Seven films on torture

As the Academy Awards aired this Sunday night, we thought we would look back at some of the films that have addressed torture. Some of these are documentaries – films that uncover some of the most famous examples of state torture, such as Abu Ghraib; others are feature films that provide a cinematic example of what does happen in real life; others are historical dramas. All address torture – what it looks like, what it does to people, or its long-lasting impact on victims’ lives.

Taxi to the Dark Side

Taxi to the Dark Side won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. It examines the U.S. policy of torture interrogation and their defense of it, while focusing on the specific torture and killing of Dilawar, an Afghanistan taxi driver, who was beaten to death at Bagram Air Base in 2002.

The Secret Life of Words

This feature film, by Spanish director Isabel Coixet and featuring Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley, follows a Yugoslavian woman (Hanna) who travels to an offshore oil rig during her holiday to care for a rig worker (Robbins), who was temporarily blinded and injured in a terrible accident. Their care becomes mutual as they slowly open up and share their old scars, especially for Hanna. The film also features a characterization of Inge Genefke, IRCT founder, who is Hanna’s counselor.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields from 1984 follows two journalists – one from the U.S. and one Cambodian – who attempt to cover the story of Pol Pot’s regime and the torture camps that claimed more than 2 million lives. Many leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now on trial for crimes against humanity, torture, and killings; the first of which – Duch – has been sentenced.


Ghosts, a 2010 documentary, is about the case of three Canadian men who were detained and tortured in Egypt and Syria. The film follows the men for a year and a half, after their return to Canada, during which they try to find out why this happened to them through a closed-door government inquiry. When the inquiry results were made public in 2008, it was found that government agencies had been complicit in their detention and torture.

Slumdog Millionaire

IRCT Secretary-General Brita Sydhoff mentioned this film in our 2009 Annual Report as it was pulling in all the big international film awards. She had met a ‘real-life’ Jamal, the ‘slumdog’ who made millions in the film, during a mission to India: Amit had been torture for three days by police, who “beat him up, then hung him from the ceiling, head down, and hit the soles of his feet with metal rods,” she wrote. This film, while overall very uplifting, features some highly disturbing scenes of both poverty, and torture in an Indian police station.

Standard Operating Procedure

This documentary – another addressing the torture interrogation of the U.S. military – discusses the abuses and famous photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Lead under the skillful hand of famed documentary director Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure looks at those infamous photos through the eyes of those who took them – the military officers at Abu Ghraib, the perpetrators of torture and humiliation.

Cry Freedom

This 1980s feature film, with Denzel Washington as Steve Biko and Kevin Kline as Donald Woods, follows the relationship between the black consciousness activist and the white newspaper editor during apartheid South Africa. Biko, an outspoken activist against the racist policies of his country, is arrested one night by police and dies in custody. Woods writes about the man and investigates the torture and extrajudicial killing in custody, before having to smuggle his book and his family out of the country.

What other films do you know that address torture? Please share them in the comments.


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  1. #1 by Cwwpp Vukovar on 28/02/2012 - 23:05

    I would like to suggest Z, the Costa-Gavras film with, among others, Yves Montand and Irene Papas, from 1969.

  2. #3 by Lisa Hajjar on 28/05/2012 - 02:34

    My favorite film, which is especially effective for classroom teaching, is Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden,” based on the novel by Ariel Dorfman.

  3. #4 by Bryan Smyth on 14/12/2012 - 17:44

    Complicit is a new British film that addresses torture and UK complicity in torture or

  1. Torture in black and white: books on torture « World Without Torture

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