It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that this country hasn’t been the most hospitable place for Muslims in recent years, and never was this truer than in the weeks and months following 9-11. The atmosphere of distrust and apprehension allowed Attorney General John Ashcroft to invoke “national security” as justification for the detention of some 5,000 Arab or Muslim immigrants (the Department of Justice hasn’t released actual numbers) since the World Trade Center attacks, whether they were American citizens or not.
“Persons of Interests” examines the stories of 12 such detainees. Shooting simply in a single, barely furnished room, directors Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse allow the subjects to tell their tales with a minimum of interruption. The stories are depressingly familiar: all of those interested were arrested on immigration charges; all were detained without access to legal representation (in some cases for over a year); and all were denied access to their own families. Many were held in solitary confinement for months, and several ended up being deported, and not always to their home countries.
The subjects are powerful speakers, though the film could’ve used more footage like that of Ashcroft defending his agenda by couching the detention in terms of national security. His subsequent pleas for restraint in the public’s dealing with American Muslims are laughable, given the police and FBI actions described to the audience by the film’s subjects.
Even those who are eventually cleared of the charges are screwed. Many lost their jobs, friends, and hopes as a result of Ashcroft’s campaign, even when no formal charges were filed. Those deported are separated from their families, who must either follow their loved ones to a possibly hostile nation, or attempt to convince the government to reconsider their decision, which is an unlikely prospect at best. As a documentary, “Persons of Interest” could’ve benefited from further elaboration of the actual policies put in place, but as is it’s still a disturbing, matter-of-fact look at the consequences of letting fear engineer such policy.