RIDM Review: Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr, centre, talks to members of the media outside the Edmonton home of his lawyer Dennis Edney.
Omar Khadr, centre, talks to members of the media outside the Edmonton home of his lawyer Dennis Edney.

The fine Canadian documentary Guantanamo’s Child Omar Khadr is many things at once – chilling, heartbreaking and heartwarming; a record of shameful behaviour but also one of kindness and dedication; and a testimony to the resilience of the human body and spirit.

Omar Khadr was only 15 years old when he was gravely injured in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. That made him a child soldier by definition, though it did not save him from being accused of murder and being imprisoned for 12 years. (A photograph taken after the battle shows gaping holes in his chest; I was amazed that he survived at all.)

In the film, Khadr himself describes the torture and ill treatment he suffered at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and later at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His account is backed by former prisoners and the former military men who witnessed or delivered this torture themselves. Treatment and medication were withheld when Khadr would not or could not say what his interrogators wanted to hear, in contravention of the Geneva Convention.

We see videotape of a visit that CSIS investigators made to Guantanamo. Khadr is happy to learn that they are Canadians, you can hear it in his voice – he mistakenly thinks they have come to help him, but then he realizes that’s not the case at all. When he tells them about his wounded arms, one man says “you look fine to me.” This interview was not new to me, it’s part of the film You Don’t like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo, but watching it still makes me sad and angry. It’s one more lesson to all of us that we can’t necessarily depend on our own government to look out for our interests, even though it is legally and morally obliged to do so.

Omar Khadr as a teenager.
Omar Khadr as a teenager.

Those are some of the shameful things in Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr. Now for the positive side.

Edmonton lawyer Dennis Edney spent years representing Khadr and fighting for his release. It took four years of effort before he was even allowed to meet with Khadr. Others might have given up long before then. Edney has won many awards for his work, and probably deserves many more. Khadr was returned to Canada in September, 2012, and sent to prison. In May, 2015, he was released on parole into Edney’s custody. He lives with Edney and Edney’s wife Patricia, in their Edmonton home. Khadr says that over time, their relationship has changed from a lawyer-client one to a father-son one. It’s lovely to see the way they interact with each other. Edney says he looks forward to seeing Khadr graduate from university. He wipes away tears describing prison visits with Khadr at Guantanamo, when he tried to reassure him that eventually he would be released and that they would go camping and fishing together in Alberta. Edney wanted to show Khadr photos or maps of the places they would go, but even that was not allowed.

Despite the treatment he received, Khadr is amazingly, remarkably calm. (he could probably write a self-help book about surviving under intense pressure.) He takes obvious joy in just breathing fresh air, and being able to look up at the sky. He talks of his decision, while still in Guantánamo, not to allow the people who were mistreating him to take up too much space in his head. I wonder how many of us could do the same? Khadr wants the chance to prove to former prime minister Stephen Harper, and other Canadians, that he is not the man they think he is.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr is co-directed by Toronto Star journalist Michelle Shepherd and Patrick Reed. Shepherd followed the case for years and also wrote a book, Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, which was published in 2010. Reed’s previous films include Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children (2012), which is about former General Roméo Dallaire and his campaign to end the use of child soldiers.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr (click on the film’s name to be taken to the RIDM synopsis)
Directed by Patrick Reed Michelle Shephard

Country : Canada
Year : 2015
Language : English, Arabic
Subtitles : English
Runtime : 80 min.
Production : Peter Raymont
Cinematography : John Westheuser
Editing : Cathy Gulkin
Sound : Downy Karvonen, Sanjay Mehta, Peter Sawade

Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, 6 p.m.
Theatre J.A. De Sève, Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information.

Cinema Politica Mondays: Documentary Children 404 shows how anti-gay law endangers Russian LGBT teens

Image from the Russian documentary film Children 404
Image from the Russian documentary film Children 404

Countries are often called Motherland or Fatherland. How sad is it when a country can’t love and accept all of her children equally? How sad is it when flesh-and-blood parents turn their backs on their own children and say things like: “You are not normal, you are sick, why did I ever give birth to you?” Or worse yet: “You are a son of Satan!”

The documentary film Children 404 presents compelling evidence that homophobia is rampant in Russia, and that a law passed in 2013 has encouraged anti-gay vigilantes while also keeping many already wary and isolated teens in the closet.

This law bans propaganda about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” aimed at minors. In effect, that means that it’s illegal to offer support to gay teens – to tell them that they are normal, that they are not freaks of nature, and that they are “not the only one” – that there are many other people around the world just like them.

The film is named for the web site Children 404 (Deti-404 in Russian) which serves as an online meeting place for teens who might not have anywhere else to go. It was created by journalist Elena Kilmova; after she wrote an article about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) youth, she received email from a teen who had been suicidal until she read the article.

