Gitmo Space: A Dialogue about Mediatized Warfare, Documentary Filmmaking and Heterotopic Truth

by André Jansson and Erik Gandini

[PDF version]

The very name Guantánamo evokes a broad, polarized spectrum of associations among media audiences across the world. Since its establishment in 2002, the US detention camp on the shore of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has come to occupy a place taken for granted within people’s mediatized lives; dominant US-led encodings of a well-functioning, righteous prison camp, aimed for dissemination via mainstream news media, have been contrasted with alternative images of human rights violations and assaults. In 2004 documentary filmmaker Erik Gandini and his crew started shooting Gitmo, a film that tries to reach behind, or rather inside, the mediated façade of the Guantánamo prison. Released in 2005, Gitmo eventually won several awards and generated much discussion about the actual “truth” of Guantánamo and the media strategies through which this space is represented. In the film, Gandini addresses those questions through a geographical and representational journey that goes through the very image of Guantánamo.

This essay consists of a dialogue between André Jansson, professor of media and communication studies at Sweden's Karlstad University, and Gitmo director and Ander Visiting Professor of Global Media Studies at Karlstad University (2010-11), Erik Gandini. The dialogue was initiated as an intervention into the debate concerning space and documentary filmmaking, as formulated in this issue of Media Fields Journal. The dialogue concentrates on the spectacular status of Guantánamo and the more specific question of how to represent the “truth” of such a space, and thus ultimately reflecting upon what kind of space the documentary itself produces.


Clip 1: Intro scene to Gitmo – first 2 min

André Jansson: When I first watched Gitmo I was struck, even a bit confused, by the opening scene, where you phone the American officials asking for travel advice regarding Guantánamo and are warmly welcomed and informed about available flights, accommodation, etc. [see Clip 1] The touristic content of the conversation collided not only with the dramaturgic framing of the scene, but also, more significantly, with my own cultivated understanding of Guantánamo as a militarized and heavily securitized zone. Soon I realized, however, that those telephone voices, as well as other “technologies of appearance” that you unveil throughout the film, actually constitute and represent the very logic of postmodern, mediatized warfare. Did you as a filmmaker expect this type of tourist spectacle when you started shooting the film? Was it an underlying premise of the plot, that you wanted to expose to your audience, or did it come as a “spatial shock” to you as well?           

Erik Gandini: I myself was very surprised when calling Captain Crosson at the US Army Southern Command (in charge of press visits to Guantánamo), finding the attitude of a sales person from a tourist agency or the organizer of a cruise trip. “Sure Erik! We have a three-day tour. We'll fly you for free from Puerto Rico. You'll have to pay $12 per night for accommodation … whatever question you have, feel free to call!” When we finally got to Guantánamo Bay, it turned out that the friendliness of that phone conversation was just the beginning; the whole visit to Guantánamo was designed in the name of joy and pleasure, just like a vacation trip. More precisely, to give the impression of joy and pleasure. The guides who took care of us seemed to be typecast for their appearance and soft, even humble, manners. And the strictly organized three-day tour included the Guantánamo Bay golf course, a McDonald’s restaurant (the only one on Cuban soil) and, the peak in surrealism, a photo hunt safari of so called hutijas, banana rats [see Clip 2]. It is obviously a clear strategy, directed particularly to TV crews, to orchestrate the public image of this detention and interrogation camp so that the audience perceive it as a place where nothing bad or illegal takes place, built out of necessity, in a situation of real emergency, and run in the name of lawfulness and the meticulous rigor of the US Army. When I was there, I felt myself so confused that I started thinking that the worst place to be if you want to grasp what happens at Guantánamo, is Guantánamo.


