Persons of Interest (2004)



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Movie Info

For her follow-up to 1999's Jesus' Son, director Alison MacLean switched gears, teaming with first-time filmmaker Tobias Perse on Persons of Interest, this documentary on the detaining of Muslim-Americans by the U.S. government. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Muslim and Arab-Americans were arrested -- often with no charges brought or legal representation provided -- as part of the United States' sweeping War on Terror. Through interviews with detainees and their families, MacLean and Perse attempt to shed light on the issue and detail the experiences of those imprisoned. Persons of Interest screened in competition at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
Documentary , Special Interest
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Critic Reviews for Persons of Interest

All Critics (21) | Top Critics (8)

Reminds us once more that our freedoms are especially fragile in times of national peril.

Full Review… | October 1, 2004
New York Observer
Top Critic

While it's true the full backgrounds of those interviewed aren't supplied here (nearly all are Muslim, with a majority being Palestinian), the pain, terror and frustration of their experiences sounds and feels authentic.

Full Review… | September 21, 2004
Top Critic

A resonant documentary.

Full Review… | September 7, 2004
Entertainment Weekly
Top Critic

The callous inequity of what you see and hear will floor you. It can't happen here. But it did. It does.

September 3, 2004
Rolling Stone
Top Critic

Powerful, anger-provoking documentary.

September 3, 2004
Top Critic

Delves into one of the most chronically undercovered 9/11 stories -- the still-unknown number of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals detained without trial in the wake of the attacks.

September 3, 2004
New York Post
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Persons of Interest

Here's a searing doc that gets straight to the point. Filmmakers Alison Maclean (Jesus' Son) and Tobias Perse interview a dozen New York City Arabs and Muslims who were arrested after the events of 9/11 and held for weeks and even years by the Bush administration. No explanation was given for any of the arrests. They were simply labeled persons of interest. The callousness and sheer inhumanity spoken of will leave you hollow, and livid that something so horrible actually took place on American soil.

Manny Casillas
Manny Casillas

Funded in part by the Sundance Documentary Fund and directed by Alison Maclean ([i]Jesus' Son[/i], [i]Crush[/i]) and Tobias Perse, [I]Persons of Interest[/I] examines arbitrary arrest, secret detention, and deportation of Muslim and Arab immigrants in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. The United States Justice Department under the leadership of the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, arrested and detained more than 5,000 Muslim and Arab immigrants “on suspicion of posing a threat to national security.” Of those 5,000 arrested and detained, most have been released without prosecution and conviction. Of that subgroup prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, none have been convicted of any crimes related to terrorist activities in the United States. None received an official apology from the U.S. government. [I]Persons of Interest[/I] unfolds as a series of static, on-camera interviews with twelve Muslim and Arab immigrants (and their families). The interviewees, often in halting, broken English, openly discuss their arrests and detentions in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The detainees were refused legal representation or contact with family and friends. Some of the detainees were held in undisclosed government facilities, in some cases as long as a year. At the end of their detention, the detainees were released without prosecution or arrest (although at least one of them, an Algerian immigrant with a Latino wife and several children, was immediately deported to another country). For example, Nabil Ayesh, a Palestinian immigrant, was arrested at a stoplight in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. He was held in detention for an entire year and seventeen days. He was never charged, but his wife and children were deported to the West Bank in the Palestinian Territories. After his release, he worked as a contractor, before another traffic stop in April 2003 led to his detention and eventual deportation to the West Bank. Syed Ali, a businessman married to an American woman, was arrested after a former business partner accused him of being a terrorist. The only connections the FBI found to the 9-11 attacks were a visitor’s pass to the World Trade Center and a flight simulator game owned by his American-born teenage son. Ali was held for over 100 days in detention in Riker’s Island. He lost both family and friends over his arrest. He also lost his business, and now operations a limousine service. Mohammed Irshaid, a civil engineer who worked on the 59th-Street Bridge in Manhattan was arrested at his job site and held for three weeks. As a consequence, Irshaid lost his job. Although all three of his children have been born and raised in the United States, it’s likely he and his family will relocate to Jordan in the next year. Salem Jaffar, an elderly man who’s lived in the United States for several decades, was arrested outside a Burger King in Buffalo, New York. He was charged with car theft (for driving an overdue rental car). He was held for more than a month in solitary confinement in a windowless room under 24-hour lighting. In frustration at his treatment, he engaged in several hunger strikes in order to obtain information about the charges against him. He was later tried and acquitted of the rental car charges. Nonetheless, Jaffar was forced to pay more than $25,000 dollars in legal fees. Karim Tebbakh, married to a Latino-American woman, was arrested on September 18, 2001 at the supermarket where he worked. For three months, his wife, Amanda Serrano, could not obtain information about his detention. In detention, Tebbakh also engaged in several hunger strikes. Following a year and a half in government detention, Tebbakh was deported to his native Algeria, where he was held in a military prison for ten days. Tebbakh can never return to the United States. Faiq Medrag, another Palestinian and father of three children who still live in the Middle East, was held in detention for more than three months. His crime? He had postcards of the World Trade Center pinned to the deli case where he worked. He is currently seeking political asylum. Shokriea Yahghi’s husband, Ali, was deported to Jordan after being held in a special housing unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for more than nine months. Ali Yahghi, the father of three American-born sons, owned a pizzeria and was active in his local mosque. His sons now live with him in Jordan, while his wife continues to live in the United States, in order to pursue a lawsuit based on the infringement of his constitutional rights against the United States government. In each case, arbitrary arrest (using, at most, “racial profiling” as a basis for arrest) was followed by secret detention, and the suspension of basic constitutionally guaranteed liberties, such as the right to legal counsel and the right to a “speedy” trial or hearing. Certainly, the U.S. government must safeguard the safety and security of its citizens from terrorist attack, but the real question here (unfortunately left unexamined in the documentary), is the balance that needs to be struck between national security and civil liberties, for U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. Even allowing for the immediate, unsubstantiated arrest and detention of so-called suspected terrorists, the burden shifts on the U.S. government to provide legal representation within 24- to 48-hours of detention (as well as disclosure to immediate family members of that detention and the place of detention), and a full and impartial hearing before a neutral arbitrator within a reasonable time frame. Charges, if any, should be brought within a maximum of several weeks to a month, and a hearing should follow soon thereafter. The U.S. government should also be prepared to compensate detainees for all lost wages and legal fees (and, if necessary, provide job assistance for those detainees who have lost their jobs as a result of arrest and detention). Constitutional due process (as enshrined in the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) should not be abrogated in the immediate or long-term after of terrorist attacks (or in the so-called “war on terrorism”). Governments, if they err at all, should always err on the side of civil liberties. And even when the government does err, they should be held accountable to the American public.

Mel Valentin
Mel Valentin

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