I noticed kudos given to the Canadian military a few weeks ago for being the first in the world to develop child soldier guidelines. Cmdr. Rory McLay was quoted in national news stories explaining that child soldier detainees should be separated from the adult population, and he stressed how important it was “to try to get these kids into a rehabilitated state and back to their families.” It is a solid humanitarian approach, but also ironic considering Canada’s own 15-year-old child soldier, Omar Khadr, was held for a decade in Guantanamo Bay detention camp after being captured by American forces in 2002. As the youngest prisoner and last Western citizen there, he endured “enhanced interrogation” while the Canadian government did everything it could to keep him locked up. Former prime minister Stephen Harper took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Not much to feel proud of there, I thought, watching Guantanamo’s Child online. Originally showing at TIFF in 2015, it is back in the spotlight after winning best social/political documentary, best direction, and best original music earlier this month at the Canadian Screen Awards.
Viewing it even for the second time is stomach churning. Some will see the documentary as the prolonged torture of a child while others see it as the manipulation of a terrorist who is now walking free. It was the first time the public had heard Khadr speak, and what is still striking today is the serenity of his voice throughout the film. Even cliche sounding statements have meaning when he says them because of what he had been through: “Prison gave me a lot of time to think and contemplate. Each person is capable of doing great harm or great good.” It’s a universal starting point.
The film, based on Michelle Shephard’s book Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, does an impressive job of bringing together detailed facts and pieces of his life while building context around a human being that goes much deeper than the headlines that often demonized him. While Guantanamo’s Child suggests it was his radicalized father who left him with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan as a translator, it also shows damning footage of the home movies seen around the world featuring the 14-year-old helping to assemble bombs with Taliban insurgents. “I wasn’t thinking about the morality of what I was doing,” Khadr says in the film. “It was for a cause, fighting invaders. People said this is what I should be doing, and I said, ‘Sure’.”
The live footage of the firefight between U.S. troops and the insurgents with commentary switching between Khadr and a special forces soldier is gripping. Sgt. 1st Class Christopher J. Speer, a special forces medic, the lone American who died in the firefight, and the skinny kid who supposedly threw the grenade that killed him, became for many, the two faces of war: one revered, and the other hated. But the film’s image of Khadr lying in the dirt under debris, his face covered with shrapnel after losing his left eye, and two gaping holes blown into his chest after the firefight with U.S. troops, is not for the squeamish.
While directors Reed and Shephard, the latter an award-winning national security reporter for the Toronto Star, tell a sympathetic story from the vantage point of a child soldier unjustly put in harm’s way, the voices are there to support both sides. Retired interrogator Damien “The Monster” Crosetti, who has an arm tat of the Statue of Liberty holding a pistol to her head, admits that through Omar’s injustice, he saw the error of his ways. Tabitha Speer, Christopher Speer’s wife, expresses her continued condemnation of Khadr. Both are jarring to hear.
But this is a story that could have never been told without its real life hero, human rights lawyer Dennis Edney, who’s featured throughout the film and who used his own money and years of his life to lead the charge for Khadr’s rights all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. And, he won. I decided to look up one of the Supreme Court Judgment citations. There it was—the Prime Minister of Canada vs. Omar Ahmed Khadr. It was surprising to see that Khadr had a long list of associations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, Justice for Children and Youth and more, backing him. So many good organizations in his corner. How could the Canadian government be so wrong?
The documentary shows how Edney stood up for the human dignity of a child. (I think he deserves the Order of Canada because of his heroic work.) With a lawsuit pending, Khadr at the very least deserves an apology from the Canadian government. Edney never gave up fighting for the kid from Guantanamo, and he ended up bringing back a grown man to his home in Edmonton. The heartbeat of the film is in Edney’s no-nonsense Scottish brogue as he browbeats the Canadian government, speaks frankly about Harper, and teases Khadr like he is a son. At home, Edney sits on his front porch joking with Khadr, grabbing him for a hug and big kiss on the top of his head, saying: “This guy’s not going to be easy. He’s a Khadr. He’s got a stubborn streak in him.” Khadr laughs, “That’s what kept me surviving.”