Interview with DARA award-winner Sarah Geis

Sarah Geis is an independent audio producer and editor. She is the recipient of The Whickers Documentary Audio Recognition Award 2018 for her feature, ‘The Art of Now: Guantanamo‘, and was on the judging panel for this year’s Radio & Audio Funding Award. This interview was conducted during the 2018 edition of Open City Documentary Festival by Sam Stone.

How did you start working as an audio producer?

I kind of fell into it. I got out of university in 2005 and was really interested in creative writing and documentary. An aural history project called StoryCorps was just starting and I knew someone who knew someone who worked there. The idea was that they had these recording booths in Grand Central Station in New York City and you’d just record two people having a conversation about their lives. So I moved to New York right after university and I worked for StoryCorps. We collected these aural histories which went into the archive at the Library of Congress but also we edited some of them down for public radio. That’s how I started becoming interested in audio storytelling. I worked there in various capacities for several years and then I eventually started to make more of my own radio work. I did a stint at the Third Coast Festival as the Artistic Director for a few years and then I wanted to be making more work – and I emerged and did it.

Do you remember the first radio show or documentary programme that made an impression on you?

I remember hating public radio in America when I was a kid and my mom would always play it in the car and I would be like “This makes me car sick! Turn it off!”. To me it was just a lot of men laughing. I think I started listening to ‘This American Life’ early in university and was compelled by the story telling and by the ability to have a sense of humour on the radio. The first piece that blew me away  – and it’s a pretty common piece to blow people away – was ‘Ghetto Life 101’ by Dave Isay, who went on to found StoryCorps. It’s a story about these 2 boys growing up in a public housing project in Chicago. Dave gave them recorders and sent them off into the world to record their lives. It’s a really beautiful feature in a lot of ways. It asks a lot of questions about ownership, community participation and social action through documentary.

I really enjoyed the Audio Playground workshop you presented at the Open City Documentary Festival. Why do you think it’s so important to stay creative when making audio programmes?

I think we don’t have a tradition of it in the sound world because until quite recently you needed access to a lot of equipment and tape in order to make radio. We don’t have a tradition of “doodling”; people generally go in and go straight to workshop and critique. I think building ‘editor minds’ before we build ‘playful creative minds’ is a real loss. I’m interested to see if we can de-programme ourselves. Mostly people start out making really serious news stories; audio is never associated with play and low-stakes experimentation.

How do you think the increasing popularity of podcasts and online listening is changing radio?

I think it’s a really exciting time. I still really do love radio and I love the mission-driven model of public radio. I really believe in that. I think that some of these for-profit companies are also totally valid but it doesn’t have that backbone, which is a loss for me. I think it’s a time that we can really play with form. It’s a time when you can make a podcast as long or as short as it needs to be; it doesn’t need to be 27:30. You can swear and you can talk about sex – I think it allows for so many more diverse voices. Public radio in the US has been very white for a very long time. In order to get a job you probably have to get an unpaid internship first, which means only privileged people can enter. I hope that podcasting and the popularity of audio storytelling is allowing new people to access the medium.

Your feature ‘The Art of Now: Guantanamo’ is a great example of a new voice being shared on the radio. When did you decide to start following the story of art made in Guantanamo Bay?

It started, like lots of things start, while I was numbly scrolling Facebook to procrastinate. I started reading about an art exhibition of work by Guantanamo detainees at John Jay College in New York that a friend of a friend was curating. I think, like a lot people, I hadn’t thought about Guantanamo much. I felt this terrible shame and hopelessness and then pushed it out of my mind. There was something about learning about the men who had made this art which brought it back to me in such a vivid way. I thought it was really interesting that this art had the power to do that. I wanted to follow it further so I wrote a Facebook message to the curator.

How did you first get in contact with ex-detainee Mansoor Adayfi?

It took me a little while to get to Mansoor. I knew it was very important to have this feature led by someone who was at Guantanamo and who had made art there, not by a bunch of art curators and lawyers in New York City. I started with the curator, Erin Thompson, who is a great advocate for art from Guantanamo. Then I was connected to Mansoor’s lawyer, Beth Jacob. I eventually built up the relationship to be introduced to Mansoor, who is a really incredible person. My latest feature is with him too.

Did you have an idea of the themes you wanted to portray before you started making the programme?

I think prison art is really complicated, it’s half artistic freedom and it’s half prisoner control. I didn’t want to idealise it, “look these guys are locked up but look what beautiful art they’re making, isn’t that nice”. I was really worried about that risk. I knew I wanted the programme to be led by people with first-hand experience. Initially I thought about using an audio tour model as I was struggling with how to depict visual art on the radio. There are some people who have done it really beautifully, Cathy Fitzgerald’s moving pictures series is one of them.

I had a pretty crappy first draft and it quickly became apparent that Mansoor needed to be the engine behind this. It was very important to me that I also mentioned the artists by name and said how long they were detained. The interview that Alan Hall [Director of Falling Tree Productions, who produced the feature] did with Mansoor was about 4 hours long, we went through a lot of different permutations of how to bring him in as a guide.

