The Road to Guantanamo

| July 18, 2006

Road to Guantanamo relates the terrifying story of three young British men who were wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo prison as suspected terrorists. Having traveled shortly after 9/11 to Pakistan to attend a wedding, Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul, now known as the Tipton Three, decided to visit Afghanistan to “help” the citizenry suffering from attacks by the U.S. and the Northern Alliance. A bombing campaign took the life of the fourth member of their company and forced them to flee. Their subsequent capture by the Northern Alliance led to their eventual transfer to Guantanamo.
During the two years of their confinement in Guantanamo, the men claim they suffered from malnutrition and sensory deprivation, endured over two hundred interrogation sessions, and survived other psychological and physical tortures, including beatings and stress positions. Co-directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross paint a vivid portrait of this rumored abuse in their part documentary/ part narrative reenactment of the Tipton Three’s three-year ordeal.
The film consists of alternating sequences of interviews with the three men and reenactments of what they describe, performed by actors. Knowing that the dramatic scenes are simulated, I struggled to turn on my suspension of disbelief. Extreme situations are easier to discard when conscious of the artistic artifice involved. That said, the actors fully commit to their parts, the sets are realistic, and the unrelenting intensity proves genuinely disturbing.
These three men suffered so many indignities in part because they could not account for their presence in Afghanistan. This film doesn’t clarify their story. One scene depicts the actors eating at a Pakistani fast food shop, talking about their interest in Afghanistan–their reasoning extends only so far as “to check things out.” Though an article in The Observer explained their journey as a desire to provide “humanitarian relief,” the film depicts the men sitting around in cramped quarters being bored.
Although they do not appear to be terrorists, they instead seem rather hapless, even clueless.
Winterbottom and Whitecross focus upon detailing the abuse inflicted upon the prisoners, but they overlook certain contextual details. For instance, what do the men do for a living? Are they wealthy? How do their families respond to their absence? Was anyone working to get them out of jail? Most interestingly, the film maintains a strange silence about religion. The young men lodge at mosques, because they “don’t want to pay for a hotel,” but the film otherwise glosses over their personal religious convictions.
This vagueness seems odd because other parts of the film highlight the importance of religion to the prisoners. They are not allowed to pray in their cells, yet somehow many of the men have pristine copies of the Qur’an with them. When one American guard throws a copy of the Qur’an in a piss bucket, the prisoners erupt in anger and resentment, yet we don’t see how their uprising is put down (likely because these accusations of damage to the Qur’an are among the most damning to a nation that prides itself on religious tolerance and freedom). Valid or no, many terrorists espouse a belief that they are doing Allah’s will, so the ambiguous treatment of religion in Road to Guantanamo is disappointing and prevents the film from resonating on deeper levels.
Sometimes I was confused during the film: the action moves at a swift pace to convey the sense of chaos felt by the men, but this pace damages comprehensibility. The directors do not take the time to create individual personalities for their main characters, which means the Tipton Three’s differing hairstyles provide the most facile way to differentiate between them (until their head’s are shaved in prison). A pseudo-narrator provides some information about the contemporary happenings, reading text derived from news reports. Yet this narrator never cites his sources, and the video culled from various news agencies, like CNN and Al Jazeera, fails to indicate which network provided the footage.
Because Winterbottom and Whitecross dramatize the Tipton Three’s accounts of their capture and imprisonment, the film conveys the horror of their experience more palpably than a news story. Yet including fictional retellings within a documentary opens the door for accusations of overdramatization or exploitation. I left the theatre with a fear of what the U.S. may be capable of but I felt no closer to determining the truth of what occurs at Guantanamo. Less an exposé than a lesson in hyperbole, the directors fail to establish the authenticity of their narrators. Flashback sequences try to draw our sympathy by portraying the men playing with chickens and laughing in their youth, yet Winterbottom and Whitecross provide no supporting evidence or other testimonials that support the stories of these men.
Personally, I have few doubts that the U.S. has put aside the dictates of the Geneva Convention in their desperate attempt to fight an ever-changing and increasingly more dangerous enemy. But as a filmgoer, I expect a higher level of argumentation. Road To Guantanamo offers a powerful dramatization of three friend’s horrifying story but it doesn’t aspire to do more than that.

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