The Secret Trial 5, director Amar Wala’s first feature, is an engaging and enraging look at five men labelled security risks by the Canadian government and detained without trial for a combined total of 30 years in prison, and another 20 years (and counting) under strict house arrest.
Shot over four years, the film follows four of the men – Adil Charkaoui, Mohamed Harkat, Hassan Almrei and Mahmoud Jaballah – as they fight to either be formally charged with something they can defend themselves on, or be released. (The fifth detainee, Mohammad Zeki Mahjoub, declined to take part in the film.)
Held under an Islamophobic security certificate program whose ultimate goal is deportation, the five men and their lawyers were never given an indication of any evidence or charges against them. Their ongoing legal challenges to this have yielded only heavily redacted, 30-page synopses of at-best tenuous allegations against the men, as well as release conditions so onerous that Mahjoub actually asked to be returned to jail for the sake of making his family’s life easier.
The film begins with footage of the other four men in their homes, with their families, and going about their lives. Intended to establish the subjects as ordinary individuals leading innocuous lives, the sequence is not subtitled in moments where those onscreen speak to each other in Arabic. In this way, the audience must establish for themselves what is happening based on non-verbal cues they recognize from interactions with their own loved ones. This strengthens the viewers’ ability to identify with the subjects, further personalizing the government’s treatment of these men and making it that much more outrageous.
The security certificate program, allegedly described by Charkaoui’s lawyer as “a fucking medieval law,” effectively allows the Canadian government to indefinitely detain non-citizens considered to be a security risk, while also classifying any evidence against them as top secret. The film does an excellent job of explaining this program and its implications in detail, using clever yet simple animation to visualize certain concepts and avoid what could be a monotonous series of talking head interviews.<
However, the chalk-on-blackboard look of the animation plays up the didactic nature of these explanations. While the film otherwise succeeds at not talking down to the audience in explaining the intricacies and abuses of the security certificate program, using visual cues associated with a classroom comes off as heavy-handed by contrast.
Also jarring are the rare instances of Wala’s voice on the audio track, given that the subjects speak eloquently, freely and at great length throughout the film, testament to both the gravity of the situation and Wala’s skill at drawing his subjects out.
In addition, some further exploration of the Islamophobic aspects of the security certificate program would have been interesting, considering that Jaballah was originally arrested before the 9/11 attacks, which are widely seen as the beginning of the War on Terror often used to justify the (ab)use of the security certificate program.
On the whole, however, this is a very well-made film on a difficult and ludicrously unjust situation.