The name is inspired by “Error 404, page not found” a message that often comes up on the Internet. Klimova chose it because Russian society is seemingly telling gay teens that they don’t even exist. It gives then a chance to say “We are here!”

not found

More than 22,000 joined the group; 1,364 shared their stories.The film features excerpts from the messages posted on the site. Many are heart-rending, filled with sadness and despair. One mocks the idea that anyone would possibly “choose” to be gay. “Hey kids, be gays! Everyone hates us, humiliates us, beats us up – this is so cool!”

Few teens dare to tell their parents about their orientation, for fear of being thrown out of the house. The father who accepts his daughter and is proud that she is different is a rare exception.

A Guardian article about Error 404 quotes a “16-year-old from a small town ‘which isn’t even on the map’.” He says “Our school is considered progressive, but it is quite normal for teachers to say that homosexuals will burn in hell.”

Another Guardian article from 2013 says that “an MP in the Siberian region of Zabaikalsk called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.”

Elena Klimova was 25 when the film was made. She doesn’t look much older than a teenager herself, which is remarkable considering the stress she must have been under for years. She reveals that she and her partner lost their jobs because of their orientation. They were both told to resign. Almost all the same-sex couples she knows want to leave Russia, but she does not want to go. She looks forward to a future when the present-day situation will be described as the “stone age,” and she hopes that it won’t take decades to arrive.

Klimova has been taken to court twice over the web site, in the most recent case, she was fined 50,000 rubles, approximately $740 U.S. An online notice from Amnesty International, dated March 18, 2015, says the the “Prosecutor’s Office in one of St Petersburg’s districts had submitted a request to have the Children 404 group. . .closed down.” Readers are urged to support Klimova by writing to Russian officials in protest.

Elena Klimova, founder of the Russian web site Children 404, which gives gay teens a place to express themselves and seek advice and support.
Elena Klimova, founder of the Russian web site Children 404, which gives gay teens a place to express themselves and seek advice and support.

Forty-five members of Error 404 participated in the filmmaking, with some sharing footage shot on their cellphones. But an articulate young man named Pasha receives the most screen time. When he visits his former school, the presence of a cameraman doesn’t stop students from yelling insults and throwing things at him. What do they do when they aren’t being recorded?

Pasha says that one of his teachers had said that gay people “should be burned and banished,” and that the school social worker and psychologist told him he was the one with a problem, because he couldn’t accept homophobes. “If you find love for them, they will find love for you,” they said. As if.

Rather than follow their surreal advice, Pasha’s solution is to move to Canada, home of his idol, Justin Bieber(!) He says “I am convinced that after seven years I will have a family, small kids and a house.” He also says that he plans to study journalism and possibly enter politics. He’s obviously a strong, smart and very determined guy, though I wonder if he has checked the price of Toronto real estate lately, or the sorry employment prospects for journalists in North America. All the same, I wish him the very best in his life here.

I have a suggestion, too. There’s a scene at a memorial to Lenin where Pasha sings a slightly fractured version of O, Canada. It sounds like he’s singing “We stand on guard for free.” Once he learns all the words, why not invite him to sing the anthem at some public event?

Pasha Romanov visits a friend before leaving Russia for Canada, in a scene from the Russian documentary Children 404. (Romanov now calls himself Justin, in honour of Justin Bieber.)
Pasha Romanov visits a friend before leaving Russia for Canada, in a scene from the Russian documentary Children 404. (Romanov now calls himself Justin, in honour of Justin Bieber.)

The web site Queer Russia says that vigilantes and policemen with machine guns tried to disrupt the premiere of Children 404 in Moscow last year. Police “checked the IDs of the audience, looking for minors and writing down passport data of some people.”

I’ve been asked to include this information: “Cinema Politica is presenting the Quebec premiere screening of CHILDREN 404 on Monday, March 23, 2015. Directors Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev will be in attendance all the way from Russia for a Q&A after the screening! The event is co-presented with Radical Queer Semaine, Concordia Documentary Centre, Simone de Beauvoir Institute, and Queer Concordia.
More information can be found about Children 404 here:

While I wasn’t asked to share this info, I am happy to tell you that Cinema Politica was instrumental in getting the film made. The CP web site says “Cinema Politica co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, along with CP Board Member and Concordia University Research Chair in Sexual Representation and in Documentary Thomas Waugh and his colleague Ryan Conrad, launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise essential funds for this project. We eventually surpassed our goal and were able to raise $11,575 U.S. towards the making of CHILDREN 404!” The film’s credits says that all the money usedto make it came from crowdfunding. You might notice that some names appear several times, too.
Directed by Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev / Russia / 2014 / 70 ‘ / Russian / English subtitles
Monday, March 23, 2015, 7 p.m.
Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., Room H-110
Montreal, Quebec

Directors Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev will be there. (I predict that the first question they’re asked will be “What can we do to help?”)
Suggested admission is $5 to $10.