Imprisoned at the age of 15 following his involvement in a deadly firefight in Afghanistan—where he threw a grenade that killed an American special forces soldier—Canadian citizen Omar Khadr was deemed a Muslim terrorist. By definition a child soldier who was forced into acting as an interpreter by his vastly more radical father, Khadr was an unfortunate figure caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and amid a North American legal system that still today has little clue what to do with suspected and charged (not convicted) enemy combatants post-9/11. For over a decade before striking a plea deal and returning to Canada, Khadr was subject to “heightened” American interrogation techniques, and a seemingly indifferent Conservative Canadian government that not only didn’t want him back, but that wanted to paint his entire family as the country’s primary terrorist threat.
Filmmakers Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard take a look at the Khadr case from the perspectives of those who know it best, including Omar himself. Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr features a wealth of insightful interviews from government officials, Khadr’s family, former detainees at America’s most notorious prison facility, and U.S. soldiers to create a complex picture of an incredibly messy political, moral, and ideological problem.
A firebrand of a documentary upon its debut at TIFF last year (leading to its inclusion as part of Canada’s Top Ten last month), it’s hard not to wonder if the proper release of Guantanamo’s Child might be a case of too little, too late. With the change of leadership from Harper to Trudeau, the necessary rage and indignation at the heart of Reed and Shephard’s work feels blunted by this point. What could have been a film that could have torn walls down at a proper point in Canadian history now feels like a document looking back on the walls that were. This isn’t a criticism of the film itself or the masterful rhetorical techniques being employed, but much like the oft delayed release of the Harper-critical satire, My Internship in Canada, distributors seemed lax to release their most incendiary material when it mattered most. It’s a shame, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked no matter the film’s remaining relevance.
As for the content of the film, Reed and Shephard spend most of the first third recounting Khadr’s history and early imprisonment. What’s most striking and troubling is how much the stories match between Khadr and the people being interviewed on the U.S. side of the equation. They definitely don’t agree on what happened, but all sides show remarkable regret. Perhaps most telling is how former members of the Harper government can’t be bothered to come on and rebut anything, simply acting like a nefarious spectre over every major event. No one here is hiding anything except the government itself. Most importantly, it portrays Khadr as a human being rather than a figurehead—a confused young man who was caught up in a terrible situation where even many of his detractors and persecutors say he acted out of a survival instinct.
I suppose the less than timely release of the film still speaks to how there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered and people to be held accountable. Hopefully, Reed and Shephard can continue to fight the good fight in a call for transparency, but this would have been better suited to an October release than the early winter.