Medill Adjunct Lecturer to premiere documentary at Gene Siskel Film Center

A nursing home aide from Liberia. An actor from Colombia. A Navy veteran from the U.S. and a physician from Guatemala. So different at first glance, yet they have a horrific experience in common: they all have been tortured. Rarely given a voice, they are among the 500,000 torture survivors who live in the U.S. “Beneath the Blindfold” (2012, 80 min.), co-directed by Medill Adjunct Lecturer Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger, gives them an opportunity to share their powerful stories. “Beneath the Blindfold” follows them through the daunting steps of building new lives, careers and relationships. And despite the continued psychological and physical fallout from their experience, they feel empowered to speak out and become public advocates for an end to torture.

"Beneath the Blindfold" will premiere as part of the “Stranger Than Fiction” series at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago on Friday, January 13 at 8:15 p.m.

Sommer took a few minutes to talk about her emotional documentary.

How would you describe what “Beneath the Blindfold” is about?

“Beneath the Blindfold” tells the personal stories of four international torture survivors who struggle daily with the lifelong consequences of their experience. Despite the daunting issues the survivors face, the film strikes an inspiring note as these courageous survivors progress on their path to healing and reclaim their voice. 

How did this documentary come to be?
The impetus for the film definitely came around the time the stories about Abu Ghraib first began to appear. The focus in the media coverage was very much on the perpetrators and questions about “the chain of command,” which are obviously important questions. But at the same time little attention was paid to the torture victims and what happened to them afterward. This prompted my co-director Kathy Berger and me to wonder what happens to people after torture. How do they carry on? Can they heal? What are the consequences? 

As independent documentary filmmakers, we knew we didn't have the resources to make a film that requires much international travel. At the same time, we became aware of the fact that close to 500,000 torture survivors live right here in the U.S. and that their stories are rarely heard. We also learned that there are a number of torture treatment centers where survivors can receive treatment. The Chicago's Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center, the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, and the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis / St. Paul helped us find several of the participants for our film.

How challenging was the production of this piece for you as a documentarian?
More than with any other project that I have worked on, this film required that we invest time and build a trusting relationship with our subjects. Torture survivors have lost trust in the world around them and it takes a long time for them to allow a documentarian in for more than just a surface interview. We wanted to create a holistic portrait of these four survivors and not just portray them as victims -- they worked hard at regaining some agency, so we wanted to make sure to capture that. In addition to interviews, we therefore spent a good amount of time with them filming everyday moments, which was an additional challenge for them because it always means a loss of control when you let a camera in. In a regular, deadline-driven production situation, investing so much time would have been difficult, so our greatest challenge (lack of funding) resulted in just the right, deliberate pacing when it came to production. 

What does it mean for you to have the world premier be a part of the “Stranger Than Fiction” series and to be screened at the Siskel Film Center?
The Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute is among the most prestigious screening venues in the country, and we are thrilled to be hosting our world premiere there. “Stranger Than Fiction” is their long-running, annual documentary series, so it's wonderful to have been selected for this series. 

What are your plans for the documentary after the series?
We will begin to submit “Beneath the Blindfold” to film festivals but also have plans to screen it as widely as possible at colleges, conferences, human rights and peace groups, churches and community organizations throughout the country. Our intent was to make a film that could put a face on the issue of torture and help further the dialogue about this issue. Our first screening for a college audience will be at the University of Chicago's International House on January 18, and we would obviously love to bring the film to Northwestern as well. 

Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Many of the survivors who we met during the making of this film did not dare to be on camera; they feared dire consequences for their families and friends back home, and they were also wary of “coming out” to their American co-workers and neighbors. This is not surprising, given that a 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that 43 percent of Americans felt that torture was justified to gain information despite its legal prohibition. "Beneath the Blindfold" will hopefully counter the misinformation related to the efficacy of torture in interrogations and instead will shine a spotlight on the real consequences of torture.

An encore screening of “Beneath the Blindfold” will be shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19. In addition, there will be a free screening at the University of Chicago’s International House on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m.