Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be held in Guantanamo Bay? Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be almost permanently blind-folded, kept in a cage, stripped, beaten and broken to the point where you’ll confess to anything, in the impossible hope that your captors will have mercy on you and let you go? Director Olivier Abbou gives us a film that thrusts an ordinary family into this horrible situation.
Territories starts off with a scene that has been encountered before in untold numbers of horror films. It’s a family inside a car travelling down a remote road at night. Michael Mando heads up the cast as Jamil Adel-Kalid, a man driving his girlfriend Michelle (Nicole Leroux), her brother Tom (Alex Weiner), and their friends Michelle and Gabriel (Christina Rosato and Tim Rozon) back from a wedding. On their way home, they cross the Canadian border into America and are promptly stopped by two border guards.
From here, things take a horrific turn for the worse. The ‘guards’ (Roc LaFortune and Sean Devine) act in increasingly erratic and hostile ways – turning a routine border check into a case of mental degradation and, eventually, kidnap. They force the family to don orange jumpsuits, put bags over their heads and stuff them in cages before dumping them in the middle of remote woodland.
Jamil and his friends end up end up experiencing life under a brutal and hopeless imprisonment regime. They are branded, interrogated and tortured to the point of absolute mental collapse. All the while, local authorities try in vain to find them…
Too many people today are ignorant of the fact that Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay is still open. Press coverage about this atrocity has calmed down, promises to close the camp have been half-baked and delayed, and still the crimes against humanity continue to be relentlessly carried out. Territories is a true horror film in that it forces the audience to confront aspects of humanity that we don’t like to acknowledge – and punishes us for it.
It is hard to sympathise with someone wearing a bag over their head. We can’t see their faces, the bruises and the fear in their eyes. By thrusting the easily relatable and average suburban group into this dreadful scenario, Territories lets us experience what it is like to be inside that orange jumpsuit. We experience the humiliation and pain first hand. So, while this film may not deal in the supernatural, the horror comes from the fact that what is being experienced is actually happening right now to real people just off the coast of Cuba.
A well-suited gritty style of cinematography complements the horror aims and themes.
A well-suited gritty style of cinematography complements the horror aims and themes. Plenty of hand-held camera action along with de-saturated colours ensures the reality of the subject matter hits home every time. In one particularly harrowing sequence, the victims are shoved into a container, stripped, forced into a stress position and then made to endure strobe lighting and deafeningly loud white noise for hours on end. This sequence barely lasts two minutes, but the intensity of it makes for extremely uncomfortable watching – and that is not a bad thing.
The film does not care much for character development or story structure once the first act has passed and the people are imprisoned. There is perfect reason for this, given that the film is about the horror of Guantanamo and not some character deficit that a hero must conquer. However, the last twenty minutes of the film suffer as a result of this choice. It finds itself stumbling, bringing up new characters and expanding on character areas that don’t need to be expanded upon – just for the sake of lengthening out the film. The point of all these events is to show just how hopeless the Guantanamo situation is, but we already know that from what happened previously, and from a filmmaking point of view, it is a catastrophic error. The final and most crucial part of this revelatory film becomes useless. It’s null. It does not contribute any new information or ideas, nor does it provide any satisfactory rounding off of themes or events. It is just filler. When one is dealing with such heavy yet delicate subject matter, not a single frame of film is allowed to be wasted – and it’s unfortunate that Abbou squandered so much time for no good reason.
Performances in the film are not particularly memorable, but they are competently acted for this low-budget affair. The main cast of actors only have to scream for the most part, and when they’re not screaming, they’re either shouting or looking lost. The guards are suitably menacing as a pair of war-buddies living in isolation in a forest, and although the film hints at a complicated past, not much is required of them in terms of versatility. A good villain can often liven up a film to no end and provide an extra layer of depth, but in Territories, all of the performances remain functional and in service of the over-riding premise of the film. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but some emotional depth to the characters would have been welcome.
Territories is not an easy watch. If you’re looking for character development, nice story structure and a message of hope in the face of adversity then stay well away. However, if you value your humanity, if you truly care about the injustices that plague our fellows not just in Guantanamo Bay but around the world, you will watch this film and you will learn from it. This film is real. It is really happening. In that way, it’s a hell of a lot scarier than most horrors already out there.
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