The Road to Guantanamo

Given the kneejerk partisan response to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s informative documentary about the realities of global warming, I have little expectation that Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ new visceral docudrama about human rights abuses in US prison camps will provide a wake-up call to the dwindling numbers of internment policy loyalists–but one can always dream.

The Road to Guantanamo (winner of the best directing award at the Berlin Film Festival) comes to US screens at a time when the mainstream media has rediscovered the prisons in Cuba used for people captured in the war on terror: imprisoned indefinitely without charge, legal representation, or due process of law, these “enemy combatants” are believed to be interrogated by torturous means (including beatings, stress positions, and sensory deprivation). Of the 750 people from 40 countries imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002, only 10 have been charged with a crime, and the US Supreme Court (prompted in part by the historic Rasul v. Bush ruling involving two prisoners featured in this film) is supposed to determine the legitimacy of military tribunals by June 30.

In late-2001, three British youths from Tipton–Shafiq Rasul (23), Asif Igbal (19), and Rhuhel Ahmed (19)–travelled to Pakistan for a wedding, and took a side trip into Afghanistan that landed them in a skirmish between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The film tells their story on location (when available), juxtaposing news broadcasts, interviews with the “Tipton Three,” and recreations of their testimonies: how they were captured by the Northern Alliance, interrogated, handed over to US forces, beaten and interrogated further, and ultimately flown to Guantanamo Bay where they spent more than two years at Camps X-Ray and Delta. In March 2004, they were transferred to a British Anti-Terrorist squad in London, where they were released without charge.

The aesthetics of the film–particularly the first half from Tipton to the three’s arrest in Afghanistan–owe much to Winterbottom’s exceptional 2002 neorealist road movie In This World (which Whitecross assisted on). The film’s DV camera chases its inexperienced actors (all the more authentic because of it) through several countries as they traverse crowded markets and dusty roads, mosques, houses, and a wide array of vehicles. Their journey is fast and furious, and it’s motivated by chance and whim as much as necessity in the face of an encroaching war; at times their itinerary is hard to follow. Ironically, it slows down and becomes more comprehensible once the story shifts to Cuba. For a film as devoted to experiential realism as this, one would expect the sensory deprivation, lack of information, and stress to produce a less coherent perspective, but such extremes would be nearly impossible to cinematically duplicate.

To its credit, the film isn’t sensationalistic nor is it political agitprop. While the violence is concrete and upsetting, it’s virtually tame by contemporary Hollywood standards. Bush and Rumsfeld appear in a few brief shots providing public spin statements, but like the British radio broadcasts heard throughout the film, it’s a practical reminder of the time and place of the film, as well as the kinds of official rhetoric offered in the last few years regarding the camps. Ultimately, the film seems less conceived as a political document than a memorial to its victims.

I saw the film earlier this week with Amnesty International USA spokespeople Jumana Musa (Advocacy Director for Human Rights and International Justice) and Eric Sears (Project Manager for the Denounce Torture Intitiative) in attendance. Both of them acknowledged the possibility that genuine criminals could exist within Guantanamo prisons, but emphasized that without adherence to international standards for human rights, the potential for serious, unlawful abuse would ultimately continue.

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