What sort of struggles did you face when trying to discuss visual art in an audio feature?

The very first idea I tried was interviewing museum patrons and asking them what they saw. What I wanted them to do was explain what they were seeing and to tell me how it made them feel… but they were terrible at it. That didn’t work. They often just gave me their political opinions and I didn’t think this needed political opinions. I think the art is important because it was really important to these men. They spent weeks, months and years on it and it was one of the only things at Guantanamo that they had control, to some extent, over. Some of it is quite gorgeous – the model ship, by Moath al-Alwi, is made only out of materials that he had found at Guantanamo and it’s extraordinary.

I think it’s really dangerous to use the word humanise when you’re talking about humans, but I do think that what Guantanamo has done to these men is dehumanise them. Donald Trump goes around calling the detainees monsters. Getting to see something that has been made by their hands is absolutely re-humanising.

The clip of Trump’s speech used in the programme is particularly terrifying. What effect has the Trump administration had on Guantanamo?

Here’s the thing: Trump is a terrible, horrible, horrible person and that is a bone-chilling clip, but Obama was pretty bad on Guantanamo too. Obama talked about wanting to close Guantanamo but it never happened. Trump uses it as a political anti-Muslim propaganda tool although I’m not sure too much has changed there. However, when detainees are released from Guantanamo, even if like Mansoor they’re never charged with a crime, sometimes the US government decides it is too dangerous to send them to their home country. That could be because the country is at war or because they believe that if the person returned to their home country they would become involved with something violent. The US government makes some kind of under-the-table deal that there’s very little public record of to relocate them somewhere else. Mansoor is Yemeni but he’s been living in Belgrade, Serbia for the past two years – which is pretty random. He has been imprisoned in some way or other for about 17 years if you include the CIA black sites. He is now in Serbia where he has no support, no friends, no family and no idea of what a future might look like. Trump’s administration has closed the office of Guantanamo relocation, which is the office that keeps records of what is happening. Now Serbia has told Mansoor that his living situation is in flux and that they might deport him somewhere. It was always difficult, but now it’s even harder for Mansoor’s lawyers to get access because the office that kept those records has closed.

At any point over the course of making the programme did you consider trying to talk to ex-prison guards or anyone prosecuting detainees?

No. I very much wanted to make this from the perspective of the men who were detained at Guantanamo. I did contact the United States Government and enquired about who had decided to restrict art from leaving Guantanamo but they didn’t respond. In terms of the guards, they are just people doing their jobs; even Mansoor doesn’t hate most of them. It is a fact that these men are detained unlawfully without cause. The guys at Guantanamo who were charged with, for example, being a driver for somebody connected to the 9/11 attacks, have generally served their time and are out now. It’s these guys who were taken when they were teenagers and sold to the US who are still living in this purgatory. This wasn’t a journalistic story about ‘Guantanamo: good or bad?’. I think the idea of balance can make us debate some basic human rights which should not be in the realm of what is debateable.

I read that your new feature ‘To My Heart’ for the podcast ‘Love Me’ almost wasn’t made. What sort of legal issues did you face while making programmes about Guantanamo?

Falling Tree and I broadcast ‘The Art of Now: Guantanamo’ on the BBC and it was rather smooth. We were a bit surprised, as earlier when Mansoor was first sent to Serbia he gave an interview to Frontline PBS in which he talked about some of his mistreatment by the Serbian government, and he was punished for that. In our programme we only talked about art; it seemed to get a nice reception and it was fine. I’m now working on a programme called ‘Love Me’ for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and we did another story based on some writing of Mansoor’s about love at Guantanamo. The detainees amongst themselves taught each other a lot of classes – there were cooking classes and first-aid classes. They had a society there. There were doctors, lawyers, mobsters, chefs. Some of the married men taught a ‘love and dating’ class to some of the young men who, like Mansoor, hadn’t experienced it because they had been detained since they were teenagers. Mansoor had done some writing about that which was quite beautiful and we remotely recorded an interview with him in Belgrade about love. After the four hour interview I received a text from Mansoor saying that he and the recordist had been detained by the Serbian police and that our audio had been confiscated. Note to radio producers of the future: back up your work! The only copy of our interview had been confiscated and we were really surprised to get it back.

We released this earlier than we meant to because there was real reason to worry that Mansoor would be deported. His life was in danger. The Whickers really generously invited him for their audio awards ceremony but Serbia will not give him any travel documents so he couldn’t come. He is in really grave danger and it is the plight of many other Guantanamo detainees too. He is absolutely stateless, he can’t go home, he hasn’t seen his parents, he is not free to cross a border on his own. He has been put in the custody of the Serbian government without any formal written agreement that his lawyers have ever seen. There are some former Guantanamo detainees, also never charged, who have been deported to Libya and who are now missing or possibly killed. It is terrifying. Mansoor is just an extraordinary person; he is very funny, thoughtful, kind and resilient and he is facing a really scary and uncertain future.

– Interview by Sam Stone