Torture may not leave marks, but scars the soul forever: Pakistani filmmaker

Yumna Rizvi’s ‘Still Here’, depicting the journey from trauma toward healing, is inspired refugees and asylum-seeking survivors of torture from across the globe.


A STILL from the film.—David Lotfi

December 14, 2022

ISLAMABAD – “Torture does not always leave physical marks,” says Yumna Rizvi, who co-produced a short film about torture with Anya Raza. “But its impact stays with the victim for the rest of his or her life.”

Still Here is a short film that depicts the journey from trauma toward healing. It is inspired by clients of the US Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) — refugee and asylum-seeking survivors of torture from across the globe. For many years, CVT has been seeking accountability for US torture and to close the Guantánamo Bay prison.

The two filmmakers believe that through multi-disciplinary healing, survivors “are able to create new, happy memories and live productive lives”.

So, the film begins with a victim dipping his brush in the water and putting light blue colours — the colour of water — on his canvas.

Short film Still Here depicts journey from trauma toward healing

“I loved to swim. It made me feel free. I crossed the water to get here,” said the victim as the film showed him drowning. “It was dark. I never saw it coming.”

It is never mentioned but the victim seems to be one of those lucky immigrants who succeed in crossing the sea route to Europe. Many do not.

“Deaths at sea on migrant routes to Europe almost double, year on year,” says a UN report released earlier this year. More than 3,000 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic last year, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported. Of the 2021 total, 1,924 people died or went missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, while an additional 1,153 perished or went missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands.

“I was thirsty one moment. The next I was drowning. And they watched. They wouldn’t stop,” said the “Still Here” survivor.

“Most of the sea crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy, inflatable boats — many of which capsized or were deflated leading to the loss of life,” the UN report pointed out.

“I never even saw the water. I could only feel it. Cold. Wet. Overwhelming. Some days, I feel like I am still drowning. Pushed to depths,” the victim said.

This was also a veiled reference to waterboarding practiced at the Guantanamo Bay US prison camp in Cuba where prisoners were often tortured to extract information from them.

Torture is outlawed under the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the United States and Pakistan are both signatories, but both allow this practice at their prisons.

Verifiable statistics of torture at Guantanamo were never released but one of the architects of the CIA’s torture programme James Mitchell admitted at a court hearing in 2020 that that the techniques had gone too far and verged on breaking the law.

According to US media reports, the CIA paid a company owned by Mitchell and his partner, Bruce Jessen, more than $80 million to develop the torture programme, which included waterboarding, stress positions and mock burials.

The CVT film remind the viewers that “freedom from torture is among the most fundamental human rights”. The film is a creative depiction of a journey that is difficult and complex. “We hope this film is helpful for people to understand that journey,” the filmmakers said.

Amnesty International appreciated the film’s effort to highlight torture and shared it on the social media, to raise awareness about this practice.

“Our clients tell stories of escaping from persecution and crossing rivers and oceans,” said Yumna Rizvi who recently visited Guantanamo Bay to attend the trial of remaining prisoners, including two Pakistanis.

Guantanamo prisoners include those held without charges for up to 20 years and those who have been cleared for release but not transferred. The United Nations says that indefinite detention is also torture.

“As we approach 2023, we encourage the Biden administration to stick to its promise and responsibly close Guantanamo,” said Yumna Rizvi, a policy analyst at CVT. “We encourage them to support asylum-seekers and refugees coming into the United States.”

Anya Raza said she used a research-based approach, studying the stories of torture survivors closely for a year to write the script.

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