“When it comes to academia, what does it mean to base an entire account on tortured testimony?”-Adnan Zuberi
Canadian filmmaker Adnan Zuberi is this week’s guest on Real Politik, where he discusses his award-winning 2013 documentary, 9/11 in the Academic Community: Academia’s Treatment of Critical Perspectives on 9/11. Zuberi also discuss his own experiences and interactions as a university student that contributed to his creation of the film, as well as more recent projects addressing geopolitics and the “war on terror.”
9/11 in the Academic Community features interviews with several notable academics, including John McMurtry, Graeme MacQueen, Lynn Margulis, and Walter G. Pitman, to examine scholars’ critical perspectives on the events of September 11, 2001 and how these have been received in their respective academic fields.
Contrary to the widely-held notion that academe is a bastion of free thought and inquiry, university faculty and administrators are often indifferent, if not hostile toward, colleagues that study or take public stances on controversial topics.
Using this context, the film also addresses dilemmas within university settings, including the commonplace use of terms that act as “thought-stoppers” in academic discourse, and the profound implications of the fact that the official 9/11 narrative is based on the testimony of tortured prisoners.
9/11 in the Academic Community was awarded for “Documentary Achievement” at the University of Toronto Film Festival. Since its release, has also received the praise of prominent professors and university administrators alike.
Among Zuberi’s foremost concerns is developing strategies for appealing to academics that stand apart from standard appeals to facts and reason that still characterize the truth community. “When it comes to discussing” controversial issues such as 9/11 “with academia I believe we have to leg go of that old approach–hard evidence,” Zuberi argues.
I came to understand that the more hard evidence you discuss–and I had direct experiences of this–it doesn’t work. Academia [involves] a very specific subculture that the activist community does not understand. They speak in different ways. Whereas we look at a very flashy book cover. They tend towards a boring looking book cover. There’s a different style of things. When I understood that I basically rewrote the entire documentary. I had to look at different certain case studies as to how academia has treated critical perspectives on 9/11.
Zuberi has caused a significant segment of scholars to take notice of his work by pointing to clear contradictions in the unusual approach and methods of 9/11’s official narrative. “When you look at tortured testimony. The crux of the 9/11 Commission Report–Chapters Five and Seven, which deal with the alleged actual Al Qaeda plot–relies on tortured testimony. It’s amazing how much they rely on it, and the person they tortured retracts his testimony! I basically tried to reframe that by suggesting that, when it comes to academia what does it mean to base an entire story on a testimony that is retracted later on, after the person has been brutally tortured. Is that scholarship? If it is we have major implications for what will constitute scholarship.
Can you imagine doing a PhD defense, and in the middle the referees ask, “So where did you get this fabulous information?” And you respond, “Well, I got it from tortured testimony. The person kind of retracted it later on, and we’ve waterboarded him 183 times in one month. What would probably happen is that the referees would likely call some type of ethics committee and the police on you, if that was the case.
Using such appeals, the filmmaker has been able to cultivate the interest of academics. “I wanted to communicate things at that epistemological level in the right tone, and I wanted to gradually develop the story.” Thus Zuberi abandoned conventional techniques of documentary production, which recommend asking interviewees the major questions up front. “This is a taboo subject, and it needs to be communicated far more carefully. This is not a film to be watched publicly. It’s a film to be watched privately, in the comfort of an academic’s own living room.”
“Over the last two years since the documentary[‘s release],” he continues, “I have not had a single debate with anyone. I’ve just had 60-to-70 academics emailing me with full support and wanting to work together … I hope the activist community can learn from this new style of communication.”