Clip 2: Guided Tour on Guantanamo Bay – from the film Gitmo

AJ: That is an interesting question: where to go if one wants to understand the Gitmo phenomenon? There are indeed several layers of mediation and discursive processes to peel off before one eventually might reach the inner core of some “real” events. But then, one might also ask if that is actually what Guantánamo is all about. From a theoretical perspective the phenomenon echoes Jean Baudrillard’s classical thesis of the hyper-real, notably as formulated in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.[i] It is noteworthy that he uses the term “take place” (lieu), saying that the postmodern war (originally commenting on the Gulf War) does not have a distinct location. It is inseparable from its mediation. As with Baudrillard’s simulations, where meaning implodes through the exaggerated staging of communication, one might in the case of Guantánamo talk about an imploding hyper-place.[ii] At the same time, this hyper-place, which must be understood as a thoroughly phantasmic representational space, becomes a dominant feature of the lived experience of ordinary mass audiences[iii]—let alone that there has emerged a plethora of alternative distribution channels for war images since Baudrillard introduced his ideas.[iv] What makes Gitmo so fascinating, then, is the way in which the film captures the madness of staging a “civilized” media image of war through giving the full, magnifying attention to the staging process itself, and thereby revealing its lack of sustainability when mediated beyond its intended television format.  

EG: Arguably, Guantánamo is in reality a place outside of the law, created to gain information through coercive and unconventional interrogation methods, built on a foreign soil where US laws do not apply. Given all that, one must admit that the media strategy of the press department has been somehow successful. The public debate about Guantánamo amounts to almost nothing when Barack Obama is able to withdraw his initial promise to close it, prompting little more than an astonished “oh, really?” from the international community. All this proves the strategy to be very effective from the part of those who designed it. It's a strategy worthy of close study for a very specific reason: it is a very different strategy compared to what a secret space like a military facility used to be just a few decades ago. During the Cold War, there would just have been censorship around a military site. Today we are dealing with a different approach—one that I call censorship through openness. In the current media world, authorities can no longer afford to be secret, abusing their power through censorship and having uniformed personnel blocking camera lenses with their flat hands. In the contemporary world where communication is based on images, impression is crucial. So if they can create the impression that Guantánamo is a place where everything is fine, that impression will triumph over the truth. Impressions are a very subtle, emotional phenomenon. They are built on how people look, how they smile, what body language they express, or how a place looks, how it sounds, how it smells. All those elements create a constructed impression, of much greater impact than the hidden truth behind it. Even vocabulary, the realm of words at Guantánamo, is designed to cover up the truth in an Orwellian way: “We treat them in the spirit of the Geneva Convention” actually means “We don't care about the Geneva Convention.” “You are welcome to visit Guantánamo” actually means “We won’t let you inside Guantánamo.” And, when Donald Rumsfeld says at the end of the film, “This is one of the most open prison camps in the history of modern warfare,” it actually means that no one will have access inside the camp.

AJ: When you reflect upon the ontological status of Guántanamo, I notice that you adopt a certain discourse of truth. To put it simply, your truth seems to mean “what the image aims to hide,” thus asserting that the image, or the spectacle, operates as the very opposite of the truth, and that the truth must be somehow negatively defined—as an implicit non-category.[v] Clearly, Gitmo does not represent what is hidden beyond the spectacle, even though it lets us understand that there is something else—perhaps the truth—waiting to be exposed. But, then, what kind of truth is it that your film shows us? In my view, Gitmo presents, if not the truth, at least a certain truthful view of what it means, and what it feels like, to be inside the very process of mediation. What the film captures is the “truth” of an in-between media space. Extending this argument I would say that Gitmo demonstrates the potential of documentary filmmaking for telling heterotopic truths. Even though there seems to be an inherent contradiction in the very notion of “telling truths,” it is precisely through the practice of telling that the logic of heterotopia might be brought to the fore. Its truth cannot be anything else than what is told, since it constitutes "an other space" where we actually are not. Michel Foucault, who coined the term heterotopia, states that such sites have “the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect”.[vi] This is clearly the case with the Guantánamo phenomenon, which we all (presumably) can relate to without actually knowing anything about the place itself. It is a site that performs its own sophisticated logic of exclusion, while saturating society with its phantom image. And this is not only a matter of the distance between the central media stage and the audience,[vii] but also, as your film tells us, a matter of being excluded once we think we enter, by the very fact that we enter, to paraphrase Foucault once again.[viii] Entering Gitmo may not even be a matter of going inside the camp itself. I would rather say that through the act of lingering in the front-yard, in the liminal zone—as you are able to do in a documentary—it is possible somehow to feel and sense the logic of heterotopia.  

