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Film explores victims’ view of torture

Hector Aristizabal Colombian activist Matilde de lSierrGuatemalan physician were torture victims who spoke their experiences 'Beneath Blindfold.'

Hector Aristizabal, a Colombian activist, and Matilde de la Sierra, a Guatemalan physician, were torture victims who spoke of their experiences in "Beneath the Blindfold."

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‘Beneath the Blindfold’

8:15 p.m. Jan. 13 and 8 p.m. Jan. 19

Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago

$11, $7 for students

Tickets at (800) 982-2787 or

(312) 846-2600 or

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After nine years running the Reeltime independent film and discussion series at the Evanston library, and with three successful incarnations of the Evanston-based Talking Pictures Film Festival under their belts (and another on the way in March), Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger are finally releasing their first film as co-directors and producers.

“Beneath the Blindfold,” a documentary that views torture from the point of view of victims including a Colombian actor to a Guatemalan doctor, a Liberian child soldier and a U.S. Navy veteran, will be screened at 8:15 p.m. Jan. 13 (with an encore presentation at 8 p.m. Jan. 19) at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

Sommer, a Chicago-based director and cinematographer with numerous films to her credit and Berger, an Evanston resident who co-directed the award-winning 1998 documentary “The Garifuna Journey,” began working on “Beneath the Blindfold” six years ago after abuse of prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib came to light. Pioneer reached Sommer during the final stages of editing the documentary for a talk about the importance of understanding the human cost of torture and her hope that Americans who see this film will find it less easy to condone the practice.

Q: Why did you and Kathy choose torture as the subject of your first film together?

A: We had been discussing a number of ideas to work on when Abu Ghraib happened. And we realized that no one had been talking to the people who had been tortured. All the media coverage emphasized the perpetrators and the chain of command — and all that’s important to deal with, of course. But nobody was talking to the victims. That seemed to us to be a pretty surprising blank spot. How could you understand what had happened without talking to the people it had happened to?

Q: What made you decide to try to fill in that blank yourselves?

A: We were initially politically motivated, because we were very upset about what had happened. We also felt the entire discussion about torture was playing around with moral and ethical issues in a very loose way. All the discussion was about national security and how torture could be justified because it was a way to gather intelligence — with little consideration of the human cost. It seemed to us that the American public didn’t realize how horrible the consequences of torture can be for the victims. Eventually, we realized we wouldn’t have the resources to travel to distant parts of the world and track down the victims of Abu Ghraib. But we also learned that one of the major torture treatment centers in the country is here in Chicago: The Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center. They’ve been around for several decades now and they’re really important in terms of dealing with refugees and people who are seeking political asylum.

Q: You mentioned the human cost of torture. Could you elaborate?

A: It’s relatively easy for us to accept the practice of torture if we look at the issue in the abstract and say, “Well, we have to get information out of these people and it’s worth it because we will save x-million American lives. It’s easy to get lost in that sort of abstract calculation, or rationalization, and not realize the horrific effect of this practice on individuals and their families. Especially since we routinely see this idea reinforced on TV and in the movies, when the hero forces the culprit to confess through torture of some sort and gets the information he needs and saves the day. Then we see the culprit more or less unharmed a little later in the show. But that’s not how it works in real life. When people are tortured it traumatizes them for life.

Q: How did you go about choosing the survivors profiled in the film?

A: After we approached the Heartland Alliance it took quite some time to be vetted, because they have had bad experiences with the media. Eventually, they allowed us to present our project to a group of survivors, and most of them thought it was a great idea, but they didn’t want to participate because it might have consequences for their families back home. Others were worried about flashbacks. But we slowly got to know people there and developed a rapport and eventually found one of our participants. Then we repeated the process at other torture centers until we found all the right people. It was a very slow process that wound up taking six years.

Q: You seem to have made a decision not to go into the lurid details of what your subjects endured during torture.

A: Yes. We decided to de-emphasize the act of torture itself. That’s something most torture survivors specifically do not want to relive and we didn’t press any of them about that. We felt it was unnecessary, in any case, because you can see the effect it has had on them — even 15 or 20 years later.

Q: You mentioned being politically motivated when you started working on this project. Would you say the film itself takes a political or activist position?

A: In an indirect way, perhaps. There are obviously all kinds of political aspects to this issue and we didn’t shy away from any of that, but we really intended, from the beginning, that the personal stories of the survivors would be what carried the film. I don’t think of it as an aggressive advocacy piece, but hopefully it will make people think about this issue.

Q: What is you ultimate goal for this film? What do you hope it will accomplish?

A: My greatest hope for this film is that it will raise awareness. Four years ago there was a Pew research poll that said 43 percent of Americans condone torture. I just hope we can reach people and help them understand that torture is actually not an effective way to get information, that it has been discredited by interrogators, and that it is a terrible violation of human rights. If we can make any sort of a dent in that percentage, that would be wonderful.

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