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The Road to Guantanamo   B-

Roadside Attractions / Revolution Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross
Cast: Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul, Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui, Arfan Usman.

Review by Rob Vaux

I have to be careful in my assessment of The Road to Guantanamo because my heart is definitely in the filmmakers' camp. Like them, I believe that what's happening in Guantanamo Bay is a national disgrace that tramples our dearly held values in the name of a deluded fantasy of Orwellian security. It causes irreparable damage to our goals around the world, it encourages hate among those who should be our allies, and it does nothing -- nothing -- to stem the tide of international terrorism. Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross take an intensely personal approach to that viewpoint, depicting the ordeal of three British Muslims who endured years of torment in the bowels of Guantanamo. And yet, as much as I agree with the sentiments, I can't help but question the approach. Did the filmmakers do justice to the cause they have taken up? Or did they merely open it up to easy dismissal from those who feel differently?

The difficulty comes in how they choose to present this story. They mix documentary footage with dramatized recreations of the three men's trial by fire, expertly blending supposed fact with persuasive fiction. Winterbottom claims that the film is essentially a lawyer's argument, presenting the trio's point of view as eloquently as possible. In that sense, it's a very polished piece of agitprop. The three men -- Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Ruhel Ahmed -- hail from Tipton in the English Midlands. In September of 2001 they, along with their friend Monir, traveled to Pakistan to meet Asif's future bride. At a mosque, they heard an imam calling for men to lend aid to the people in Afghanistan on the eve of the U.S.-led attack. Naively, they agreed to travel to Khandahar, where they came under fire and were cut off from returning across the border. Monir went missing, and the remaining three were captured by the Northern Alliance, which transported them along with hundreds of others in metal storage containers to Sheberghan prison. Eventually, they were transferred to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, where they were held without charge for over two years. In that time, they were subjected to all the indecencies that our "fuck the Geneva Convention" policy could dish out before finally being released for lack of evidence.

The outrage at their treatment drives Winterbottom and Whitecross from the beginning. Interspersing firsthand accounts from Rasul, Iqbal, and Ahmed with dramatized versions of the incidents they recall, The Road to Guantanamo paints a horrific picture of life on the other side of the war on terror. The Northern Alliance treats them as little more than animals, while U.S. and SAS interrogators deliver beatings and humiliations of every kind. At Gitmo, they're kept in outdoor cages that resemble dog kennels: provided with one bucket for drinking water and another for a toilet. Guards routinely harass them, and their living conditions, while clean, are more in keeping with Soviet gulags than the humane conditions described by the Bush administration. And always there are the questions, the intimidations, the beatings... and the sense that -- without a trial or formal legal procedures -- none of it will ever end.

From a visceral standpoint, the film works very well. There's also a strange evenhandedness to certain early scenes. The trio may not be terrorists, but they appear quite foolish in heading so brazenly into a war zone like Afghanistan, and their presence within a Taliban stronghold certainly raises some questions. In those moments, the hardball tactics of the U.S. interrogators seem justified, if unpleasant. America isn't going to find those who would harm us by playing nice, and a certain amount of bloody hands are necessary when confronting threats like al-Qaida. Yet at the same time, The Road to Guantanamo admirably demonstrates how pointless such tactics are without the due process of law. The trio cannot confess to what they didn't do, and they know that by acknowledging any complicity -- even if it's just to stop the pain -- they surrender all hope they have of clemency by their captors. They have no recourse but to dig in their heels, which reduces the entire affair to useless browbeating. What good is a confession obtained under torture? How can we rely on their information if they only gave it to us out of fear they would be killed? The government didn't brutalize them to achieve real results, the film argues: they did it to find scapegoats and provide political cover for leaders who believe that the end always justifies the means.

And yet, because The Road to Guantanamo presents the story as it does -- giving the bulk of the film the pretext of fiction instead of relying on straight documentary -- its efforts become strangely vulnerable. It's easy to dismiss the trio's account as fantasy (or worse, as distortion of the truth) since so much of it must be recreated at the filmmakers' hands. Indeed, by giving the film the pretense of accuracy -- shooting with grainy handhelds, striving to approximate the vérité of the moment -- they show just how easy it is to twist reality to fit one's philosophy. Pertinent facts are downplayed or ignored, most notably the trio's preexisting criminal record. Argumentatively, such a near-omission makes sense, but it also leaves the movie open to cries of partisanship. The fact that the three men's crimes were relatively minor -- and indeed, that two of them were on parole in England at the time they were supposedly rallying with Osama bin Laden -- could be argued more forcefully. It displays a shabby desperation on the part of their captors: a need to produce "terrorists" just to prove that our dysfunctional intelligence community was actually capable of getting something done. But too often, The Road to Guantanamo avoids tackling such complexities in favor of more simplistic conclusions, a habit that does little to further its cause.

For that, however, it remains an effective polemic, and if its argument is flawed, then at least it's an argument worth making. Love it, hate it, disagree with it, laugh at it -- so long as you engage in the issues it raises, the film has done its job. The purpose of Guantanamo goes to the heart of the war on terrorism, and as such should be examined, debated, and discussed whenever possible. The Road to Guantanamo makes a challenging catalyst for such a discussion, even -- or especially -- if you disagree with its point. As a fellow partisan, I just wish they could have made it a little stronger.

Review published 06.22.2006.

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