Prisoner 345

Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman, who went to cover the Afghan war for Al Jazeera in 2001, got arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Al Jazeera Channel recently produced a documentary on Al-Hajj as part of a global campaign to rally for the release of its employee, dubbed Prisoner 345 at the prison. Digital Studio, in an exclusive interview with the director of the documentary, Abdullah El Binni, finds out more about the production of the film.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  June 4, 2006

I|~|pris3.jpg|~|Sami Al-Hajj. |~|In October 2001, Sami Al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameramen, left his wife and one-year-old son at home to take up a job in Qatar with Al Jazeera. Three days after his arrival in Qatar, he accompanied one of the channel’s journalists to Afghanistan to cover the war there. Al-Hajj never returned from his first assignment. He was detained at the border by Pakistani intelligence officers on his way to Afghanistan and was handed over to American troops. In June 2002, he was one of the many who was taken to the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison and has been detained there till date. Prisoner 345, a documentary produced by Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Ibrahim and directed by Abdallah El Binni, traces Al Hajj’s movements before and after his arrest. The film is part of the channel’s efforts to campaign for the release of Al Hajj. “Since Sami’s detention in June 2002, Al Jazeera hasn’t stopped working to release him,” says El Binni. “From 2002 until 2004, we were not given any information about his life at Guantanamo. In 2004, Al Jazeera hired Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer to take up Sami’s case. Smith visited Sami regularly, and it is through his testimonies, letters to his wife, and stories from former Guantanamo prisoners who lived with Sami that Al Jazeera has been able to produce this film. This is part of a bigger worldwide campaign by the channel to rally for Sami’s release,” he adds. The documentary, which cost US $80,000 to produce, was completed in March 2006, and has been broadcast on Al Jazeera Channel. A shorter version is scheduled for broadcast on Al Jazeera International as well. ||**||II|~|pris2.jpg|~|Director, Abdallah El Binni (foreground) and producer, Ahmed Ibrahim (behind) discuss the editing of Prisoner 345 at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar.|~|The film itself is very touching, but at no point, has the cameraman’s detention been sensationalised. In fact, the film makes a genuine attempt to understand some of the problems detainees at the prison face. The research takes the documentary makers to London, Pakistan and the US, where they meet with former Guantanamo prisoners such as Moazzam Begg, Jamal Al-Harith and Martin Mobanga; they visit the factory in the UK that makes the handcuffs for the prison and they even have a neurologist demonstrate force feeding on a dummy to enable the viewer to decide for himself whether it is torture or not. The film includes interviews with Al Hajj’s lawyer, authors as well as diplomats who argue for and against the practices at Guantanamo. “When I was covering the war in Afghanistan from October 2001 to February 2002, I had met Jamal Al’Harith, a former Taleban prisoner who was sold to the Americans for US $5000,” says El Binni. “The irony is, when I filmed him in the Taleban jail, I didn’t think I’d see him again after several years in London, or that he’d be one of the main people I’d interview because he was Sami’s cell-mate at Guantanamo,” he adds. There are some very disturbing pictures in the film of how prisoners are taken on the flight to Guantanamo. El Binni confirms that none of the images in the film have been recreated. “Those pictures were taken by some American soldiers as souvenirs but one of them published it, and you can find it all over the internet. Our official source, however, is the Associated Press by an agreement signed with Al Jazeera,” he says. “Likewise, there are no recreated or rebuilt scenes; all of these footages are real. The Guantanamo footages and stills of the prisoners in orange are from the Associated Press and Reuters. The rushes taken in Afghanistan are mine, especially those of Jamal Al-Harith in the ex-Taleban jail in Kandahar, the US Air Base in Kandahar and the Chaman border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Sami was arrested. I took those shots when I was covering the war in Afghanistan between December 2001 and February 2002 and have used the footage exclusively for Prisoner 345,” El Binni adds. ||**||III|~||~||~|The documentary also includes Al-Hajj’s own footages, which he took before his arrest, when he was the only cameraman from Al Jazeera along with the CNN crew based in Kandahar in October 2001. Most of the war footage in Afghanistan that El Binni used for the documentary was filmed with a Sony DNW-7P SX camcorder. But for other occasions such as interviews, he used the Sony DVW-790WSP digital betacam. Editing was accomplished on Pinnacle’s Liquid Blue non-linear software. “The Sony DVW-790WSP Digital betacam gives a superb picture and sound quality and very precise focusing. Also, it is an important camera because of its 16:9/4:3 switchable system. It’s a heavy-duty camera and ideal for war coverage. Likewise, because the Pinnacle Liquid Blue software is a non-linear editing (NLE) software, I was confident that I would finish editing even before my deadline. In my opinion, with most of the NLE software, you can easily edit a high quality documentary even from home. Sometimes I had to transfer all the media files to an external hard disk and continue the editing at home. I bought this and the Pinnacle software two years ago. Now I think it’s time to upgrade to an affordable HD system. My plan is to invest in a JVC GY-HD100 HDV camera and the Avid Liquid Pro 7 NLE software,” adds El Binni. The graphics for the documentary was designed by Al Jazeera’s Graphics & Creative department on Vizrt systems and on the Quantel gQ. ||**||IV|~||~||~|The whole documentary including research & coordination, filming, viewing, digitising & script writing and editing took about 70 days. The documentary was made in both Arabic and English versions. “We had a very tight deadline to finish the editing, and to produce two versions. I did the Arabic version and Ahmed Ibrahim, the producer of the documentary did the English version,” El Binni adds. Although this documentary has been done on a digital betacam, El Binni says the channel is now working on another series of documentaries titled Al Shahed (The Witness), which will either be shot on or upgraded to HD. “We have to keep in mind the market as well because you will have clients who broadcast HD and want films in HD format. So we will be ready for that with our next documentary,” he adds. In the meanwhile, there’s no saying if Prisoner 345 may get a facelift if the channel manages to film in Guantanamo. “It would have been good to film in Guantanamo or interview a former interrogator,” says El Binni. “But from past experience, we have known that every frame we shoot will be censored and the request for a visit will mean wasting too much time on approvals. By then, we may lose our objective so we preferred to do it this way and get the documentary out.” Word is out that 20% of the prisoners at Guantanamo will be released this year and Al Jazeera hopes that Al Hajj will be one among them. In the meanwhile, the documentary has been entered into several international film festivals such as the Sydney Film Festival, the IDA Awards Competition in Los Angeles and Docudays in Beirut. ||**||

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