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FILM REVIEW:

A Gonzo Gitmo tale from Michael Winterbottom

by CHRIS KNIPP
Where "The Road to Guantanamo" excels, beyond anything you’ve ever seen, is as a Rough Guide to bumbling into a war zone.
The prison complex at Guantánamo, Cuba has been used by the US government to hold men captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan post-9/11 and believed to be Taliban or Al Qaeda. Perhaps 750 prisoners have gone through the prison, and perhaps 300-odd have been released. "Enemy combatant" was the category created to justify rounding up prisoners and holding them for years without following the Geneva Convention, bringing charges, or providing legal representation or trials.

Prisoner’s-eye views of Guantánamo have come to us from detainees released back to England. Several years ago the Tricycle Theater of London staged "Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," which was also produced in New York and Chicago. In this dramatization, transcripts and interviews recounted the "Gitmo" experiences of Jamal al-Harith, Bisher al-Rawi, Moazzam Begg and Ruhel Ahmed and much time was devoted to their spoken narratives. In the background on stage could be seen the cages and orange-clad men of the prison, largely as tableaux. There was also an emphasis on British capitulation to US policies that violated British law. Voices of politicians (Jack Straw, Donald Rumsfeld), lawyers for the prisoners, and the chief legal officer of England, Lord Justice Styne, in a stunning rebuke, are also heard. But mainly, from transcripts of interviews and letters, what you get is a picture of the four prisoners and their families, the absurdity of the circumstances of their seizure, and their various individual responses, from irony to despair and near-madness.

Now, a couple years later, again from British sources, there is "The Road to Guantanamo," a vivid pseudo-documentary based on the experiences of the “Tipton Three”: Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, twenty-year-olds of Pakistani and Bengali background from a predominantly poor area in the West Midlands. They originally were four boyhood pals who went to Pakistan together because one of them was exploring the possibility of an arranged marriage with a girl there, set up by his family. To hear them tell it, the whole trip was a kind of lark, but also an opportunity to explore roots and reconnect with relatives.

They’re a bit rough, these boys, though perhaps not atypical for a part of England said to “have no middle class.” They’d been in some trouble with the law, and this is what ultimately gained them their release, because they had to check in at home for community service during the time they were supposed to be in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, and so they had proof of their innocence from the Tipton cops.

All four are Muslims, and when they arrive in Pakistan they stay at a mosque, because it’s cheaper than a hotel. The US is about to start bombing Afghanistan, and a firebrand imam inspires the boys to go to Afghanistan to help the Afghans. They don’t seem to grasp that they’re heading directly into grave danger.

This is the part viewers and reviewers tend to question. Were the boys being stupid or is their description disingenuous? We don’t know, and unlike the Tricycle stage play "Honor Bound," the film doesn’t cleave closely to actual testimony. Where it excels, beyond anything you’ve ever seen, is as a Rough Guide to bumbling into a war zone. It’s believable that wild boys on an adventure would want to explore the next country. They think they may be able to deal with the language and they’ve heard the naan bread loaves are huge. So they plunge in. And it all goes terribly wrong.

Michael Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross have shot this story on location with intense vividness. The scenes of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the ultimate chaos and bombing and the trap the guys fall into, one of their number disappearing and never heard from again, followed by the van ride that was to take them out of the country but just leads them into the hands of the Northern alliance and a roundup of Taliban, a deadly ride in a metal container, and ultimately shipment to the barbed wire fences and brutalities of Guantánamo. All this is inter-cut with head shots of the men narrating and commenting today, played by non-actors chosen to be so close to the originals that you wouldn’t know the difference.

This is in-your-face filmmaking of a peculiarly intense kind.
Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 is madness, chaos, and war. Guantánamo is boneheaded stupidity, brutal racism, religious persecution, and psychological torture. "The Road to Guantanamo" gives us a strong taste of all those elements. This is in-your-face filmmaking of a peculiarly intense kind.

Although the play is more thoughtful and provides more perspective, Winterbottom’s intense, gutsy agitprop is far more powerful. Its second half really just brings to life and adds detail to what we already know: the head masks, the chains, the suits, the outdoor cages, the buckets, the Korans tossed aside by guards and desecrated; the hourly awakenings and head counts; the solitary confinement in excruciating crouched positions with bright lights and deafening music; the prisoners rushed from place to place with abuse shouted at them, never allowed to touch the chickenwire fences or use anything to protect their shaved heads from the relentless sun; snakes and tarantulas and roasting days and cold nights; the interrogators who hammer over and over to the boys, “You’re Al Qaeda!” They start at Camp X-Ray, for the worst treatment, and later are moved to Camp Delta. Finally the Tipton boys are called "The Three Kings" and given special treatment when, somewhat inexplicably, they've been cleared.

At this point much of the world protests this treatment of untried and un-accused prisoners that has now persisted for five years. With hunger strikes and attempted suicides, and in the recent wake of three successful coordinated suicides of prisoners, some of America’s closest allies are calling for “Gitmo” to be shut down, and even Bush has said he wants to do that.

Winterbottom’s pseudo-documentary, skillfully interspersed with actual documentary footage, is based on information provided by the three surviving Tipton Three. No one to my knowledge has been released back to the US—or if anyone has, he hasn’t spoken up.

While the Tricycle/Culture Project play appealed to the mind, the movie goes for the gut, and it does so very effectively. We need both. The play seems a little namby-pamby now. The movie seems careless. Together, though, they give you some kind of truth.
Chris Knipp is a San Francisco-based artist and writer. View his work at chrisknipp.com.

See: March 14, 2004 London Observer account of the Tipton Three experience.

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This story was published on July 2, 2006.