The faces of torture

New documentary gives victims a voice

01/11/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Writer

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Donald Vance, a Chicagoan and U.S. Navy veteran, was detained by the U.S. military as an enemy combatant.
Beneath the Blindfold

One hundred and fifty countries from around the world practice torture, including the United States.

The statement that opens Beneath the Blindfold, a powerful new documentary that screens Friday, Jan. 13 and Thursday, Jan. 19 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is jarring, but not surprising. The systematic use of physical and psychological torture is one of the world’s worst-kept secrets — atrocities that are denied or loosely justified by governments and ignored by a mass populace unless celebrated in entertainment or exposed via whistleblowers.

Beneath the Blindfold seeks to reverse this unfortunate fact.

Filmmakers Ines Summer and Kathy Berger tell the stories of four individuals living in the United States who were victims of political torture. They are among 500,000 living in the U.S. at present, many of whom are living in exile from their home countries.

Summer and Berger let the four tell their own stories, along with the help of friends and family members. Interspersed are testimonies on the ineffectiveness of torture as a practice and the desensitization of torture due to contemporary media depictions.

Blama Massoquoi lives in Minneapolis. Forced as a child to become a soldier in Liberia, he was captured and tortured at the hands of rebels; his esophagus destroyed when he was forced to drink chemicals. He continues to endure surgeries to repair his body.

Hector Aristizabal lives in Los Angeles. Before immigrating to the United States, he taught psychoanalysis and theater at a university in Colombia. His left-leaning political views led him to be kidnapped by the government. He was bound, blindfolded, slapped and hit about the face and body and electrocuted.

Matilde de la Sierra lives in Chicago. A former doctor in a small village in Guatemala, she was perceived as a threat by the government because she helped the indigenous population. She was abducted, tortured and raped when she dared to leave her house one night while under house arrest.

Donald Vance lives in Chicago. The U.S. Navy veteran and former security contractor reported illegal activities (including arms trading) to the FBI that he witnessed while in Iraq. His actions led him to be detained by the U.S. military as an enemy combatant and tortured with sensory deprivation, loud music, self-inflicted pain and more.

The accounts are heartbreaking, but also infuriating. Such degradations, pain and suffering are abhorrent on all levels, but the fact that they were inflicted solely on the basis of a political belief or action casts aspersions on each of the offending home countries. The stories are frightening, too. If such torture can happen to these people, it can happen to anyone. No one is safe.

Beneath the Blindfold is not simply a collection of histories, however. It is a document of recovery.

Each of the victims suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from their torture. Daily occurrences that seem innocuous to most — walking through crowds, seeing individuals in uniform, loud noises — trigger flashbacks. Experiences that could prove debilitating serve as springboards for change, however.

Massoquoi trains as a nurse, empathetic to the suffering of others. Aristizabal channels his past into autobiographical theater. Quiet, but strong de la Sierra raises her voice at gatherings and protests. Vance brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Rather than hide their horrors, the quartet finds a measure of therapy by making them public. Their new histories are inspiring.

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By Glenn Cheney from Hanover, Conn.
Posted: 01/16/2012 8:44 AM

Thank you for doing this. The American acceptance of torture as a tool of war should be resisted. I wish more newspapers had the courage to expose its effects.