Torture Room 2007
“A young American woman with a history of Arab boyfriends is targeted by homeland security, accosted, dragged in for questioning and held as a prisoner in a secret facility where she is tortured and brainwashed, all in the name of “security”, under the protection of the Patriot Act.”
Eric Forsberg‘s Torture Room (Pledge of Allegiance) is a serious and thought provoking film. A leap from films like Arachnoaquake and Mega Piranha, the lighter movies that Forsberg is known for. Torture Room was extremely intense and in all honesty, took me two times to get through my first attempt at watching it.
This feature is very well done and an excellent example of a political horror, pitted around the American Military and leaked media during the time of the Bush Jr. era.
Torture Room is disturbing, dark and caused myself as a viewer to experience a bit of an anxiety attack during the fist viewing. Few movies cause me to take a break. The seriousness and no-apologies type of delivery really threw me for a loop.
By 1/2 way through Torture Room when Anoush is put into the chair was pretty much when my brain melted and I needed a few hours between finishing the movie. Lena Bookall gave a great performance in the lead role of Anoush. Her range of acting is excellently depicted and I would love to see her in more of the genre in the future.
Reviewing a film like this is difficult because of the subject manner being raw and the way the finished product comes across as an unapologetic type of anti-political feature. There is little to complain about after the credits roll. If anything my own mind went straight to wondering what types of actives were/are taking place at detention camps like Guantanamo Bay.
“As an actor I think having the opportunity to work on projects that have real meaning is a blessing. It adds commitment to the characterization and subtlety of your approach. I found the character of Ron X to be the representation of the rawness and basic primal ugliness that was manifest in the approach taken to destroy the enemy by becoming the enemy. I was fortunate to have the chance to work on Charlie Wilson’s War and be directed by Mike Nichols and find Eric to have a similar approach to encouraging actors to trust instincts and work organically. I will look forward to doing more films with Eric, he is brilliant and comfortable in his brilliance. It was a difficult role and one of the explorations I am most proud of.” –W.Tempel
Forsberg really expressed his more serious side as a filmmaker in Torture Room. From the start of the film we are introduced to Anoush (Lena Bookall) by way of her being followed closely by the military and quickly abducted.
The route taken to brainwash the woman as I stated earlier is very difficult watch as a third party. Repetitive sounds and looped audio tracks, starvation, isolation, bodily harm by the end of the film Anoush is pushed/forced into complying to Mr. Green (John Forgeham) and to truly giving up her life as she once knew.
Torture Room is an action packed, violent and dark ride to take. It will leave you thinking for weeks about what is going on in the world while the rest of us our making our coffees and getting ready for our average day. It left me with unsettled and wanting to learn more about the process of this particular film from conception to actuality.
Thankfully Eric Forsberg opted to answer a few questions about Torture Room. He also elaborated on his stance towards Homeland Security and why he stepped away from his strong comedic roots to write, director and co-produce Torture Room.
What instigated the concept for Torture Room? Is this your political statement on the President Bush Jr era?
–FORSBERG: When I first began writing Torture Room back in 2004 my goal was to terrify the viewer with an inside look at America’s use of abduction, torture, and brainwashing in the name of Homeland Security. Back in 2004 America was neck deep in the “War of Terror” and I was concerned about what my government was doing behind closed doors in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and about how little information was coming out about it. People just went along with it back then. By following the terrorist attacks on 9-11 with The Patriot Act and the creation of Homeland Security, many freedoms were lost. Suddenly it was a world of security checkpoints, identification cards, video surveillance, and numerous arrests, both outside of America, and within its borders. Being a writer I longed to make a meaningful and provocative film about it; as well as a frightening story.
As far as the film’s tie in to the Bush Administration goes, of course the film was comment on the President’s involvement in what was happening. But I cannot say that some of the horrors are not still going on under Obama. So even though Bush is implicated in the film because he is the sitting President at the time, the movie is more about America than about his administration.
How did you choose the specific way in which the characters were tortured?
–FORSBERG: I did a lot of research on this film; about America’s prison camps, the use of LSD by the US Army for interrogation and reeducation purposes, brainwashing, torture, and numerous pieces of evidence regarding arrests without a warrant. America was keeping a lot of secrets at the time, information that has since come into common public view. But when I wrote Torture Room these things were not as out in the open yet, and I guess the rebel in me was stirred and I had to make a movie about it. So I chose the story of an innocent woman, Anoush, being snatched up illegally by a government agency for interrogation with no recourse or protection by law. I made Anoush half Armenian to add an element of racial profiling but she could be anyone. Anoush is targeted by Homeland Security because her old boyfriend (who was an Arab), revealed her name during his forced confession. I never address whether he was actually a part of a terrorist cell because it didn’t matter: Anoush, the protagonist, was innocent, regardless. So she gets abducted by a division of Homeland Security, imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and brainwashed, without any due-process of law. I wanted people to feel that it could happen to anyone.
Anoush’s story is fictional, but it’s based on true cases of similar arrests and detentions of Americans that are on record. However, what is done in the torture chamber and the brainwashing room is all based on documented cases in places like Abu Ghraib, although I embellished a little, especially with the amputations, which is more a practice of the drug cartels, the Nazis, and the mob, not of the US Army. But the other things, like the treats of extreme physical violence, waterboarding, beatings, isolation, sound torture, starvation, sleep deprivation, exposure to filth, forced confessions, being threatened with dangerous animals and people, recorded messages, constant word repetition, constant lack of privacy, the cult-like use of special phrases and buzz-words, electric shock, and the forced ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs (as the Army used in its MK Ultra program) were all practiced by certain institutions within the United States security services and/or its allies security services at the time. It’s quite astounding.
