Tortured Artistry

Washington City Paper | June 26, 2006
The great American bookshelf overflows with stories of rootless young men, both fictional and historical, who hit the road, had some adventures, and stirred up a little harmless trouble. But don’t try this in real life—at least not if your skin is brown, your hair is black, your name is something like Asif or Shafiq, and the U.S. War on Terror is in the vicinity. The result won’t be a night in the local jailhouse but two years—or perhaps the rest of your life—in a hellhole called Gitmo.

Based on the tale of the Tipton Three, a trio of naive Britons of South Asian descent who were seized while traveling in Afghanistan, The Road to Guantánamo is not a complete analysis of what’s happening in that U.S. prison and torture facility. But how could it be? Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta are essentially off-limits to the press, and the list of detainees is a secret. No doubt some of the inmates being held there are, as George W. Bush says at the beginning of this film, “bad people.” But the camp authorities are clearly in no hurry to separate these miscreants from the innocent bystanders who fell into American custody, sometimes simply because they were sold by Afghan warlords. In March 2004, after the young men from Tipton were released, it became clear that a single phone call to the British police could have established that all three were in the U.K. during the period that their interrogators insisted they were communing with Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta.

An indifferent Muslim who is tradition-minded enough to accept an arranged marriage, Asif (Arfan Usman) travels to Pakistan in late September 2001 to meet his bride. He’s followed by three friends, Ruhel (Farhad Harun), Shafiq (Rizwan Ahmed), and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui). At a mosque, the four men hear a sermon about Afghanistan and decide to travel there, with no apparent aim. They soon realize that the trip wasn’t a great idea and try to leave. But they can’t get out, and three of the four ultimately find themselves in American custody. The fourth, Monir, vanishes.

The three prisoners are sent to a United States–run prison at the Kandahar airport and then to Guantánamo, where they endure repeated beatings, spend long periods of time with bags over their heads, and live for several months in 6-foot-square cages under the blazing sun. They’re also chained into “stress positions,” sequestered in isolation cells, and subjected to sessions of pain-level black-metal-listening. (The featured band is Cradle of Filth.) Such practices are apparently covered by Donald Rumsfeld’s explanation, included in the film, that U.S. treatment of prisoners seized in Iraq and Afghanistan is “consistent with the Geneva Convention, for the most part.”

If the men’s circumstances weren’t so dire, their interrogations would be comic. One intelligence officer repeatedly demands to know the whereabouts of bin Laden, information that even most al-Qaeda members couldn’t be expected to know. When another questioner shows photos and videos that supposedly picture two of the Three in the same room as bin Laden, the exchanges turn into the equivalent of a grade-school round of “Am not!”/ “Are too!” If these scenes are accurate, American information-gathering hasn’t gotten any more sophisticated since the WMD fiasco.

Co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, The Road to Guantánamo is rooted in the former’s In This World, a docudrama that recounted an Afghan youth’s pilgrimage from a Pakistan refugee camp to the economic opportunities of Britain. In that film, nonprofessional performers embarked on an actual trip, so that the fictional concept soon merged with fact. This time, the central roles are played by actors, with the real Tipton Three appearing only as talking-head commentators. (Their testimonies are, of course, also the basis of the scenario, which is pointedly uncredited.) The filmmakers also include snippets of news footage, but the bulk of the action is simulated—which, of course, makes the film vulnerable to charges that it’s largely fiction, even though it’s most likely more factual than such official War on Terror fables as the rescue of Jessica Lynch.

The Road to Guantánamo is a powerful statement of outrage that largely puts the audience in the place of Asif, Ruhel, and Shafiq, who are brutalized by noise and disoriented by a succession of strange locales. The effect is visceral, high-pitched, and enveloping, although occasional cutaways and periodic bits of narration convey a sense of orderliness that the Tipton Three presumably never had. The movie also has a strong awareness of place, a quality that justifies the risks the directors took in shooting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet ultimately, the film is unlikely to change many opinions, in part because its issues are so polarizing, but also because the U.S. military controls this narrative. Though Winterbottom and Whitecross can assert that they’ve accurately depicted the Guantánamo experience, they can’t prove it. Like the rest of us, they remain on the outside of an extralegal operation.

Of course, changing American hearts and minds is probably a low priority for a project that, like so many of Winterbottom’s, is a decidedly British undertaking. The Road to Guantánamo is aimed not at Bush, Rumsfeld, and their dwindling cadre of U.S. supporters, but at the man who can be glimpsed in the metaphorical shadows as Dubya delivers his bad-people speech: Tony Blair.

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