EG: Finding the truth is always the goal for a documentary filmmaker—and there are indeed several ways of conceiving of it. With truth, I don’t mean a factual, journalistic or judicial truth, but rather a subjective, personal truth for you as the storyteller. German director Werner Herzog calls it the ecstatic truth, explaining that: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”[ix] Herzog’s documentaries (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972; Fitzcarraldo, 1982; Grizzly Man, 2005; Encounters at the End of the World, 2007) endeavor to give the audience “the feeling of being an observer dragged into the scene”.[x] So, in a case like Gitmo, how can one tell something other than the official Pentagon-version? The solution lies, partly, as you suggest, in the documentary genre itself. While news reporters taking part in the tour usually produce a short, 1-2 minute piece with a few statements and imagery of the prison, quickly delivered the day after the visit or even the same night, the documentary filmmaker is free from the set of rules of the news machinery. For me as a documentary filmmaker who benefits from a format that offers extended time (both in production and in final film length), all the in-between, transitory situations—like the bus tours through the golf course, the McDonald’s restaurant, and the Iguana safari—represent a great value for depicting the spectacle itself. The spectacle is the message. And the more efforts go to creating it, the stronger is the feeling of a cover-up, of a hidden truth.

AJ: Seeing your film, I think, clearly illustrates what Herzog means when he says that the truth is always behind or beyond reality. Throughout those scenes we have discussed, there is a continuous experience of watching things at a distance—tourist sights passing by our bus window—and that the truth is far beyond what we actually see. At the same time, however, there is also a second gaze, or rather a glance, being applied, through which we can spot details that are somehow located beside the stage, thus making the cinematic space at once more complex and suggestive.[xi] Herzog’s notion of the ecstatic truth is in this sense very similar to what I called the heterotopic truth, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the original Greek word ekstasis refers to “standing outside-of-oneself.” In Gitmo, while being transported through various areas of the staging process, the focus is implicitly on that diffuse “elsewhere space,” a heterotopia that supposedly harbors some kind of truth. As viewers, we are invited to surpass the obvious mechanisms of boundary maintenance, which demarcate heterotopia and reach an emotional experience of its interior complexity: the truth of something which we cannot fully know. And here I’m not speaking of the very prison camp, but of the composite (media) space of Guantánamo.  

EG: In cinematic terms, there is also a narration tool typical of horror movies, based on the idea that showing allusions of horror instead of the actual horror is sometimes more powerful. It could be images of blood dripping from a roof or an eerie sound indicating something terrible is taking place—film language's equivalent to metonymies in literature. The idea is that if the audience has to visualize an image, or fantasy of what they think is taking place, that could be even more emotionally disturbing than actually showing a graphic depiction of it. In Gitmo, that is what we were almost accidentally confronted with. The last night of our visit, our guides took us to a spot approximately 40 meters from the fence of Camp 4, the detention center of the more cooperative prisoners, where we could take some late evening shots [see Clip 3]. From this position, defined by a 30-40 m2 platform of flat concrete built in the middle of the muddy soil and suitable for camera tripods, we were told by our guides we could take some B-rolls of “Gitmo by Night”. We started recording and discovered that our directional microphone, a Sennheiser 416 (one of the most common tools in documentary filmmaking, because it has the property of solely capturing the sound from where it is directed) picked up sounds of lament, almost moaning, from inside the camp. Indeed, this can be considered an aural trespass that complicates further, and thus contributes to, what you referred to as the heterotopic truth.  


