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June 24, 2006

The Road to Guantanamo

Most reviews of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's innovative documentary, The Road to Guantanamo (IMDB) have focused on the film's use of re-enactments and its use of news footage about Guantanamo to depict the stories of the Tipton Three, the three young men of Pakistani descent who had traveled to Pakistan for a wedding but were detained for two years in Guantanamo when they were released without charge. The film raises important questions about the role of dramatizations in getting at the truth of what is happening in Guantanamo when we have so few visual images and even relatively limited testimony as journalists have been provided with little to no access to the detainees.

According to their accounts, the three men, Asif, Rhuhel, and Shafiq (a fourth friend, Monir, went missing in Afghanistan and is believed to be dead), were basically apolitical before their experiences in Guantanamo. They were, as Nick Pinkerton of IndieWIRE puts it, an "innocuously laddish bunch of young dudes," who were essentially tourists in Pakistan when they visited there in September 2001 for Asif's wedding. In fact, several days after the group had journeyed into Afghanistan, one of the men still wears a sweatshirt from the Gap. While their reasons for traveling into Afghanistan are never made completely clear by the film (to provide humanitrian aid in Afghanistan? to see the country for themselves? to find some "really big naan?"), it is clear that they are not the hardened criminals, the "bad people," described by Donald Rumsfled, George W. Bush, and others. Instead, when the bombing starts, they are rightfully frightened and attempt to find their way back across the border, instead finding themselves in Kunduz, a Taliban stronghold, where they are picked up by the Northern Alliance.

While housed in Guantanamo, the three men are kept without legal process, repeatedly interrogated, and frequently tortured under the assumption that they are members of Al Qaeda. The interrogators deploy a variety of techniques, often falsely claiming that one member of the group had turned against the others or feigning offense that a British citizen could turn against his country (several of the interrogators seem almost offended by the fact that the Tipton Three speak English). The detainees in Guantanamo are initially locked in outdoor cages at Camp X-Ray, where they are physically assaulted and prohibited from speaking to each other, and later in Camp Delta, they are forced to endure screeching heavy metal music and brightly flashing strobe lights among other forms of abuse. Of course, the Tipton Three have been released, without any charges, after being held for two years, in part because at least one member of the Tipton Three had been visiting his probation officer in Tipton when he was supposedly in an Al Qaueda training camp. The film culminates in Asif's long-delayed wedding, but even with this ending, it's impossible not to feel a little unsettled about the allegations raised by the film (via Altercation, you can read their version (lPDF) of these events).

It would have been easy for someone to create a talking-heads documentary about the experiences of the Tipton Three, but I think Winterbottom and Whitecross have accomplished something far more innovative with their approach to this material. Interviews with Asif, Rhuhel, and Shafiq are mixed with re-enactments of the events they describe, as well as news reports showing George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair describing the detainees at Guantanamo as hardered criminals. It's tempting to compare these sequences to Paul Greengrass's obsessively authentic re-creation of the 9/11 hijacking in United 93, as Nick Pinkerton does, but I found these scenes to be a little too stylized, and as Kristi Mitsuda notes in the same indieWIRE article, the actors who play the members of the Tipton Three don't precisely resmble the persons they represent, producing a "distancing effect" that I think is important to the film. To some extent, these re-enactments stand in contrast to the lack of reporting on the conditions in Guantanamo, which Donald Rumsfeld, provoking uncomfortable laughter, described as being "consistent with the Geneva Convention...for the most part." In this sense, I think the hybrid of documentary and dramatization raises some important questions about representation, and while suspicious viewers may be able to "nibble at the factual edges of this film," as Andrew O'Hehir of Salon puts it, I believe it's almost impossible to shake the larger argument of the film that--in Guantanamo at the very least--the United States is not living up to the values of human rights and justice that it claims to be promoting in the Middle East.

The film's depiction of Guantanamo was made all the more poignant as news became public that three detainees had committed suicide in what the camp commander cynically described as an act of "asymmetric warfare," and what others have described as a "good PR move" by the detainees. As my review also implies, it's impossible to write about Winterbottom and Whitecross's film without also writing about Guantanamo, about the conditions of the prison, and about the fact that many of the detainees still haven't been charged with a crime.

