"A simple but powerful look at how basic rights can evaporate."
If you haven't noticed from my Anglicized name, I'm German-American. There was a time when I couldn't have freely admitted this fact.During World War I, people like me in the United States changed their names from "Schmidt" to "Smith" because our neighbors had such strong anti-German animosity that performances of Beethoven were banned.
Today, these anxieties seem laughably ridiculous, but they really haven't gone away entirely. As directors Alison Maclean (who helmed the sadly underrated feature Jesus' Son) and Tobias Perse demonstrate in the new documentary Persons of Interest, having the "wrong" ethnicity or religion is all it takes to spend several months in detention without charges or basic U.S. Constitutional rights.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, thousands of Arabs and Muslims were detained despite having no ties to terrorism. Occasionally cutting to speeches from Attorney General John Ashcroft, Maclean and Perse let dozens of former detainees share their own frequently harrowing experiences.
Much of the power in Persons of Interest is that the directors do almost nothing to embellish the stories. The interviews are shot with a frequently stationary camera against a bare, interrogation room-like set.
By simply recounting their stories, the former detainees provide plenty of drama. One, Nabil Ayesh, might still be living in New York instead of being deported to the West Bank if he had told the cop who pulled him over at a stoplight that he was Jewish instead of Arab.
Another, Faiq Medraj, spent three months in detention simply because he had postcards of the World Trade Center in the deli case where he worked.
One of the most poignant testimonies in the film comes from Shokriea Yaghi, whose husband has been deported to Jordan. As she attempts to tell her story, her three sons run all over the set, preventing her from finishing her sentences. These moments let us know how difficult her struggles have been.
Worse, couples who originally came from different nations have been broken up by being deported to different countries, leaving their children in limbo.
It's not surprising that many are not returning to the U.S., but there are some who despite their difficulties are determined to stay in this country. These are probably the most moving portions of the film. It's the type of patriotism that we could certainly use more of.
When people who share our dreams and contribute to the community are needlessly persecuted, we all end up suffering. It's no secret we have a lot of real dangers to fear, but we injure ourselves when we prevent decent people from living their lives in peace.Watching Persons of Interest makes a viewer realize how fragile the rights that make this country great can be.