Camp X-Ray: an unlikely friendship

New film about Guantanamo Bay provides an intimate look at the lives of the military and its detainees.

Actress Kristen Stewart attends the "Camp X-Ray" premiere at Eccles Center Theatre during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2014 in Park City, Utah. Picture: AFP

PARK CITY, Utah - Guantanamo Bay may be a hot button topic in the political field, but new film "Camp X-Ray" provides an intimate look at the lives of the military and the detainees, and actress Kristen Stewart explores an unconventional friendship in her latest role.

In "Camp X-Ray," which premiered on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival and is a contender in the festival's US drama competition, Stewart plays young military officer Amy Cole on the suicide watch team at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The US prison is located in Cuba and has been condemned internationally for holding enemy combatants for years without trial.

The role was a new direction for Stewart, 23, who is best known for being the lead in the teen vampire "Twilight" film franchise, but has been taking riskier choices, such as 2012's "On the Road," to break out of the "Twilight" spotlight.

The actress said that while "people are a little bit afraid of doing movies about current issues," writer-director Peter Sattler had created a character in Cole that reflected most young women today.

"It's a story about a girl who is really simple and really relatable, and just like probably most girls across the entire country. She's a really normal, simple-minded girl from Florida who wants to do the right thing and ultimately doesn't feel like she is," Stewart told Reuters.

While observing detainees every three minutes to make sure no one has harmed themselves, Cole bonds with detainee 417, otherwise known as Ali (played by Payman Maadi), who constantly asks for the final instalment of the Harry Potter novels.

The seemingly simple request generates laughs on the surface, but deeper down, unearths Ali's own desperate search for how both Harry Potter and his own story will end.

"When you involve people from very different backgrounds and differences of opinions, there's something there that never goes away but you're both human, even though you may be in a position where you're pitted against each other," Stewart said.

The biggest challenge that Stewart said she faced was to make sure she looked the part, and trained hard to represent a military soldier.

"Even though I walk in circles and this job becomes very mundane, I still had to look like I had learned everything. You sort of have to breathe in and it changes your entire physicality. I wanted to represent them right," she said.

Stewart's performance has already been gaining buzz early in the festival, and the film garnered a positive response from the audience at Friday's premiere. In an early review from The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, film critic David Rooney called the film "riveting," and Stewart's performance "her best screen work to date."

Sattler, who makes his feature film debut with "Camp X-Ray," said he wanted to avoid making a political comment on Guantanamo Bay, and instead focus on something that he felt would connect with audiences - a friendship.

"I'm always fascinated by movies and art that takes extraordinary and difficult subjects but focuses on some of the unexpected, more mundane aspects of it," Sattler said.

"I was really interested in the idea of how to explore the subject matter in a different way, through characters, not through politics."

The result is an intimate drama that is littered with lighter moments such as the young U.S. officers bonding off duty, that quickly inhabit darker undertones, be it Cole's attempt to understand her place among her peers or Ali's eager and often rash attempts to understand humanity.

"There's something very uplifting in a sense about that, even though the movie has darker notes and bittersweet moments, there is this really human connection that exists in this movie," Sattler said.