Making "The Response"
|Origins: Maryland Law
||Spreading the Word
When Sig Libowitz took Professor Michael Greenberger’s “Homeland Security and the Law of Counterterrorism” seminar at the University of Maryland School of Law, the last thing he expected was to end up developing a film based on material he would discover during the course.
"The Response" was produced with unprecedented support from the University of Maryland School of Law, the stars and other production members, the firm of Venable LLP, and the larger community of professionals involved with the detainee issue.
The filmmakers embarked on a major program of taking the film to the public through festivals and private screenings. The results of that effort can be seen in the attention the film has garnered throughout the country and internationally.
When Sig Libowitz took a homeland security class [LINK] at the University of Maryland School of Law, the last thing he expected was to end up developing a film based on material he would discover during the course. But as he sat in Professor Michael Greenberger’s “Homeland Security and the Law of Counterterrorism” seminar, that’s exactly what happened.
“When I read the transcripts of what was really going on down in Guantanamo, I thought, this is amazing. Before reading the cases, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what was going on down there. I figured I read the papers, I watch the news— but I was just stunned,” says Libowitz. “It led me down a path, both of curiosity and creativity."
University of Maryland Support
Libowitz next approached Dean Karen Rothenberg, who also saw the potential of the film. She agreed to shepherd the project through the university’s innovative Linking Law and the Arts program, which uses the arts to explore and open up discussion around complex ethical and social issues. “The Response presents some of the most important questions at the core of our constitutional democracy in a compelling and accessible way for a broad audience,” says Dean Rothenberg.
"From the moment of that first conversation, Dean Rothenberg got what the film was about," recounted Libowitz. "She's very creative, and she liked that the film would not be one-sided agit-prop, but rather a courtroom drama that explores the uncertainty and the high-stakes of the issues that the characters are facing. From there, the law school and its students got very excited by the possibilities of bringing these issues to life, and we sort of turned the law school into a mini studio. Everyone donated their time and energy to the project."
Screenplay based on Actual Guantanamo Transcripts
For his screenplay, Libowitz used numerous transcripts from the CSRTs (months of research yielded several hundreds of pages of additional tribunal transcripts which were used in the creation of the screenplay) and fashioned them into the fictional story of one particular detainee — Al Aqar, a Ph.D. engineer who has studied in the West. The government has accused Al Aqar of being a terrorist and a bomb maker. Shackled and chained to the floor, the detainee is questioned by three military judges — Colonel William Jefferson, Colonel Carol Simms, and Captain Joshua Miller — who must decide his fate.
Bringing out the Stars
After finishing the script, Libowitz enlisted director Adam Rodgers [LINK], another Baltimore native who met Libowitz during their days at New York University. Rodgers and Libowitz turned to Emmy award-winning cinematographer Richard Chisolm [LINK], yet another Baltimore native, and also a friend of Rodgers.
Casting director Ellen Novack [LINK] was another instrumental piece of the puzzle. "Ellen was so passionate about the film, and she had such spot-on ideas," said Libowitz. Novack was able to reach out to a group of top-notch actors. Peter Riegert [LINK] and Kate Mulgrew [LINK] portray Colonels Jefferson and Simms, two of the military tribunal officers, with Aasif Mandvi [LINK] as the detainee. The cast was rounded out by Libowitz who portrays Captain Joshua Miller.
Filming "The Response
After a brief rehearsal period in New York, The Response was shot over three days at the University of Maryland School of Law, using only two locations: a moot courtroom for the tribunal sequence and a conference room for the judges' deliberation sequence. Several law students were heavily involved in the filmmaking process. A number served as production assistants, researchers and drivers. A few even got to work with the stars, reading with the actors to help them memorize their lines. One student, Sandra Goldberg – who had twice travelled to Guantanamo as a paralegal to a team of attorneys – became a key researcher for the film.
“To shoot this movie about law and legal conflict within the confines of the University of Maryland Law School was just a gift,” Mulgrew enthused. “The feeling of the school is all about these young people passionate about the law and to have them involved in the project was terrific. To be able to do it within the confines of reality — you just felt the authenticity of it.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers and Chisolm found it enormously challenging to design a shooting strategy that would allow them to capture close to ten pages of script per day while steering clear of the visual clichés of television courtroom dramas.
“The biggest hurdle was finding the connection between the words, which were obviously compelling, and the basic physicality of the situation, which was essentially static—the detainee chained to the floor, for example,” says Rodgers. “But the situation forced all of us to be inventive, and I found myself increasingly interested in this notion that everyone in the movie is figuratively or literally stuck. The judges are mired in legal issues they’re wrestling with, and certainly the detainee is physically restrained. Even the government is stuck trying to make decisions about the larger policy. So Richard and I came to see this inertia as a potentially strong visual metaphor.”
"The Response" and Emerging Homeland Security Policy
As the film finished post-production, the U.S. Supreme Court debated major detainee cases [LINK]. It remains unclear if trials will be held, what type of courts would be used, and what body of laws and evidentiary procedures would be controlling. Guantanamo and its spiraling consequences will be with us for a long time to come.
Mandvi adds: “I’m proud of what my country is capable of. But this doesn’t seem like the America that we all hope we are. These are judges from some other weird world. The fact that they are from the American military makes it all the more disturbing. The whole thing is absurd and disturbing.”
“This film made me think about our system of law and how much I take it for granted,” says Riegert. “9/11 was an event that caused people to respond in a certain way, whether it’s the people who might be our enemy or us as a country or as a people. What’s complicated about Guantanamo is that it’s part of our response.
“The response matters,” he continues. “Anyone can claim to have character, but character is defined by crisis.”