Even 20 years after his seize, nobody desires to speak in regards to the “American Taliban.” Greg Barker made a documentary about him anyway.
Photograph: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Directed by Greg Barker, the riveting new Showtime documentary Detainee 001 revisits the story of once-infamous “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, a younger man from California who had transformed to Islam as a teen and joined the Taliban previous to 9/11, solely to wind up wounded and detained by U.S. forces in late 2001. On the time of his seize, Lindh was instantly held up as a traitor, his gaunt, dirt-covered face plastered internationally’s newspapers. As Barker’s movie suggests, nonetheless, his mistreatment by the hands of the U.S. — stripped bare, blindfolded, sure to a stretcher, confined to a transport container, with troopers posing for images subsequent to him — was a harbinger of the prisoner-abuse scandals that might later emerge from locations like Abu Ghraib. (The time period “take the gloves off” was reportedly initially utilized by Donald Rumsfeld’s workplace to instruct these interrogating Lindh.)

Lindh was held in federal jail till his launch in 2019. Detainee 001 is much less about his experiences over the previous 20 years as it’s a suspenseful and disturbing account of his preliminary seize, utilizing the surprisingly prolonged interview he gave on the time — solely temporary snippets of which have been seen on the information — to assist re-create each his journey and the lethal Qala-i-Jangi jail rebellion throughout which he was captured. For Barker, the movie marks the end result of 4 years of effort, and represents one other chapter in his ongoing chronicle of the world after 9/11, which incorporates the documentaries Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, Koran by Coronary heart, The Thread, The Longest Conflict, and Sergio. (Barker additionally co-wrote the latter’s narrative namesake, which starred Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura and was launched by Netflix final yr.) We spoke about his efforts to interview Lindh, the continued significance of this story, and why he was so decided to inform it after so lots of the individuals he approached about it refused to speak.

I used to be actually stunned by the method you took in Detainee 001 — utilizing John Walker Lindh’s preliminary interview from his seize to weave a present-tense story about him and the Qala-i-Jangi jail rebellion of 2001. 
I’ve to be trustworthy with you: I’ve by no means encountered a topic the place so few individuals needed to speak. And that is from all sides — from him, his household, his attorneys, to the federal government officers concerned on the time, to troopers who interacted with him. I even received the identify of the physician on the plane provider who handled his wounds. No person needed to speak.

Why do you suppose that’s?
As a result of I feel no one comes out trying good, and no one’s happy with how they acted. And due to that, on a sensible stage, the traditional journalistic account of this, the forensic ticktock of when did the abuse start and what truly occurred, was virtually unimaginable to inform — simply because no one would cooperate. After all, that simply made me extra decided to inform it indirectly. As we hit a brick wall in a technique, it truly was very releasing. I had watched a whole lot of the footage [of Lindh’s post-capture interview]. Because it occurs, I had [a copy of] it in my private assortment, and didn’t fairly understand what I had, till I went again and checked out it. It’s unimaginable. Then I spotted that we might make this sort of experiential movie about this second in time.

I by no means realized how lengthy the total interview was. I keep in mind seeing temporary clips on the information on the time of his seize.
That interview that occurs with John, as he’s simply lived by way of this horrific time within the jail, is probably the most he’s ever stated, most likely, outdoors of a courtroom. There was a really narrative, filmic manner into the story, simply by way of this materials, letting us unpack slowly and go into this world. These are all journeys, these movies. You don’t fairly know the place you’re going to finish up.

Inform me in regards to the efforts you made to interview John Walker Lindh. Did you in the end have any form of interplay with him or his household?
Together with his household and attorneys. They’re up in San Francisco. I went as much as see them fairly a bit. They have been asking him, briefing him on our discussions, whereas he was in jail. Due to the unit wherein he was held within the federal jail, their communications with him have been fairly restricted. The dad I spent a good period of time with, in particular person. It at all times appeared like an interview was about to occur. I by no means fairly received a deal with on whether or not they have been simply being good and stonewalling. Entering into, I used to be very clear with them about who we have been speaking to and my aims. I shouldn’t have an agenda with this movie.

Then, after his launch, it was at all times a no. In actual fact, a number of avenues of people that have been with him in jail, who we received in contact with, who needed to talk and stated, “Sounds good,” they form of all dried up and disappeared. Which tells you one thing. However once more, it wasn’t simply John and his household. It was the troopers who you see interacting with him [around the time of his capture]. I truly knew a whole lot of them by way of different initiatives. It ought to have been a simple ask, and none of them would go on-camera. Throughout the board, there was this bizarre sense of, “Would you just stop making this film and let us get on with our lives? Please don’t tell this story again.”

