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Moazzam Begg: Living the War on Terror

First-hand account by former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, a British Pakistani, that chronicles the rise of modern jihad, its descent into terror and the reaction of the west.

Gripping first-hand account by a former Guantanamo detainee that chronicles the rise of modern jihad, its descent into terror and the reaction of the west. Moazzam Begg, a Birmingham-raised British Pakistani, has experienced a generation of conflict. He has been a witness to the escalation of global radicalisation for the past two decades, from the Bosnian conflict to wars in Afghanistan and Syria.

The documentary captures his perspective on the escalation in tensions between the west and Islam - from his forced confession and testimony as a free man to his experience as a British Muslim and living the 'War on Terror'. Begg's story, intercut with news archive, raises important questions about how democracies respond to terrorism and how that response has impacted communities and individuals.

1 hour, 25 minutes

Ashish Ghadiali, director and producer of Moazzam Begg: Living the War on Terror answers the Storyville Q&A

Ashish Ghadiali, director and producer of Moazzam Begg: Living the War on Terror answers the Storyville Q&A
What is more important, story or character?
I think they’re very closely related. In terms of process, sometimes one comes first, sometimes the other, but in the end, you need to find the story in your character(s) and the character(s) in your story.

What made you first want to explore the subject?
When I read about the story of Moazzam Begg’s release from Belmarsh prison in October 2014, I had already been looking very closely, all summer, at the stories of young British Muslims who had gone out to Syria and become foreign fighters.

I was troubled by the stories, but also by the nature of much of the media coverage that seemed, in my opinion, to be sensationalising the issue and I was keen to look at this subject matter with a little more care.

The Arab Spring, you see, had been a terribly complex event. It had inspired the sympathetic engagement of commentators and activists around the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and as the protest movement had spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and then to Syria, so had that wave of sympathy and so had the support of our own government and America’s, until that crucial moment in September 2013 when we chose not to intervene against Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on his own citizens.

Then the reality of ISIS began to present itself, and our government’s position on the region changed abruptly as we realised what we might be about to unleash if we destabilised Assad any further. So when this story of British foreign fighters broke, I found myself wondering to what extent these people had found themselves suddenly out of their depth, in the midst of a geopolitical storm. The wind had changed while they were out at sea, but in our moment of new national panic, we were struggling to acknowledge that aspect of the story.

Then came Moazzam Begg into that picture, a veteran figure in the history of the War on Terror, a former Guantanamo detainee and a controversial human rights campaigner, who had been the most high profile of the Syria-related arrests of 2014. Over that summer he had been held on terror-related charges in Belmarsh prison, awaiting trial for 7 months, but on the day the trial was meant to begin the case was dropped. A spokesman for the West Midlands Police explained that new evidence had come to light that meant there could be no conviction. After weighing up the case the prosecution was ready to admit that Begg was an
innocent man.

The problem this posed seemed patently obvious to me. If the man was, as the police now suggested, innocent, then why had he been arrested in the first place? Given that he had already done 7 months in a top security prison, some kind of disclosure to that effect, I thought, could be reasonably expected. I hadn’t yet fully grasped the extent to which the era of the War on Terror had normalised the practice of detention-without-trial.

Keen to document his story, I immediately approached Begg for access, fully expecting to be beaten to that access by a much bigger fish than me. But within a few days, the media had dropped the story entirely. The whole affair appeared to have been swept under the carpet. My questions were left hanging in the air, as was the popular assumption that there couldn’t be smoke where there wasn’t a fire.

And that got me thinking of the need to look very closely at Moazzam Begg. To explore the details of his story, but also to shed light, through this story, on the whole history that we’ve all lived through. On the War on Terror. At the impact this has had on our society, on our security, but also on our values, on the cultural assumptions that have been made possible by this quarter century of global conflict.

How long did it take to get the film off the ground?
It’s been nearly two years from that first meeting to TX.

What were you most surprised to learn in the course of production?
That the film I was making was a kind of Rorschach test in that, however much objectivity I engaged in my approach, viewers would come at the material with such strong preconceptions, so emotionally charged, that they would infer all kinds of meaning, interpretations that have often been diametrically opposed, and often project their own assumptions onto me! Personally, that can get tiring,but cinematically, it couldn’t be more  exciting. It’s the possibility of a narrative world in which everyone stands to be challenged, everyone can stand to be transformed. As soon as I understood that this was what the film was doing, I ran with that ball.

What have been the differences in reception to the film in countries it has now travelled to?

We’ve just had our international premiere, in Hamburg, and it was striking to learn that while, for many British viewers, the film speaks to the experience of an era that we’ve lived through, for many German viewers, seeing their country now grappling with the twin phenomena of the refugee crisis and the rise of the far right, for many German viewers it seemed that the film spoke to an experience that they feared might still be to come. I really hope that this film will prove to resonate globally. It’s been a global experience, this war on terror. I’m very keen
to discover how audiences in the US, in particular, will respond to the film.

Which documentary has most inspired you?
I first saw Citizenfour, by Laura Poitras, at a midnight screening in the Rio Cinema in Dalston, East London, not long after my first meeting with Moazzam Begg, and this was a very powerful experience. It inspired the sense that in a time where we pick up so much actuality from news alerts on smart phones, or from the never-ending stream of TV strap-lines and cut news packages, there is a real place in our lives for the cinematic documentary, that considered piece that allows us to stand up to the deluge, to immerse ourselves in a storyteller’s world.

That night was an immersion into a frightening but compelling landscape of
ruthless geopolitics and when I came out of that cinema, back onto Kingsland
High Street, my world had been transformed by the experience.

Favourite Website/blog?
London Review of Books.

Person you’d most like to interview (living or dead?)
John Coltrane.

Best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve ever been given?
Be patient!

Best piece of filmmaking equipment you can’t live without?
A blank sheet of paper (and a pen!)

If money was no object, what is your dream documentary subject?
If money was no object, I think I would be making documentaries about the migratory patterns of sea-turtles! I would be taking the time to just be out in nature, one story at a time, looking very slowly, listening, working to piece together a gentle appreciation of the processes that point us beyond the world of our human obsessions and out towards an understanding of our place in the universe. If money was no object!

Favourite film of all time?
Dersu Uzala by Akira Kurasowa - probably the closest to the above that I’ve ever

Best recent read?
Another Country by James Baldwin


Role Contributor
Producer James Rogan
Director Ashish Ghadiali
Series Editor Nick Fraser