Extraordinary Rendition is the story of Zaafir, a politics lecturer who is abducted on the streets of London, flown out of the country, interrogated at one of the CIA’s secret “Black Sites”, tortured, and eventually dumped back in this country. He then has to try and pick up the pieces of his life.
The writer and director Jim Threapleton told Socialist Worker, “What always strikes me is the faceless machinery that ruins the lives of individuals.
“Because of the immediacy of the subject, Andy Noble (the producer) and I realised that we wouldn’t have the luxury of time to develop a traditional script.
“So I worked on an outline to generate a working story about an innocent man who is transported to an unknown location and tortured until he breaks down.”
From there on, they improvised with actor Omar Berdouni, who plays Zaafir, and Andy Serkis, who plays an unnamed interrogator.
“We know the Americans outsource intelligence gathering and there are 39 warrants on CIA operatives for breaches of intelligence gathering.
“We know that despite a formal ban on rendition in the UN Convention Against Torture, the US has persisted in an illegal practice that sends detainees to Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Uzbekistan to be interrogated and subjected to torture in a process without justice.
“But I have tried to maintain an artistic distance. This isn’t a film that attempts to cover the full scope of this international scandal, nor does it provide a documentary presentation of facts. We are telling the story of one man caught up in a process.”
Zaafir is an English professor at a north London university. He is a warm individual married to an eastern European Catholic.
“A Muslim of Moroccan descent, Zaafir is completely integrated in his British life,” explains Jim. “But after nine months of being wrongly incarcerated, he retreats and all his memory and logic slip away.”
So the moral to Threapleton’s story is that the most moderate individual can be destroyed or radicalised by the treatment he receives.
“And that’s obvious isn’t it?” asks Jim. “And increasingly that is the atmosphere in Britain as Muslims feel beleaguered and forced into a corner. At what price are our civil liberties being called into question?
“Terrorism is not a new thing, though right now it seems to be convenient for a lot of agendas.”
In one powerful scene Zaafir is subjected to water-boarding – the “enhanced interrogation” technique that replicates the act of drowning.
“It was a difficult balance to find,” Jim says. “It is unpleasant. But we really thought we had to portray the reality of what is at the heart of the story.
“We are trying to enhance the debate that’s surrounding what is an urgent political story. We are trying to tell a fictional story from a singular perspective and leave the audience asking the question – could this happen in a ‘civilised’ world?”
He’s also keen to stress that it’s not a documentary but a dramatic fictionalisation.
It flashes forwards and backwards to create scenes from Zaafir’s life, his relationship with his wife and his interrogator.
“We hope that it asks questions of the audience about a life that’s almost shattered beyond recognition without being tub-thumping or preachy.
“It’s sometimes perceived as being a dry, political subject, and we amassed a whole archive of evidence on it, but from that kernel we wanted to extract the real human drama.
“The film should be a punch in the gut for the audience, but it is not about simply trying to rile people or provoke them.
“It is an attempt to be able to contribute to forcing a debate and to position a question mark in people’s mind over the fact that we are allowing these things to go on in our name.
“Not all of the cold, hard facts were, or are, available. Partially that is deliberate – it is a dripping tap effect of getting issues into the public domain.
“The incremental gradual admissions, from the British and US governments and other complicit governments are intended to minimise damage.
“That is one thing that makes a drama a useful way to look at the issue. Hopefully we will be part of maintaining the pressure to get governments to be more open.”
Extraordinary Rendition is released on DVD on 28 April and shown on BBC the same week