The Road to Guantanamo

on June 23, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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In Michael Winterbottom's powerful and difficult "The Road to Guantanamo," Bush administration officials claim that residents of the American prison camps in Guantanamo Bay are "bad people." As it turns out, their definition of "bad people" extends to innocent people with the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But being at the wrong place at the wrong time is not illegal, unless you're the Tipton Three, British Muslims detained, tortured and held without charge at Camps X-Ray and Delta for over two years. The trio's plight is the subject of the film, whose unsettling message is that the War on Terror has rationalized, if not institutionalized, the torture of prisoners and that detainees are guilty until proven guilty, no matter how forced their confession.

The immensely talented and versatile Winterbottom (co-directing with Mat Whitecross) has taken a page from his 2003 film "In This World," mixing political concerns, documentary-style filmmaking and an enveloping sense of place, here shooting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. He also mixes interviews with the actual Tipton Three with recreations of what they endured. The men who portray the imprisoned Brits are non-actors, but Winterbottom squeezes effortless, naturalistic performances from them, increasing the film's fly-on-the-wall potency. Much like Paul Greengrass' stylistic companion piece, "United 93," such a fully realized approach elicits a high degree of trust from the audience: trust that the truth is being portrayed as best as the filmmakers understand it and that the artifice of moviemaking has been kept to a respectful minimum.

About a month after 9/11, Asif (Afan Usman) heads for Pakistan to meet his arranged bride. Along for the ride are best man Ruhel (Farhad Harun) and his two friends Shafiq (Riz Ahmed) and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui). Although some of them have mild criminal backgrounds, the foursome is content to celebrate Asif's wedding and chow down on the area's legendary nan bread, which is supposedly big as a surfboard. After hanging out in Karachi, they heed the call of a local Imam, who requests they travel peacefully into Afghanistan to help their people. While the wisdom of going to Afghanistan one month after 9/11 is questionable, it doesn't justify the horrors these men are about to endure.

When the coalition bombing starts, Monir disappears (forever, as it turns out), while the remaining three are captured by Northern Alliance troops, thrown into containers with hundreds of others (a few of the containers are airtight, suffocating some prisoners) and taken to a facility in Sheberghan. These opening salvos come at a fast pace but they only serve to prime the pump for the story Winterbottom is ultimately here to tell. After a 10-day stay in Sheberghan, Asif and Shafiq are taken to Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay and placed in six-by-six open-air cages, where they are not allowed to stand up. They can leave their cells for only five minutes a week. Accommodations improve when the duo is transferred to Camp Delta and reunited with Ruhel. But while the prisoners are allowed to pray and shower, they're also beaten, psychologically tortured and shackled in stress positions. Their captors, a combination of British and American forces, incessantly try to get them to admit they're Al Qaeda with ties to Osama Bin Laden. And the assembly line of soldiers carting out blurry photos and grainy video are perfectly satisfied with any confession, no matter how phony or whether extracted merely to stop the pain. Winterbottom doesn't shy away from showing what these prisoners endured, but he stops short of rubbing our noses in it, which would numb us to the effect he's trying to achieve. In an odd way, watching these torture scenes is liberating: Being forced to wallow in acts perpetrated in our country's name is like having our eyes forced open. If there were, at one time, three innocent people tortured at Guantanamo Bay, there are undoubtedly more, which begs the question: At what point will the administration begin to care?

Those unmoved by such concerns will surely not see "The Road to Guantanamo," dismissing it as more proof that the liberal media hates America. But the film has no comment on the overall War on Terror, opting instead to disprove the Bush administration's assertion that the Guantanamo prisoners are being treated humanely. By the end, the viewer is not so much heartened that the Tipton Three were released, but rather sickened to live in an America where matters of innocence and judicial process are blithely dismissed as roadblocks to fighting terrorism. In alerting the world to an American wartime indignity, the release of "The Road to Guantanamo" is also a roadblock to fighting terrorism, but that's a chance we should all be willing to take. Starring Farhad Harun, Arfan Usman and Riz Ahmed. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross. Produced by Andrew Eaton and Melissa Parmenter. A Roadside Attractions release. Drama. Rated R for language and disturbing violence. Running time: 95 min

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