Alexandria Film Festival 2021 Reviews: ‘In Search of Monsters’ seeks vengeance through forgiveness

Alexandria Film Festival 2021 Reviews: ‘In Search of Monsters’ seeks vengeance through forgiveness
Photo/Autentic Mohamedou Salahi in John Goetz' documentary "In Search of Monsters."

By Cody Mello-Klein |

“In Search of Monsters,” the documentary from journalist John Goetz, is provocative in its exploration of the limits and value of forgiveness and the power of perspective and personal bias. At times, Goetz reaches beyond his grasp, as he asks question after question and attempts to get to the core around the story of Mohamedou Salahi and his torture at the hands of U.S. interrogators in Guantanamo Bay.

The details of Salahi’s story have been well reported, including by Goetz himself. Salahi was imprisoned for more than 14 years based on what the U.S. government alleged was his connection to Al Qaeda. He was never charged with any crime and was eventually released from prison and sent home to Mauritania, where he now lives and works as a life coach.

It’s clear from the start of the film that Goetz’ interest lies in one specific aspect of Salahi’s narrative. In his book, Salahi invited his tormentors to drink tea with him in his home. At first Goetz admits he thought it was just a writerly flourish, a nice sentiment, but he quickly realized Salahi was dead serious. Salahi reached out to Goetz in the hopes that the journalist and filmmaker could help him contact the members of the Special Projects Team, called by critics a “torture team,” and forgive them for the pain they inflicted.

“Revenge is very tricky,” Salahi says at one point in the film. “What is revenge? Do I want to kill him? Do I want to apply the same pain on him? I found this ridiculous. So, my best revenge was to forgive, give me back my control.”

The only catch: Salahi doesn’t know their names or faces – they used codenames and wore masks. The film effectively chronicles Goetz’ investigation into what happened to Salahi and the bread crumb trail that leads him from a footnote on a U.S. Senate report to the people who oversaw Salahi’s torture.

Scored with driving synths and full of clandestine meetings, “In Search of Monsters” sometimes resembles the paranoia-filled political thrillers of the 1970s. One by one Goetz tracks down Salahi’s torturers and gets them to talk to the camera. All of them stand firm in their belief that Salahi is an enemy of the U.S. – some claim he recruited three of the hijackers involved in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 – but their individual responses to the conversations that they inevitably have with Salahi reveal Goetz’, and Salahi’s, real aim.

Salahi describes in detail what these people did to him in Guantanamo Bay – how he was interrogated for 20 hours at a time, stripped down and shackled to the floor and deprived of food and the ability to pray. Goetz’ attempt to humanize those who tormented Salahi by including their accounts and admissions of regret or guilt is provocative and, at times, off-putting.

But, vitally, Goetz never questions Salahi’s innocence. Instead, the stories of Salahi’s torturers are used to show how torture was rationalized in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on American soil and how U.S. foreign policy impacts both those who execute it and those who are harmed by it. At times Goetz pushes too hard to humanize or explain these men and their behavior, but he never lets them or the audience forget what they did.

Eventually, Goetz connects Salahi with the figures that have occupied his post-traumatic nightmares for years. The conversations that ensue range from awkward and guarded to oddly jovial. Much like the film itself, even when the conversations become uncomfortable, they remain powerful.