Fright Flights

Matthew Hays at the Montreal Mirror reports:

Among the insane policies justified by post-9/11 panic, extraordinary rendition stands as one of the worst. Simply put, the action allows government agencies to ignore the basic human rights of suspects-effectively bypassing national and international law-by abducting people on tenuous evidence, flying them to secret prisons in faraway countries, and then torturing them in an effort to get information.

In Canada, such policies became well known after the case of Maher Arar came to light, the Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was arrested by American authorities under flimsy evidence, was labelled an al-Qaeda operative and flown to Syria, a country that is well known to practise torture, where he was held and tortured for a year. The Canadian and Syrian governments have now cleared him of any ties to terrorist organizations.

Though it generated a lot of headlines in Canada, Arar's case was but one of many. Though rendition has been practiced clandestinely by the U.S. government since the Vietnam war, after 9/11 the numbers grew, creating a sense of alarm among organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Now, the practice has been turned into the subject of a solid Hollywood studio film, with an A-list cast and a taut screenplay, directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi). Titled simply Rendition, the film has a fictional storyline clearly inspired by the headlines: a man of Egyptian background works as an engineer. In a stopover between flights at a Washington, D.C. airport, he's pulled aside by authorities, handcuffed and hooded, and taken to a secret place for interrogation. When he won't admit to anything, he's then flown to a secret location in the Middle East, where he's tortured for months. Meanwhile, his family knows nothing of his whereabouts and must try to figure out what happened to him.

TV ups the ante

"It all started at a party in Los Angeles," screenwriter Kelley Sane recalls. "A friend of mine worked for a producer who was there, and we got to talking about rendition. We were discussing both sides of the argument, and I was quite passionate about it. He said, ‘You should write a script about this, it would make a good film.' In 2005, I sat down and started working on the script."

Sane's screenplay has several intersecting subplots, all of which arc beautifully over less than two hours. "I really liked the idea of multiple stories, as we've seen in films like Amores Perros and Traffic. The fact is, TV has meant you have to up the ante. Shows like The Sopranos have led us to expect more from a script. Audiences have become far more sophisticated."

And Sane says he looked back to a time of rising discontent in America, when an unpopular war and disgraced president led to a lot of soul searching in the U.S., and led Hollywood to create a series of socially conscious films. "There were films in the '70s that took important social issues and wrapped a human story around it, so you don't feel like you're trying to dictate or instruct or manhandle the audience. I looked at films like The China Syndrome, All the President's Men, Chinatown, Missing."

Getting social

Sane says he's glad to see social-issue films making a comeback of sorts. "For a while, they stopped making films like that. Occasionally they would pop up on the radar, but it was rare. The studios wanted to make money, and those movies stopped being profitable, is my first guess. They were competing with bigger fare, films like Air Force One. So the big social-issue drama was pushed aside for a while."

But, he adds, "Things have changed now. The audiences are smarter and their politics have shifted. I think people are getting more involved. The environment, among many other issues, has galvanized the public."

Fear, Sane says, allowed the Bush administration to run wild after the terror emanating from 9/11. "In the administration's own determination to protect America, they went overboard. I don't even think they were necessarily evil. I think their motivations were genuine. But there's a smart way of doing things, and a dumb way. And boy was this dumb. They weakened our alliances with other countries while strengthening our enemies. If you can terrify the public, you can get them to do almost anything."

And did Sane ever, in his wildest dreams, think that one of the first screenplays he'd ever penned would end up a studio film starring Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Alan Arkin and Peter Sarsgaard?

"Only in a drunken semi-coma. I always felt it was a strong screenplay, but this has been amazing."

Rendition opens Friday, Oct. 19, 2007.