was a devastating time for Albany’s Muslim community. Reports
of a beloved religious leader arrested and handcuffed inside
his Central Avenue mosque filled the pages of the local newspapers
and TV news broadcasts. The allegations against Imam Yassin
Aref and his congregant, Mohammed Hossain, seemed absurd;
the two respected family men had been arrested in connection
with a terrorism plot? Many felt that it had to be a mistake.
And yet, federal agents had announced the arrests at a press
conference in Washington, D.C., with all the gravity of announcing
the capture of Osama bin Laden. The two men would be tried
and convicted as the result of an FBI sting that many in the
Capital Region decried as a shameful episode of paranoia and
Ellie Bernstein, a documentary filmmaker, moved to the area
soon after the verdict. She was invited to attend what would
be the first meeting of the Muslim Solidarity Committee, a
multifaith group brought together to protest the verdicts
and show support for the families of the two men. Eager for
a new project, Bernstein said to herself: “Wow, this would
make a good film.”
for Mercy: The Case Against Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain,
the film that Bernstein would spend the next two years researching,
writing, and directing, covers a broad swath of time, spanning
from 2001, when America went into a temporary insanity; through
the arrests, trial, conviction, and sentencing of Aref and
Hossain; and through 2007, when the men lost their appeals.
The film weaves interviews with lawyers, journalists, and
advocates into a methodical, deliberate refutation of the
conviction that sent the two Muslims to prison for 15 years.
For Bernstein, the greatest challenge was to present this
sprawling and complicated case in a clear, engaging way. “I
was very, very interested in getting the story straight,”
she says. “In getting it logical. That was the challenge we
had, and it was torturous.”
She relied considerably on the skills of her editor, Tony
Grocki, who worked for years with some of the industry’s top
directors, including the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch. Together
the two filmmakers sifted through hundreds of hours of research
and interviews, at times overwhelmed by the insanity of the
‘This is crazy,’ ” Grocki would say over and over, Bernstein
says. “I came to understand that when Tony said that, he meant
that the thing was so unbelievable to him.” As it was to her.
Local pundits, including the Daily Gazette’s Carl Strock
and the Times Union’s Fred LeBrun (both of whom are
in Waiting for Mercy), railed against the case as an
example of law enforcement obsessed with religious profiling.
The defense attorneys for Aref and Hossain cried entrapment.
Aref’s attorney even filed an injunction against the government’s
alleged use of illegally rendered evidence, courtesy of President
Bush’s covert wiretapping program. One wonders, in a less
insane period of American history, would two respected members
of the community have been singled out, investigated and convicted
in such an elaborate and illusory fashion? That is the question
that lies at the heart of the criticism of the government’s
case, and Waiting for Mercy attempts to make a strong,
lasting argument that, no, it wouldn’t have happened.
In the film’s most poignant moment, Hossain’s oldest son,
the teenager Abu Homza, wonders at the believability that
his father, a man who struggled against poverty to come to
this country, and then worked for more than a decade to build
a business and support his large family, would then conspire
to injure the country that he was so in love with? The boy
seethes with anger and reason.
government doesn’t draw the line between what a terrorist
is, and somebody who they think may be a terrorist,” Bernstein
says. “And that is such a huge line. It means that you can’t
say or do or think anything outside of the boundaries of what
is so-called a ‘good citizen.’ This whole case is based on
guilt by association.”
The film’s title comes from a poem written by Aref: “Waiting
for mercy from the wolves.”
for Mercy: The Case Against Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain
will premiere tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 16) and run through Thursday
(Jan. 22) at the Madison Theatre, 1036 Madison Ave., Albany.
Find more information about the documentary online at waitingformercy.com.
See this week’s movie schedule for complete shows and times.