Posted by chuck at June 24, 2006 11:28 AM

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I saw one of the three - Ruhel - on MSNBC last night. He very calmly said that Bin Laden and George W. Bush were both terrorists, sending the host into a frenzy, as if someone detained without ever being charged for two years should have respectful feelings towards her president. It's bizarre how emotional and reactive all the media has become, and it makes it more important for them to emote than to ask questions. I appreciate your review, because seeing the movie discussed on MSNBC just left me wondering what it was actually about.

Posted by: Cut-rate parasite at June 24, 2006 4:40 PM

I completely agree with your take on the film. While there may be issues raised with the reenactment-meets-doco style for some, I think the politics of the film are served well by Winterbottom's directorial vision. Moreover, with Guantanamo Bay still housing prisoners without charge a film which engages the emotions (on the basis of largely accurate [or as accurate as is possible] footage) is more than needed to galvanise awareness and interest in a crime against human rights ostensibly in the name of democracy.

Posted by: Tama at June 25, 2006 12:32 AM

Cut-rate parasite, I wish I could have seen the MSNBC interview just to get a sense of how the host was reacting. I've wondered how (or even if) the film would be covered by the news media.

Tama, I think you're right about Winterbottom's directorial approach working well here. I hope the film does raise awareness, but given the kind of coverage described by Cut-rate parasite, I'm not sure how the film will be received.

Posted by: Chuck at June 25, 2006 11:46 AM

Thanks for the review Chuck...now that I'm out in the mountains, I don't get to see much of this, and I was wondering how valuable this would be as background for my MLA paper. I'm wondering, then if I'll be able to get my hands on a copy before the paper is written. Likely not....

Posted by: Cats & Dogma at June 25, 2006 9:24 PM

According to IMDB, the film was released theatrically in March in the UK, which means that the DVD *could* come out around September or October, but that's sort of a guess. Also, from what I can tell, the film is being released gradually in the US, so it may well make it to the mountains after all.

I think it's an important documentary, both for its timely subject matter and its experimental form (and based on past conversations, I do think it will be relevant to your work, whether you can incorporate it intop the MLA paper or not). I hope you get a chance to see it soon.

Posted by: Chuck at June 25, 2006 11:29 PM

Well I happened to be one of the onlookers of this quite painful saga of Tipton 'lads i.e The road to Guantanamo. The subject in my view has been quite "juiced out" if I may say so, from Army translators to privates who claimed of post Vietnam like hallucinations (remember Eric Saar—behind the wires) after their stint at this human disgrace workshop set up in Cuba and as the story goes were compelled to fill in their personal diaries with painful recalls… and being penny wise later made them available for a price on Amazon. In terms of audiences who might watch these contemporary flicks on man made disaster (man in this case our good ole Dubya!!) I think both people who are inquisitively puzzled about the faith of beards and veils as west portrays Islam and also Muslims who might find themselves victimised in some shape or form with the current quite debatable “war of civilisations” would watch it. Guantanamo ironically affirms what is currently happening in the Lebanese genocide, as long as you have westerns passports , don’t worry warships and planes will come to take you home, and even Zionists would not bomb you in the process; and who cares about the human leftovers who were not fortunate to have western passports. Guantanamo shows after the grilling over deal the Tipton lads find themselves in being referred as KINGS and treated on to pizzas and sodas courtesy US Army and sent back home .while the other unfortunates (who again did had any allegiance to west, passports precisely) still held captive. It sure is an attempt for truth but a half hearted one , of the hundred of suicides committed in these torture chambers not one makes it to this documentary. Mr Producer at Film Four aren’t documentaries supposed to be facets of truth.

Posted by: Shariq Faraz at July 26, 2006 10:14 AM

Interesting comments on the role of citizenship in both Guantanamo and Lebanon, Shariq, but I'm not quite sure I follow them completely.

The failure to mention the sucides in Guantanamo seems like an unusual ommision, but didn't many of those suicides take place [or become public knowledge] after production was completed? I'm honestly not sure about precise dates, just asking.

Posted by: Chuck at July 26, 2006 1:13 PM

Chuck all I'm trying to say is had it not been for their red passports plus the families/ pressure groups in UK itching Downing street, in most likelihood the Tipton three would have not the world outside to this day. Western govts are compelled by internal politics to serve justice to their nationals ASAP than to the outside world which is like never!!

Posted by: Shariq Faraz at July 29, 2006 2:55 AM

did u ever see monhir or heard about him

Posted by: rahel at November 27, 2006 7:39 AM

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