So why did you wish to inform this story, regardless of all these roadblocks? 
I’m focused on these origin tales, about how our world was formed, significantly in these first months after 9/11. On a coverage stage, it’s an inflection level. It’s when the Bush administration determined that the authorized system shouldn’t be dependable. One of many causes for the plea discount is that the protection was about to place troopers on the stand, particular operations guys, who have been by then coaching to enter Iraq, who have been going to must testify in regards to the mistreatment and when that started. Nope, they didn’t need that. That’s after we closed up our justice system and stated, “Okay, this all needs to happen in quiet.” Which ends up in Abu Ghraib, black websites, Guantanamo, all of that. You’ll be able to really feel it. Once more, I can’t show it, however within the analysis and the way in which individuals speak, that’s what occurred. So, there’s that.

One of many issues that actually has pushed a whole lot of my work since 9/11 is attempting to claw again some empathy, even for individuals who we would discover offensive or disagree with. I feel it’s corroded our complete nationwide discourse, not simply in regards to the warfare on terror, or no matter you wish to name it. I feel Lindh’s story and the vilification that he was topic to — no matter what you consider his journey and all of that, which is a separate query — the way in which it was coated within the media and talked about by our leaders was simply … that is when empathy for the opposite, or the opposite inside, simply fully went out the window. He grew to become the enemy.

But in addition, it’s simply a tremendous story. Notably with the attitude of time, trying again at this forgotten battle, this forgotten man. It additionally tells a much bigger story that pertains to the world we’ve created immediately.

Talking of empathy, you get into this a bit of bit within the movie as properly, however he’s impressed songs, novels — a countercurrent of individuals looking for to know him, even when they themselves don’t know something about him. What’s it about him that fascinates us?
Nicely, I feel he’s a mirrored image. He’s this “ordinary American,” you recognize? Simply this child from a suburb, whose dad and mom appear to be simply some other American dad and mom. He suits a sure stereotype of America. He’s white, and I feel most likely that had one thing to do with it. Because the CIA man factors out, there was one other American there … however he was Saudi American, so individuals have been like, “Oh, well, it’s different.” [Yaser Esam Hamdi was also captured at the same battle, then detained at Guantanamo and on the U.S. mainland, without trial or representation, eventually leading to a pivotal Supreme Court decision, which ultimately led to his 2004 release and deportation to Saudi Arabia.]

The American medic who first noticed Lindh, his first thought was, “Is this a CIA undercover guy?” I’m positive that Al Qaeda thought the identical factor. I’m undecided they fully trusted him … attempting to determine the reality of who he’s and what he actually thought, I feel it’s truly what he says within the interview: He was on this journey and received caught up. He believed in it. It’s extremely irritating, as a result of individuals wish to put their very own type of concepts of who he needs to be onto him. However I feel all of us have been idiots after we have been 20 years outdated.

I do know the fellows who created Homeland. Lindh was one of many inspirations for them, too. He truly had a huge impact on the tradition. That was so astounding, going again into the information archives — simply the quantity of protection of this one man. It appeared form of ridiculous. However he got here to characterize one thing a lot, rather more. It’s fascinating to unpack it. It looks like a unique period, doesn’t it?

When you might speak to him, what would you ask him?  
About these occasions we filmed, I’d ask him about why he didn’t say that he was an American when he was questioned, very badly, by these CIA operatives, who, with all due respect, weren’t very skilled and weren’t following the appropriate procedures. [Lindh initially claimed to be Irish when interrogated by the CIA.] Once more, why didn’t he say one thing there? As a result of he might have gotten out. He might have stated, “Can we talk somewhere else?” He by no means has answered that query clearly, even when the FBI requested him. Perhaps he was traumatized. Perhaps it’s so simple as that. Perhaps he didn’t know who these guys have been or whether or not to belief them. I don’t know. I’d ask him about that. I’d ask him how his views have modified over time. Lots of people now will say, “Oh, he’s a terrorist. He’s a radical. He supported ISIS while he was in prison.” I don’t know. I’d be very curious to understand how his views have modified, now that he’s a grown man.

