These are historic times. I can’t remember another president or administration that has spawned so many books and movies protesting U.S. policies, either subtly or overtly. During Vietnam, college campuses were the source of protest. Now it’s research and works of art, rather than placards and chants, that are at the center of a movement for change. No wonder Bush appears fearful and disdainful of intellectuals. For six years they’ve been the ones shouting that the emperor has no clothes, trying to convince a public that until only recently believed that Bush has made the world a safer place.
It’s certainly not a kinder and gentler place, and I’m not even sure that the elder Bush would approve of the legislation his son just pounded through. What do you do when the Supreme Court rules that trying detainees held at Guantánamo Bay violated U.S. and international law? If you’re George W. Bush, you do what you’ve always done. You go around the law. Or change it. This past Tuesday Bush just signed a new law which will legalize the harsh interrogations that have been going on in this tiny little U.S. corner of Cuba.
“The Road to Guantánamo,” which won a best director award for Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross at the Berlin Film Festival, combines archival footage with fictional recreations in a documentary-style film about three young British Muslims who were among those captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantánamo. The film tells their story. We don’t really have the U.S. side of the story, because the government isn’t saying much about Guantánamo or what goes on there. All we get are sound-bytes from people like Donald Rumsfeld, who calls the actions “consistent with the Geneva convention . . . for the most part.” All we know is that of the more than 750 people imprisoned there, 500 remain without charges being filed. And of the 10 who faced charges, none had been found guilty of any crime.
That’s enough to make you want to believe the story from the so-called Tipton Three, but truthfully, I find it hard to swallow. One young man, Asif (played by Arfan Usman) is told by his mother that it’s time to return to Pakistan, the country of his birth, to marry . . . and say hello to his father. While he’s there, he meets the girl his father had arranged for him and decides to marry. Then he calls his best friends from Tipton, what we’d call here a suburb of London. Shafiz (Riz Ahmed), Ruhel (Farhad Harun), and Momir (Vaqar Siddiqui) think it’ll be a fun adventure, so they all board a plane for Pakistan. That part I can understand, as I’m guessing most viewers will. It’s what happens when they get to Pakistan that, even for arid climate, starts to smell a little fishy.
The young men stay at a mosque because they think a hotel will be too expensive. Okay, I’m still believing. But when they hear a fiery speaker talk about how Pakistanis should help their neighbors in Afghanistan, that they should go there and help, I’m a bit astounded that these men, who act like befuddled tourists trying to decide what restaurant to eat at, would board a bus for Afghanistan thinking a) they should help, and b) hey, it’ll be another adventure. I’m even less willing to believe that they went deeper and deeper into Afghanistan and closer to the fighting and felt uncomfortable about it, but not enough to try to leave.
That, of course, makes it also difficult to believe the treatment of the prisoners by their U.S. captors. As you watch this, you can’t help but think back to every film you’ve ever seen of the Bataan Death March and Japanese prison camps, or in another theatre, Nazi concentration camps. But we’re the good guys, Americans must be thinking. This can’t be true.
“The Road to Guantánamo” is a dramatization based on the stories told by the Tipton Three. Regardless of whether their accounts are true, they make for a fairly riveting drama, with decent acting, a great concept, and superior editing. And if their accounts are true, it’s all the more shocking. Is this really what America and Americans are about?
Using close-up head shots of the men (i.e., actors) interviewed after their release and intercutting them with hand-held camera footage of battle and prison camp recreations that are so convincing you have no problem believing that, the filmmakers tell the story in classic documentary fashion. That creates an aura of truthfulness, but it’s also worth noting that the editing in this film is what makes it work. We get a sense of the long duration that the men were allegedly abused without feeling that the 95-minute film is dragging too much, though you do see the same thing over and over, and it’s brutal to watch. The actors who play the young men are convincing enough, but the real selling point for truth is the location filming in the U.K., Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. I’ve gotten more of a sense of what the fighting, terrain, and climate are like in places I’ve only read about or seen film bytes of, and as perverse as it sounds, that was what I appreciated most. I’d heard and read about the alleged abuses. I’d followed the court’s verdict and the Bush end-around. But I hadn’t seen a Pakistani bus before, or sat in with a group of Afghani fighters.
Video: “The Road to Guantánamo” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Some of the sequences are shot with deliberately grainy film, and there’s a rough look to it that’s compatible with the conditions and the spirit of clandestine video. We’re seeing what we’re not supposed to see—what we haven’t been told, or what the U.S. has denied—and the rough quality of the film helps sell that concept. You see crystal clear, brightly colored images of the men up-close in interviews supposedly conducted after their release, so there’s a sharp image that makes it clear the choice to go for a rough look in the prison-camp and squalor-scene sequences was deliberate.
Audio: The audio is English Dolby Digital 5.1, which you really don’t notice or appreciate until the bombing sequences. Most of the soundtrack is voiceover narration and dialogue. For 5.1, though, there’s a little more flatness than I’m used to. Subtitles are in English.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: “The Road to Guantánamo” is a compelling film that tells one side of what’s been happening in Cuba. Until the U.S. is ready to tell its version, and as long as the government continues to operate in secrecy, the “truths” contained here—rendered more believable by location scenery and documentary-style filming—will have to do.