An Albany, NY Imam, and a pizza shop owner become the focus of an FBI sting. A convicted felon is sent to entrap the Imam by tricking him into serving as a witness to a money laundering scheme that they connect to a fake terror plot in Masood Haque’s Witness: A Documentary.
Thanks to the growth of Netflix and streaming services in general, we are currently going through a golden age of the documentary feature. It has never been easier to choose what type of film you are looking to experience and to allow yourself a couple of hours to learn about a new culture, a new story, or even a new injustice. The Films about people wrongfully convicted are vast and the majority are usually compelling. There is Daniel Day Lewis’ In The Name Of the Father about the Guildford four, while more recently Aaron Sorkin’s star-studded The Trial Of The Chicago 7 made waves and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. However, its Netflix’s Making a Murderer that may just be the most famous.
Set during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, director Masood Haque brings us Witness: A Documentary, which focuses on a case that occurred almost twenty years ago when Yassin Aref, an imam at a mosque, and Mohammed Hossain, owner of a nearby takeaway were arrested in Albany, New York. Due to the heightened feelings of distrust surrounding Muslims at the time, both were convicted of money laundering and terrorism-related charges and both were sentenced to 15 years in prison. The convictions were not without their controversies and that led to many people becoming deeply suspicious of the outcome, with groups of friends and helpers of the two men coming together to support their cause.
The first part of Witness: A Documentary is pretty standard in that it recaps the history of what has happened in the Middle East since the ‘90s. Using newsreels and stock footage, we see George Bush Sr set out his strategy for the Gulf War and Saddam Hussein rears his head. We then have the usual talking heads mixed in with location shots and meet Muhammed Hossain himself, finally released from jail. He tells us his side of things and we follow him as he visits the various locations involved in his wrongful conviction. The rest of the film unfolds the story piece-by-piece as we watch TV footage of the case along with the hidden camera tapes of a young, naive, and far too trusting Hossain being entrapped by an informant, Shahed Hussain. It is Shahed who becomes the film’s version of a villain, as it is he who befriends both men and offers them a huge amount of money tied to a money laundering deal around the sale of illegal weapons. His testimony also helps to put the innocents away and interestingly, although the story is already laid out, the audience’s loyalty shifts a little as it seems beyond comprehension that Hossain and Aref, two unassuming and completely law-abiding men, would want anything to do with someone they hardly know or even fall for the sting in the first place. In fact, Aref only comes in to witness the transaction which is a genuine Muslim custom.
Witness: A Documentary becomes far more complex when you realise the lengths the authorities went to in order to guarantee a conviction. No illegal weapons were ever sold yet they created an entire terrorist plot from scratch. Despite all of this evidence, Haque’s film still doesn’t give us any easy answers because, although there are definite shades of guilt from the authorities involved, at the end of the day Hossain and Heref have still lost 15 years of their lives.
With a fascinating story that contains a dramatic through-line Witness: A Documentary manages to capture a system that, in the midst of a panic, lost sight of its most important duty – finding justice amongst the hysteria.