The Secret Trial 5 (2014)
Editor’s Note: The Secret Trial 5 opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on November 7.
Governments are funny things, these large looming figures of power that oversee an entire populace. I can’t recall a time when a government was spoken of favorably. The conversation always centers on what the government has done wrong or how it is mistreating its people. They are sort of like high school teachers, where fear of getting caught causes you to hide your actions from even the most revered. There’s a reason why the government is often the villain of fictional dystopic futures. But sometimes, governments can screw up so royally that you begin to question if they even understand their purpose. The Secret Trial 5 highlights just such an instance.
Security certificates are probably something you have never heard of. Certainly, if you are living outside of Canada, you have no reason to concern yourself with this bit of Canadian legal mechanics. Even Canadian citizens may find themselves struggling to define just what a security certificate is. However, this relic of the Cold War remains alive and well as a part of the Canadian federal government. Created, apparently, as a vehicle for the preservation of national security, these bits of legislation have the power to detain non-citizens that pose a “threat.” Enacted rarely, the stipulations of the security certificate are circuitous and confusing, placing individuals in prison without charges for an undefined period of time, with the only guaranteed mode of exit being deportation. The Secret Trial 5 looks at four of the most recent individuals slapped with the certificate and their struggle to survive.
I cannot imagine, outside of those legislators mucking up the governmental process, that an educated and level-headed person could abide this mistreatment. But director Amar Wala doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do with this head start.
It is hard to deny that security certificates pose a sufficient ethical, human rights, and legal conundrum. Placing individuals into a prison situation, yet not charging them with a crime or informing them of the reasoning for their detainment, with no reasonable expectation of an end date, feels morally corrupt. Even those that stomp around banging the drum of national security must come to grips with the fact that these are human beings, and to treat any human in this manner is tortuous. In this way, the film starts with a pretty healthy stockpile of goodwill. I cannot imagine, outside of those legislators mucking up the governmental process, that an educated and level-headed person could abide this mistreatment. But director Amar Wala doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do with this head start.
Wala has found a compelling story in these cases. This set of outsiders, many with family values, struggling to remain in a country that they appear to love, present a set of protagonists itching for deep emotional connection to the audience. However, in his execution, he consistently keeps them at a distance, out of reach from the viewer. The strength of this documentary is not the legal system or the villainous government officials, but these four men. So as Wala heads down rabbit hole after rabbit hole in an apparent journey to understand the purpose of all of these procedures it only serves to alienate the viewers from the heart of the story. The interviews present a familiarity and general rapport with the subjects, yet we remain disconnected with only glimpses of who they are as people. In the same way that the government keeps information shrouded in secrecy, we are left clamoring for truth, aching to know these men better.
The emotional disconnection aside, many elements of the film betray the general rookie nature of its creators. Many of the establishing shots do not effectively establish anything, moments of emotional honesty or development flit by underutilized, there is an overreliance on document text, and at least once a shot is blatantly repeated while adding nothing to the greater whole. The repetitious nature of the film, which could have been used to highlight the very struggle being experienced by its subjects, is deployed ineffectively, resulting in merely poor pacing rather than a build of connection or emotionality. For a subject that is so rooted in the human experience and the emotional aspect of our nature, it comes across as largely cold and disconnected. As graceful and cinematic as your typical news piece.
These segments alone, which also include the explanation of the government’s changes to the process, should be separated from the film itself and used as educational tools for the masses.
Surprisingly, in explaining what should be bland legalities, the film finally finds an intriguing voice. Through effective animations and writing that simplifies but doesn’t belittle the viewer’s intelligence, we come to understand just what is involved in the application of security certificates. These segments alone, which also include the explanation of the government’s changes to the process, should be separated from the film itself and used as educational tools for the masses. The narration is tight and the animations unobtrusive, so that it not only informs but effectively entertains. Unfortunately, this is the one breath of fresh air, in what is largely a mediocre documentary. The Secret Trial 5 has, at its core, all of the elements of a great documentary, however its execution leaves something to be desired. Its subjects, rather than vehicles of connection, are rendered nearly faceless, as if director Amar Wala would have us project our own concerns onto these blank canvases, rather than come to know them as people. The case of Canadian security certificates is something that merits close examination and deep thought, but The Secret Trial 5 only does a serviceable job at starting that conversation.
The Secret Trial 5 has, at its core, all of the elements of a great documentary, however its execution leaves something to be desired...The case of Canadian security certificates is something that merits close examination and deep thought, but The Secret Trial 5 only does a serviceable job at starting that conversation.