The Road to Guantánamo
2006Director: Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross
Cast: Riz Ahmed Arfan Usman, Farhad Harun
he theatrical release of The Road to Guantánamo in a dozen US cities has been a little like the arrival of a fleet of tall ships whose masts we have watched bear down on our shores from over the horizon. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ docudrama about the post-9/11 detention of terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba arrives on these shores already acclaimed (Silver Bear Award for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival), and to an unusual degree—at least in the New York City area—already seen. The film screened twice in early May at the Tribeca Film Festival, and again last week at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center, not to mention the five Manhattan press screenings in between.
As political performance art, this movie—centering on four young, real-life British Muslims of Pakistani background swept up in the US invasion of Afghanistan—also resembles another recent British import. The film alternates enactments of what happened with interview snips from the surviving three and archival news footage. Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s 2004 play, Guantánamo—Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, presents dramatizations of four other young men imprisoned in Guantánamo, cobbled from their own statements and letters, and political figures like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Photos of real-life counterparts are projected on the set’s back wall. The play opened off-Broadway to coincide with the August 2004 GOP presidential convention, and then enjoyed healthy runs in Washington, San Francisco and, as recently as March, Chicago. The play’s title—Honor Bound to Defend Freedom—references a sign outside Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray compound, which in light of growing charges, can’t help but echo the “Arbeit Macht Frei” signs outside earlier camps.
Spilling into its own larger context, the film’s opening now seems part of a powerful convergence of events. Growing calls to close Guantánamo from bodies both here and abroad include the U.N. Committee on Torture in Geneva. The principals in Winterbottom’s film were quickly quoted by US media as sources concerning the harsh psychological conditions there. Winterbottom has noted that he was attracted to a story of ordinary guys swept up in overwhelming events. Shafiq, Asif and Rhuhel—dubbed the Tipton Three for their hometown in the industrial Midlands region of England—are well-connected ordinary guys. Winterbottom first contacted them about a film project through their lawyer, Gareth Peirce. As a young British journalist, she was transformed by a stint in the 1960’s covering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a law degree, and has built a career on high-profile human rights and political defense work. In 2002, Shafiq and Asif were among the plaintiffs in cases that resulted in the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling that Guantánamo detainees have access to US courts to challenge their detentions. And last month, a US District Court cleared the way for their $10 million suit against the Bush Administration for violating their right to practice their faith while in custody.
Even so, I’m afraid such background doesn’t adequately prepare you for watching this movie. The Road to Guantánamo is important, remarkable, and more disturbing than we usually want our movies. Here is what the film recounts: On September 10, 2001, Asif Iqbal’s mother returns to Tipton from a visit to Pakistan and tells him that she has chosen a young woman there for his wife. Nine days later, he leaves for Pakistan; soon after, friends Shafiq, Rhuhel, and Monir follow. They rendezvous in Karachi, joined by Shafiq’s Pakistani cousin Zahid. While sightseeing in the capital, Zahid takes them to a mosque. An imam urges them to join humanitarian groups heading for neighboring Afghanistan, which faces impending US invasion. They go. There, they encounter wartime chaos, illness, carpet bombing, bad directions, and Northern Alliance troops who arrest them in November during the Taliban’s fall near Konduz, after first having traveled to Kandahar and Kabul—quite a lot of ground. Monir disappears in one evacuation. Zahid winds up in prison in Pakistan.
So far, the young Brits—one wears a Gap hoodie over his indigenous clothes—have suffered primitive dangerous barbarism. Now, they will survive high-tech dangerous barbarism. Shafiq, Asif, and Rhuhel eventually wind up at Guantánamo. The film’s remainder depicts their transport, processing, and graphically brutal imprisonment in wire cages and solitary confinement, sessions with US and British interrogators, and eventual release back to England in March 2004. No one was ever formally charged.
An epilogue follows the three as Asif returns to Pakistan for his long-delayed wedding. This section is unexpectedly satisfying because we see the actual young men in real time, in their own lives. Only then is the stress and confusion of seeing two of each character on-screen apparent. One feels unmoored in this film, but I would attribute this to its power and not to sloppy filmmaking. Adept throughout his career at crossing generic boundaries, Michael Winterbottom has made choices. He states explicitly that he wasn’t making a documentary about the Tipton Three, but rather “their version of what happened to them.” Co-director Mat Whitecross spent a month interviewing the three, gathering 650 pages of transcript, and Winterbottom says, “We weren’t trying to independently check or cross-reference what they were saying.”
So, there are unanswered questions and dramatic gaps. Why weren’t at least their parents worried about such a trip on the eve of war? Maybe that Pakistani cousin was trying to recruit them to Al-Qaeda? Where were their families during all this? How come that bride waited for Asif? On the other hand, with one exception, the filmmakers also restrain themselves from easy, sarcastic side-swipes at George Bush and company—what might pass for telling the rest of the story in some documentaries. The story holds its own as emotional truth.
Part of that emotional truth arises from the use of largely non-professional actors and on-location filming in Pakistan, Afghanistan and, because of its own well-developed film industry, Iran. Winterbottom’s long-time casting director, Wendy Brazington, sought students from the English Midlands. Only Rizwan Ahmed, who plays Shafiq, had acted before. They haven’t the dramatic focus or physical economy of trained actors. They supply an ungainliness and lack of pretense that conveys how ordinary late teens might grapple with such circumstances—even as many adults in the audience find composure elusive. The characters are open: open to a young soldier’s kindness in not startling a sleeping detainee while killing a poisonous spider in Cuba, and open, as well, to taking in the full, colossal arrogance of an American female interrogator who suggests one of the three “work for us now.” Winterbottom doesn’t think films have a huge impact. I think this one might.
The Road to Guantánamo is currently playing in select cities.