________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 17. . . .April 17, 2009.


Confessions of an Innocent Man.

David Paperny (Director). Ian Gill & David Paperny (Writers). Terrence McKeown & David Paperny (Producers). Cal Shumatcher, Trevor Hodgson, Catherine Tait & Nina Fratecelli (Executive Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
88 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9107 407.

Grades 12 and up / Ages 17 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.




Since 2001, as “the war on terror” has escalated, car bombings, kidnappings, and brutal executions have become common media features. Westerners who choose to work and live in the Middle East are often targets for extremists who take them hostage, hold them for ransom, and sometimes, execute them. Hearing of these stories, a person has to wonder why anyone would take such a risk. With great risk, comes great opportunity to make a very good income, and it was such an opportunity which brought William Sampson to Saudi Arabia, a place which was, by his own admission, “a difficult country.” A Ph.D. in Biochemistry and the holder of an MBA, he found work with a Saudi Arabian Industrial Development firm: the pay was excellent, and Sampson was certain that he would be fine if he could just “keep my head down and watch my back.”

     That might have been hard for Sampson. A dual citizen of Canada and Britain, with military training, Sampson was described even by close associates as a “prickly character,” proud and arrogant, willful, and with a definite predisposition for defiance of authority. Despite Saudi Arabia’s being a “dry” (in the non-alcohol sense) country, Sampson claimed that within hours of arriving there, he was having a beer, home-brewed, but beer nonetheless. He became part of a community of Western expatriates who worked hard, made very good wages, and spent a good chunk of that money rather outrageously. An entire network of illegal bars made it easy to dispose of some that cash, and when expats got into trouble by breaking anti-alcohol laws, Sandy Mitchell, an associate of Sampson (and later, a fellow detainee), was someone who could “help.” Helping to ensure that alcohol was in supply was Raf Schyvens, a pediatric nurse from Belgium, who would find himself detained at the same time as Sampson.

     Outside of Saudi Arabia, terrorist activity was on the increase, and by December of 2000, car bombings were taking place in that country, too. Christopher Rodway, a British national, died in such an accident, and through a strange set of circumstances, Schyvens was accused. In the course of his being questioned, he was asked the names of “associates,” and unfortunately, Bill Sampson was one of those named. So began a 31-month nightmare of imprisonment, torture, abuse, bureaucratic bungling, and governmental failure to attempt intervention on behalf of its citizens.

     At first, Sampson refused to confess to responsibility for the car bombing in the hope that his and his friends’ imprisonment would lead to intervention from their respective national embassies. But the British government’s arms trade with the Saudis made that highly unlikely, and neither the Belgian nor Canadian governments did anything until after Sampson appeared in a videotaped confession of responsibility for the car bombing, a confession that was obviously staged. Throughout the entire time, he endured torture of the most horrific nature, and he was sexually abused by his captors. When he was visited by Canadian government officials, he did not provide all the details of his situation as the visits were monitored by the Saudis. The families of the imprisoned tried to keep their respective governments apprized of their concerns, hoping for a diplomatic solution. But diplomacy was not pursued.

     Sampson endured nearly two and a half years of imprisonment and unbelievable physical and mental torment. Yet, when he and fellow detainees were released, it was clear that all had developed strategies to get them through the hell which they had lived. And when he finally arrived at Heathrow airport, he felt that he had “beaten the bastards” and that he was truly free.

     Freedom has been bought at a terrible cost; all of the detainees are still struggling to put their lives together, and Sampson is currently unemployed, in precarious health, and living in a social housing unit. He is still trying to clear his name in connection with the Christopher Rodway car bombing. And he holds all the governments culpable for their failure to assist its nationals. Nevertheless, he savours his freedom, and the final scene of the film has him fulfilling a dream he cherished while in prison: he sits on a hill outside of Edinburgh and enjoys a glass of truly fine single-malt whisky.

     Confessions of an Innocent Man has been an Official Selection of three film festivals held in 2007: the Montreal World Film Festival, the Vancouver International Film Festival, and the Whistler Film Festival. As a documentary, it is a fine example of that cinematic form. However, for a variety of reasons, I cannot recommend it as a selection for high school classes, despite its timeliness for subject areas such as World Issues and Contemporary History. To begin with, not only is the 88 minute running time too lengthy for all but the most motivated classroom groups, but the film does not lend itself well to being viewed in sections. Viewers need to have a strong understanding of the history of the Middle East, the government-industrial alliances (and mis-alliances) which determine state policies, and the history of terrorism in the region, both prior to and after 9/11. Sampson’s personal re-telling and the dramatic stagings of the scenes of his torture are overwhelming, and later, the scenes of his feces-smeared solitary cell are stomach-turning. Although Sampson’s story is the primary narrative, interviews with bureaucrats, academics, and other family members add time and content to what is already a very long story.

     Confessions of an Innocent Man is a powerful story of a man who has been damaged by, but has survived the most horrifying torture. It is an indictment of governments which offer little protection to its citizens when they are working and living abroad. It is a story that needs to be told. However, I don’t think that high school classrooms are an appropriate venue for it. The film contains scenes of violence, some coarse language, nudity, and content that may be unsuitable for many individuals.

Recommended with reservations.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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