We Are Not Ghouls is an incisive look at what it means to work within a system that's fundamentally broken, in a country that's complicit in committing atrocities even as it claims to protect its citizens from them. Based on the 2009 book The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law, the documentary sets up a case of 'wrong place, wrong time' and proceeds to unravel its chilling implications over the next 95 minutes. Binyam Mohamed, a UK resident and recent convert to Islam, travels to Afghanistan for a religious tour when the 2001 American war prevents him from returning. On a detour to Pakistan, he's picked up for possession of a forged passport and detained while charges of terrorism are levied against him. What follow are seven years of government-sanctioned torture and the death penalty charge.
Pieced together from archival footage, reenactments and interviews with experts, the documentary's most effective tool is the testimony of Yvonne Bradley, the military attorney who volunteered to defend Mohamed. Her presence not only helps put together the pieces of the puzzle, but also establishes her as a government employee whose eyes were gradually opened to the larger picture. Detailing her own initial confusion at the charges, Bradley systematically demolishes the false narratives constructed by the US government by pointing out logical loopholes and inconsistencies in the evidence. A backstory, painted in broad strokes, sets up the conflicting aspects of Bradley's identity. As a Christian, she's reluctant at first to defend someone she perceives as guilty of heinous crimes. As a Black woman, however, her experience of being othered and discriminated against brings her around to Mohamed's point of view. The documentary frequently represents the two of them as figures on playing cards, underlining not only how the justice system is as prone to collapse as a house of cards, but how detainees must deal with the arbitrary hand they've been dealt.
At its most chilling, the documentary veers away from reenactments and simply focuses on a voiceover from Mohamed, who recounts torture methods such as being confined naked in complete darkness, exposed to audio of people screaming 24 hours a day for six months and having his genitals lacerated. Sketches of prisoners subjected to simulated drownings complete the grisly picture. Documentary filmmaker Chris James Thompson deftly juxtaposes these private brutalities against the government's public image-making. At a press conference held by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a journalist asks: Do you think any of the prisoners you captured are innocent?" only for the room to burst into laughter. The longer Mohamed languishes behind bars, the slimmer his chances of being set free become — the US government can't risk him revealing what they've put him through. The documentary urges viewers to resist their impulse to question whether Mohamed was guilty of the crimes he was accused of, and instead question whether that really justifies the use of systematic torture as a punishment.
We Are Not Ghouls is a striking documentation of American history, but more significantly, a mirror to prevailing global cruelties. Its title comes from a US government official who uses the phrase to refute allegations of torture, while tacitly raising support for it by scaring the public with descriptions of vivid, imagined brutalities that the othered might attempt to carry out. In a system that trains its employees to be efficient cogs in the government machinery, it takes a crisis of conscience to act differently, a minor miracle the documentary sees for what it is.