Whenever you say individuals stated he supported ISIS, you imply simply individuals who didn’t know him speculating, or individuals who knew him?
There was a leaked report from the federal government, a yr earlier than his launch, that stated that he had some communications that indicated he supported ISIS. Clearly it was a leaked doc, and I’ve by no means been capable of get any extra details about it.

You’ve got been making movies all through this complete post-9/11 interval — in regards to the wars, in regards to the seek for bin Laden, in regards to the Arab Spring. You’ve spent a whole lot of time in these areas and with this broader story. How has your concept of your position as a filmmaker modified over this era?
When 9/11 occurred, I actually considered myself extra as a journalist — I used to be working for Frontline. I do really feel like journalism has largely failed us within the final 20 years — not fully, however a whole lot of it has. I really feel like storytelling — whether or not it’s long-form like documentary, or narrative, or novels — is the way in which to know how we’ve modified over the past 20 years. I’m drawn towards tales that make us attempt to perceive and hold on to empathy, which is a part of our souls however can also be simply pushed apart. I feel that’s one of many unhappy by-products of 9/11 and the way in which wherein we’ve forged and are available to know the opposite.

What’s it about journalism that failed us? 
I feel journalism, within the midst of disaster, significantly nationwide safety crises, is at all times challenged. Whenever you’re masking a warfare, it’s simple to get caught up in that. It’s seductive. It’s weirdly enjoyable. You may as well get sucked into the entry dilemma, which is why the start of the warfare in Iraq was coated the way in which it was. Everybody purchased into this collective mind-set. That, coupled with the financial adjustments within the information media, which we’re all acquainted with, and the way cable information has simply fed off of battle and division — not simply Fox however all of it — as a manner of getting rankings. The story itself, it simply led to a brand new point of interest: the enemy, the terrorist that we’re going to in some way vanquish. Folks purchased into that. Quite a lot of journalists have been writing about that.

These feelings solely take you thus far. They’re not in the end that fascinating. We’ve got to search for different feelings that come into play, no matter it could be. Like The Damage Locker, which I feel was an important instance of how we understood a soldier’s expertise in these unending wars. There’s a number of different examples. Battle needs to be pushed by feelings which can be complicated, in any other case it’s not fascinating. That’s very exhausting to convey in journalism.

I used to be doing this mission as soon as for HBO, earlier than Lindh, in regards to the FBI and homegrown terrorism. I keep in mind having this lengthy dialog with Wolf Blitzer’s producer. I actually needed to do one thing about this, they usually might by no means discover the time — not simply to cowl the movie, however the entire subject. Might by no means discover the time! How are you going to by no means discover the time, when you’ve got an hour-plus each night time? It’s as a result of they’re simply pushed by regardless of the narrative is that day.

You famous that with the Lindh story, you powered by way of regardless of no one wanting to talk to you. Are there topics you’ve tried to deal with through the years however you simply couldn’t?
Nicely, I feel we nonetheless don’t know the total story of the CIA torture program. We don’t know the total story of the hunt for bin Laden. I’ve additionally lengthy been fascinated by the choice to go to warfare in Iraq, this obsession with Saddam Hussein, and Saddam’s double video games he was taking part in with the broader world and internally, not having the weapons [of mass destruction] however appearing like he did. Finally, that’s what price him his regime. That story is Shakespearean and might be advised sooner or later, correctly.

I feel the true problem is to know how we have now been modified, not essentially how John Walker Lindh, some child from Marin County, goes and finally ends up with the Taliban, however how will we react to that, how do these reactions on the time nonetheless have an effect on us immediately?

I keep in mind a number of years in the past, when ISIS was actually commanding the information, you couldn’t get previous these tales of individuals from the U.Ok. and elsewhere, touring and becoming a member of in with ISIS. Again in 2001, John Walker Lindh appeared distinctive: “What the hell was this guy thinking?” Now we’re like, “Oh, this is a thing now.” 
However a lot of the ones that we heard about within the U.S. have been FBI vegetation or setups, by far. The group that deliberate probably the most assaults in america was the FBI. That’s to not say there weren’t some loopy individuals who needed to go off and be a part of. However they took weak individuals. John Walker Lindh, had all that occurred after 9/11, they might have been on him from the get-go, and would have arrested him earlier than he ever received on the airplane. It’s bizarre to suppose that he was on the profitable aspect, in spite of everything that. The Taliban are again in energy. It’s mind-blowing. In the long term, his aspect received.

Detainee 001 premieres on Showtime on Friday, September 10 at 9 p.m. ET.


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