UM film presents struggle between law and fear

The Baltimore Sun

In the spring of 2006, sitting in a class at the University of Maryland law school, Sig Libowitz lit up when his professor distributed transcripts from the military tribunals that decided cases of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. To Libowitz, the transcripts seemed like a Kafkaesque nightmare in which detainees could be held indefinitely, not knowing the evidence against them.

They also seemed like a movie.

Libowitz had recurring roles in Law & Order and The Sopranos, and he was vice president of acquisitions at Paramount Classics when he decided he wanted to go to law school.

A Baltimore native, he chose the University of Maryland. But he couldn't quite escape the part of himself that was a studio executive.

"Who'd have thought I had to go to law school to find an idea for a movie?" he jokes now. But he felt that the story needed to be told and that it hadn't been up to that point.

"I felt like I had to find out more," he said, "because what's being done is being done in the name of all of us as Americans."

Libowitz wrote the screenplay for The Response, a 30-minute film that examines the case of an "enemy combatant" held at Guantanamo and the challenges facing the three military judges who consider his release.

Tonight the film will get its Baltimore premiere at the law school. It has already been shown at several film festivals, including Palm Springs and Los Angeles, and PBS has expressed interest in airing it.

The Response looks at rights that, for American citizens at least, had been considered unassailable before the war on terrorism began after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The right of habeas corpus - to appear before a judge and learn of the evidence against you - was written into the Constitution. But for captured "enemy combatants" who are not U.S. citizens, the questions become murky. Some detainees have been held since 2002 without charges.

How long can they be locked up? What kind of trial, if any, do they deserve? These are the issues Libowitz hopes to illuminate with his film.

"These are the most fundamental issues that there are," he said. "It's the line between our constitutional rights and national security, and it's become so demonized and politicized in the worst sense of that word."

The law school gave Libowitz money from a law-and-the-arts grant funded by the France-Merrick Foundation and allowed him to shoot the film last winter in its mock courtroom and a conference room. Using his connections, Libowitz cast as stars Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager), Peter Riegert (Animal House, The Sopranos) and Aasif Mandvi (the "Middle East Correspondent" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).

Libowitz graduated from the law school in 2007, lives in Potomac and now is an entertainment lawyer in the Washington office of Venable LLP. But The Response is very much a Baltimore movie. Libowitz grew up in Park Heights and attended Polytechnic Institute. He recruited his friend Adam Rodgers, from Pikesville, to direct the movie. Then he hired Richard Chisholm, an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer based in Baltimore, to shoot it.

Both said they were intrigued by the subject.

"Whether the detainee is guilty is not central. What is central is: 'Are we, as Americans, going to give him a fair shake?' " said Rodgers, who now lives in Los Angeles.

The actors and filmmakers rehearsed for two days in New York, then came to Baltimore for three days of filming at the law school in February. While most feature films shoot two or three pages of script per day, Libowitz and his partners had to shoot 10 pages per day because of a tight budget and because the law school couldn't disrupt programs any longer.

Somehow, it all came together. Law school students helped perform research and other tasks for the film. Two students who had been to Guantanamo, one when he was in the military and another when she was a paralegal working on a detainee case, lent their expertise.

Other students had small roles in the film.

And Michael Greenberger, the law school professor whose class on homeland security had inspired Libowitz, served as a technical consultant.

"This movie opens a door to people about what is at stake here," Greenberger said. "Habeas corpus is widely viewed as one of the critical foundations of a republican, independent government, and it goes all the way back to the Magna Carta."

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military tribunals were "an inadequate substitute for habeas corpus" and that the captives - about 255, down from more than 600 at its peak - have a right to challenge their detention in U.S. federal court. Yesterday, the Pentagon dismissed war crimes charges against five detainees at Guantanamo.

In the film, in which dialogue is based on actual transcripts of miltary tribunals, the judges cannot spell out for the detainee the evidence against him. They cannot tell him the name of the person who has accused him of associating with al-Qaida. They cannot share with him the classified reports that connect him to a bombing conspiracy. (The detainee is a composite drawn from several transcripts Libowitz reviewed.)

After the hearing, the judges (one of whom is played by Libowitz) begin their private deliberations. Mulgrew's character argues that the government's evidence must be accepted without question and that releasing the detainee could endanger national security. Riegert's character isn't so sure.

"If we're fighting an ideological war," he says, "shouldn't we be holding onto an idea worth fighting for, say, like the Constitution or the rule of law?"

The University of Maryland law school got involved because of its mission as a public law school and for the educational opportunities for students, said Dean Karen H. Rothenberg. "At [the film's] core is what happens to our constitutional values when we're in fear, when we're afraid," she said.

The law school is an executive producer of the film, along with Venable LLP, which covered some of the postproduction costs. Rothenberg hopes the movie will be used to provoke discussions in law schools as well as in colleges and high schools.

Already, people have come out of screenings arguing with each other, Libowitz says. He said he was careful to balance the film so that it raised questions without advocating a certain position.

"I'm not coming at this from a political agenda," said Libowitz, who declined to give his opinion on the constitutionality of the tribunals. "I think the film should speak on its merits. ... It has to work first as an exciting courtroom drama."

According to his dean and professor, it already has.

Libowitz submitted a draft of the script as a final paper for his homeland security class. He got an A.

IF YOU GO

The screening of The Response tonight is open to the public. It will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Maryland School of Law, 500 W. Baltimore St., and will be followed by a panel discussion. Admission is free.

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