Documentary unearths Ghosts of Johnston County

In the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 the controversy over “extraordinary rendition” continues to rage — on both sides of the issue.

The government-sponsored practice of extricating (abducting) suspected threats to national or international security and interrogating (torturing) them is considered by some a necessary precaution and by others as a base violation of human rights.

The documentary short Ghosts of Johnston County examines the ties to extraordinary rendition to a small North Carolina com munity. This is not a controversy occurring elsewhere, but right here — literally in our own backyard.

The film, which began as the thesis project for filmmakers Michele Ferris-Dobles and Eric Juth at Wake Forest University, where they studied documentary film production, will next be screened Feb. 19 at a/ perture Cinemas in Winston-Salem. There will be a question-and-answer session after the screening.

Since 1979, Aero Contractors Limited has been in operation at the Johnston County Airport, located along U.S. Highway 70 in Smithfield, North Carolina. It is here that the practice of extraordinary rendition has been carried out, understandably with no fanfare — until the mid-2000s, when the New York Times and Washington Post printed articles linking Aero to “torture taxis.” (It should come as no surprise that no Aero employee consented to be interviewed for the documentary.)

“A key motivation in making this film was to show that the US Government’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture by proxy during the ‘War on Terror’ has not been forgotten, despite the current administration’s decision to ‘look forward and not back,’” Juth said. “Importantly, we wanted to show that there are US citizens — some compelled by faith, others by conscience — who refuse to take part in these politics of forgetting and instead have chosen to acknowledge their own community’s complicity in these acts.”

According to Juth, “Early in the process, both Michele and I agreed that we wanted to try to establish a ‘matter-of-fact’ tone in the film — our decision not to include any music, for example — in order to emphasize the ordinariness of the situation in Johnston County … the banality of this evil.”

Juth and Ferris-Dobles knew there was a timely tale to be told: “that there was an ongoing effort in North Carolina to expose the state’s involvement with this business of ‘torture taxis,’” he notes. “It was also important to Michele and me that we underscore (the) unlikely bond that emerged between the activists here in North Carolina and Abou El-Kassim Britel and (his wife) Anna Khadija Pighizzini.”

Britel, an Italian citizen of Moroccan descent, was detained in Pakistan then turned over to the CIA and transported by Aero from Pakistan to Morocco. He was held in secret and repeatedly interrogated and tortured from May 2002 until his release April 2011. The US Government has not publicly acknowledged his decadelong detention. If Ghosts of Johnston County has a face, it is the face of Abou El-Kassim Britel.

Juth, who currently teaches video-art courses as an adjunct instructor at Wake Forest University, is a video artist. In addition to promoting Ghosts of Johnston County and contemplating his next film, Juth will be presenting a series of digital prints from his ongoing project touched/ screened, which opens Friday at Delurk Gallery, 207 W. Sixth St., Winston-Salem. Learn more about this event at: ericjuth. com/touchedscreened/. !


If you want to go … Ghosts of Johnston County will be screened 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19 at a/perture Cinemas, 311 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem.

Tickets are $7.50. For advance tickets or more information, call 722.8148 or visit the official a/perture website: The film’s official website is ghostsofjohnstoncounty. com, and the official Facebook site is: facebook. com/GhostsofJohnstonCounty. The official website for North Carolina Stop Torture Now is