Released: 2nd Feburary 2017
Seen: 16th April
Ever since 9/11, the world has been different. That right there is what we would call “The Biggest Understatement Of All Time” but it needs to be said. This was particularly obvious in the days and weeks following it but what also followed was a ton of films about how we, as a society, would handle the crisis. If you want a really good in-depth look at the various forms of 9/11 media that formed in the years since that day, Lindsay Ellis did a two–part video essay about 9/11 based media that’s fascinating to see. What’s less fascinating to see is the film Mistaken, which is a shame because it has a brilliant concept and does less than nothing with it.
Mistaken allegedly focusses on Laila Atta (Nadia Kounda), a Moroccan woman who has been a US citizen for some time but after the FBI accidentally confuses Laila’s husband with someone on a terrorist watch list, they pull her in for heavy interrogation while she is heavily pregnant. The core idea of the film is that Laila has to go through the harsh interrogation that is meant for someone suspected of terrorism, purely because she has one tangential thing in common with a suspected terrorist. It’s meant to be a gripping drama about how the battle to keep America safe has unintended bigoted side effects… it fails at all of this, but that’s what it was trying to do.
As with all these little indie films that I’ve been reviewing, the little things are entirely excusable. A bad framed shot here or there isn’t that big a deal. A shaky handheld scene is understandable every now and then. I’ll even accept a mild bit of weird editing because indie films often don’t have the funds to pay for a good editor. However, when you have all three of these problems happening constantly for the entire runtime of the film, we have a problem. We have a problem when simple shots of people talking in a room are so badly shot that I honestly wonder if anyone was looking through the viewfinder of the camera at any point. But here’s the thing, bad film making techniques can be fixed with practice and it’s the most trivial detail. The big problem with this film is that it barely even tries to be the film it wants to be.
This film sells itself on the interrogation scene, on the two FBI agents trying to make an innocent woman break. That’s what the description says, that’s where the bulk of the emotional energy has been put, that’s what they want you to focus on because that’s where the main pain is meant to be. We’re meant to sympathise with this woman who has been kept in an interrogation and abused, unjustly, due to her race… they spend 20 minutes in that interrogation room, and they do it badly.
The film opens and our main character is pulled aside to the interrogation room, they begin the interrogation and then at around the 6 minute mark we have to watch Laila’s life story that has literally no importance to the central narrative. Seriously, the stuff about her (or a friend, the subtitles sucked so I couldn’t tell) being hit by a car doesn’t matter. Her entire first marriage doesn’t matter. Her time working at an ice cream parlour in no way matters to the main story. We spend, no joke, 35 minutes just being told pointless bullshit about her life before we finally cut back to the interrogation scene… where they ask her 3 questions, say “Ooops, our bad” and let her go within 15 minutes.
There is no emotion here, there is nothing to grab onto. This should be easy, make me outraged that the FBI racially profiled a woman and messed up so horribly that they inadvertently made a pregnant woman so stressed out that she had a miscarriage. This is a gimmie, the easiest setup you could possibly have. It has 9/11, racism, an authoritarian government and the presumption of innocence being ignored by a pair of borderline fascistic assholes who are drunk on power and I felt nothing. I felt less than nothing, I was bored and annoyed at the sheer waste of everything.
This should’ve been easy as hell to do, you spend most of the time in the interrogation room and only cut away to create a visual recreation of just what Laila is describing and voila, you have some potential tension. As it is, I almost forgot she was being interrogated by the FBI because of the half hour detour where I was forced to watch while she talked on the phone to her sleepy father who, say it with me, HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE PLOT WHATSOEVER!
Look, I get you think you’re trying to build character and that’s admirable. I should actually care about Laila as a person so I care about her plight and you might’ve been able to make this work with better editing and not abandoning the key component of your film after 20 minutes of runtime… but oh my god, this genuinely good idea is so poorly executed that it actually hurts. Mistaken thinks that it’s presenting something important… who wants to be the one to tell it that it’s mistaken?