Though Kristen Stewart experienced stratospheric fame via the Twilight franchise, she's always seemed more at home as an actress in the world of independent film, and they don't come much more indie than the low-budget Camp X-Ray, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this afternoon. Stewart stars as Cole, a newbie Guantanamo Bay guard who keeps the brim of her hat pulled down over her eyes and whose hair-bun is as tightly wound as the expression on her face. When Cole volunteers to help subdue an inmate on her very first day at the notorious detention camp, that eager-beaver move earns her first a punch in the face from said inmate, then, as she's tending to her bloody lip, a hocked loogie straight into her eyes. "Welcome to Gitmo," says her superior officer with a smirk. Snow White and the Huntsman, this ain't.
As Cole and her fellow officers make the rounds at Guantanamo Bay, observing the Muslim men locked away in their cells, they're pointedly told, "You will refer to them as detainees. You will not call them prisoners." Prisoners, you see, are subject to the Geneva convention; detainees, on the other hand, can be as mistreated as these guards see fit. Still, Cole can't help but be intrigued by one very unusual detainee, the sensitive, garrulous Ali (Payman Maadi of A Separation). They meet cute when she's pushing the prison book cart around: A voracious reader, he's finished with Poems of Emily Dickinson and would like to trade it for the final Harry Potter volume. (The movie comically posits that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince's Snape cliffhanger is its own special brand of torture.) Their initial bond is tentative — she's not much of a talker, and he's prone to throwing cups of his own excrement when he's angry — but after Cole watches the other officers torment Ali in a clear violation of protocol, she checks his file and finds herself more and more drawn to an inmate who may not be what he seems.
The movie is sure to be controversial (not for nothing does it open on a long, sustained shot of the smoking World Trade Center), and one character, rattled by the moral ambiguity of the guard-detainee relationship, murmurs late in the movie, "It's not as black and white as they said it was," but first-time director Peter Sattler insists that conservative critics should put away their pitchforks. "We wanted to make a movie that was not propaganda at all," he said at the premiere. "I think it's not the Gitmo movie you're probably expecting."
Stewart's costar Lane Garrison wasn't quite as circumspect. "What if there is one guy down there that's not a terrorist?" he posited at the post-screening Q&A. "Does he deserve that day in court, and what should we do with him? [Camp X-Ray] changed me to start asking questions and not just go along with the flow. I hope that's what this film does for a lot of people."
As for Stewart, who took the stage rocking unusual braids and tried her damnedest to duck audience questions, she confessed that this role hit close to home for her. "She had aspects that I have, that I really felt," Stewart said. To prepare, she shadowed "this really awesome Marine" for three days: "In a very accelerated way, he whipped me into shape. It's not a physically strenuous role, but you should see that I've had training. Literally, [it affects] how you breathe, how you walk, everything ... You don't learn anything about her, but you should feel it. We know her — it's transmitted somehow without details."
"Just putting on the uniform was a huge transformation," Sattler said, gesturing at his actress. "We did so much drilling, because it completely affected your posture." As he said it, Stewart nervously shifted her weight from foot to foot; just moments before, she'd leaned forward on her knees as if forestalling a faint, the very opposite of Cole's rigid countenance. Whether or not she's more at home in the world of independent film, those familiar, unsure poses should have K-Stew fans reassured: Seems you can take the girl out of Gitmo, and you can also take the Gitmo out of the girl.