Clip 3: Nighttime at Guantanamo Bay – from the film Gitmo


AJ: That is clearly one of the most crucial and emotionally disturbing scenes in the whole film. During those short but lingering moments, the spectacle collapses in front of our eyes. Even though we still cannot see or touch anything that is readily comprehensible, there are no longer any doubts about the truth of the matter within the cinematic space of Gitmo. Even the very spectacle becomes a tragic space with that poor tour guide taking up the center stage, while seemingly wishing to be somewhere else. This, finally, raises the question of what a film such as Gitmo can actually achieve in a more political sense. I doubt that it has been able to convert many supporters of  US military strategy. But what about the media strategies?   

EG: I know that today it is much more difficult to visit Guantánamo, and it is also evident that most of the tours described above have been cancelled, allegedly due to films like Gitmo. What remains as an insight to this experience is that despite the high level of professionalism of the institutions involved in the Gitmo operation and the overwhelming power of the US Army, there is always an element of inefficiency at the ground level, a whole set of amateurish behaviors—inevitable whenever there is lying involved—that involuntarily create a crack in the façade. This is a crack that, no matter how small, will always be a source of motivation for those who, like me, are exploring today’s mediated reality in search of another truth.



[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Din Not Take Place (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991/1995).

[ii] Jean Baudrillard, “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media,” New Literary History 16, no. 3 (1985): 577-589; Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987).    

[iii] Cf Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the (lived) space of representation; Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974/1991).

[iv] See, for example, the recent work by Christian Christensen on YouTube and the Iraq war: Christian Christensen, “Uploading Dissonance: YouTube and the US Occupation of Iraq,” Media, War & Conflict 1, no. 2 (2008): 155–175; Christian Christensen, “The Everyday War: Iraq, YouTube and the Banal Spectacle,” in Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space, eds. Miyase Christensen, André Jansson and Christian Christensen (New York: Peter Lang, 2011). 

[v] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Cambridge, Ma: Zone Books/MIT Press, 1967/1994).

[vi] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London: Routledge 1967/1998), 231.

[vii] This may be compared to Couldry’s discussion on media power and centrality. See Nick Couldry, The Place of Media Power: Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age (London: Routledge, 2000); Nick Couldry, Media Rituals: A Critical Approach (London: Routledge, 2003). 

[viii] Foucault, 235.

[ix] Werner Herzog, “Minnesota Declaration” / Truth and fact in documentary cinema. Presentation at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 30, 1999., accessed February 9, 2011.  

[x] Ibid.

[xi] For a discussion on ‘other gazes’, see André Jansson and Amanda Lagerkvist “The Future Gaze: City Panoramas as Politico-Emotive Geographies,” Journal of Visual Culture 8, no. 1 (2009): 74-102. 

Erik Gandini is an award-winning film director/producer. Born and raised in Italy, Gandini moved to Sweden at the age of 19. His 1994 debut feature Raja Sarajevo, shot in war-torn Sarajevo with a small hi-8 camera, gained great international acclaim. In 2000, he co-founded the film and TV production company Atmo with Kristina Åberg and Tarik Saleh. Since 1994, Gandini has produced and directed a number of internationally acclaimed documentaries; Not without Prijedor (1996), Amerasians (1998), Sacrificio - Who betrayed Che Guevara? (2001), Surplus: terrorised into being consumers (2003), Gitmo - The New Rules of War (2005), and Videocracy (2009). The latter, a film about the image obsessed culture in Berlusconi’s Italy, won the 2009 award for Best Documentary Film at the Toronto Film Festival. During 2010-2011 Gandini holds the Ander Visiting Professorship in Global Media Studies at Karlstad University, Sweden.  

André Jansson is a Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Karlstad University, Sweden. He has published several books and articles in the field of media and cultural studies, with a special focus on communication geography. Among his publications in English are the co-edited books Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space (in print, Peter Lang), Strange Spaces: Explorations into Mediated Obscurity (Ashgate, 2009), and Geographies of Communication: The Spatial Turn in Media Studies (Nordicom, 2006), as well as recently published special issues of Communication Review (2009, on “Communication and Space”) and Culture Unbound (2010, on “Rural Media Spaces”).