is technically his enemy.

The only substantial subplot deals with Cole having to cope with sexual harassment on the base, and although that’s obviously a real issue and not badly handled here, it feels somewhat out of place because the script is otherwise so spare that the events intrude on the main narrative.  There’s also a certain level of sentimentality toward the end that doesn’t completely fit with what’s preceded it.  Mostly, though, Sattler keeps effective control of his material, and he’s good not only with the actors but with their surroundings.  In a film as confined as this, the technical credits are particularly important, and credit goes to cinematographer James Laxton and production designer Richard A. Wright (the latter often works with the director David Gordon Green, an Executive Producer of Camp X-Ray), who create a persuasively realistic yet oppressive atmosphere.  Editor Geraud Brisson does a fine job keeping the lengthy conversation sequences from becoming monotonous with a variety of angles and shot lengths.

Camp X-Ray left Sundance without a US distribution deal (Kristen Stewart’s Twilight audience has shown that it has little interest in following her to the indie world), and may very well end up on VOD, where its tight, intense focus should work quite well.  It’s a small film, but admirable for its integrity and craft.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."