How was the feel on the set during the intense torture scenes, and did the actors have any issues with the process?
–FORSBERG: When word got out that I was making this film actors were lining up to be in it. I posted the script online so those who read it were really excited by the idea. A few people who read it after being cast dropped the project because it was too intense and violent, but only a few. Torture Room had a powerful and meaningful script with some great roles in it, and it was cutting edge at the time we shot it in 2007. From the moment we began shooting there was a sense that we were breaking new ground, that we were doing something special. I had quite a few actors of Middle Eastern descent in the film and one of the first things we did was take photos of some of them seemingly naked in a pile on a cement floor with a spunky US soldier smiling at the camera and giving a thumbs up (based on an actual photo from Abu Ghraib). That was intense. In the prison scenes there was a lot of blood, wounds, effluvium, stitches, and fake sweat, supplied by the makeup effects artist Tom Devlin (from Face Off on SyFy).
One of the people that really made Torture Room such a special film to shoot was our lead, Lena Bookall, who played Anoush. She was wonderful to work with both on and off the set. And she was totally devoted to the role, which required a mind-bending amount of intensity and commitment. We shot long days and nights on a low budget, and there were very few moments on screen that were light. Yet somehow, in all of this seriousness, we had a great deal of camaraderie and a feeling of wellbeing. Lena helped to make this happen, as well as other cast members like Barry Ratcliffe and Chad Nell who played the agents from HS, and John Forgeham who played Mr. Green, the mastermind brainwasher. William Tempel also stepped up to the plate big time as the psychopath that Anoush had to share a cell with, a very difficult and unusual role. And Walli Rizaqi, who played Anoush’s current Muslim boyfriend, the man that Homeland Security is trying to get Anoush to spy on was warm and charming. It was the great actors and other people working on the set that helped transform the shooting of such a hard and questionable film as Torture Room into a meaningful, friendly, and deeply good experience.
Do you have a favorite scene or moment in the film?
–FORSBERG: Yes. It became my favorite scene in the film all the way back to the auditions. I got to see all of the actresses who tried out for the part of Anoush do it. They each had a different take on it, and some were brought to tears, including me a couple of times. It is the scene where Anoush is dragged in front of an American flag by three soldiers and forced to read a false confession into a cheap camcorder where she reads the names of her top terrorist connections from a list she is handed. They threaten to slice her head off if she doesn’t. We have seen it many times where the Western hostage is forced to make a video confession by armed, masked men – so I reversed the roles and it worked. And the best takes didn’t even make it into the film.
In your opinion did the movie make the statement you were hoping for?
–FORSBERG: Torture Room said much of what I was looking to say: how a powerful country like America can so easily descend into a police-state, all in the name of keeping secure the very rights that the police-state must take away to exist. As a simple piece of cinema I think that more time and money may have helped to make it a more polished film, but the political message is clear, and the horror. Originally Torture Room was meant to be shot as “found-footage” edited from numerous surveillance cameras throughout the interrogation facility then leaked to the public and edited into a movie. This would have allowed for some of the low budget elements to fade into the fabric of the film’s style, as well as give it more legitimacy as a “documentary” style film based on truth. But in the end the producers and I decided to go with a straight up narrative format to reduce the risk of making a total bamboozle and to make the film more marketable. I still kept some surveillance footage in the film though, to give it the feeling that all of this was being done behind closed doors.
That said, Torture Room is also simply a political horror-thriller based on a controversial subject. As a horror thriller it is unrelentingly violent, physically and mentally; maybe too violent at times. This is what also makes it a unique piece: the sheer brutality of it all.
Torture Room is extremely different than your other movies such as Mega Piranha; why the shift from such a serious topic to something more lighthearted?
–FORSBERG: Yes, Torture Room is my most serious film to date, although I have written and directed some very serious stage plays. But for the most part my movies are fun with an edge, whether they are zombie films, sci-fi action thrillers, creature movies, or sex comedies. Mostly that’s because I come from a background of comedy, family entertainment, musical theater, and historic reenactment, as well as Halloween horror and teenage gore films. Before coming to Los Angeles I did over sixty stage productions in Chicago (mostly as a writer and director and sometimes as an actor). I taught improv at The Second City Training Center and at Players Workshop, so many of the shows that I directed were sketch comedy. But sketch can also be intelligent and satirical, which drives me to base all of my films on ideas that I consider interesting. Then I just try to have fun with them. The subject matter of Torture Room may have sucked all humor out of the movie, but we still had fun making it, and because it is soooo verrrry intense it is also an worthwhile experience to watch, even if it takes two sittings.
Any last words to your audience on what to expect from Torture Room?
–FORSBERG: Find it while you still can. This film was widely distributed internationally in 2009 for a short while before it got pulled from the shelves, so there are only a few copies left out there on Amazon and places like that. Buy it and have a big torture-movie party. I am hoping that the film will eventually see a second round of distribution one day but if not – nab the collector’s item disc before they are all gone. And then watch some of my other films too. They are way more of a popcorn-eating good time than Torture Room – and they cause way less angst about life.
Torture Room is a feature I liked. Saying I enjoyed it seems wrong somehow, but the flick is relevant and one I have recommended a number of times. Very disturbing and excellently put together. Forsberg has shown his audiences he is the type of writer and director that is willing to take on difficult subject matter and one who does it successfully.
A must watch.