Prolific British director Michael Winterbottom's "The Road to Guantanamo" is a visceral first-person account of what happened to three British teenagers shortly before and for a long time after they were captured by American forces while traveling in Afghanistan in 2001. Detained for three years without charge in Cuba, where they were tortured and denied access to lawyers or their families, they were eventually released and returned to England. The recent suicides in Guantanamo make this film especially timely.
Although its methodology raises some questions, "The Road to Guantanamo" provides a riveting glimpse into a heavily shrouded political and moral quagmire that deepens by the day. If history has established the banality of evil, "The Road to Guantanamo" illustrates its rank stupidity.
Co-directed with Mat Whitecross, the film mixes interviews with dramatic re-enactments of the events the young men describe and news footage to create a vivid picture of the chaos, confusion and political opportunism that resulted in their arrest. The film's setup is brief and direct, an arrow pointing to a foregone conclusion. "750 men from 40 different countries are being held in Guantanamo.... Many of them were sold to the United States by Afghanistan's Northern Alliance for $5,000 a head." This information is followed by a news clip of President Bush saying, "The only thing I know for certain is that these are some bad people."
But here are some not so bad people: Asif Iqbal (portrayed in the reenactments by Arfan Usman) was 19 on Sept. 10, 2001, when his mother returned to Tipton, England, from her native Pakistan with news that she had found a bride for him. Asif traveled to Pakistan to meet her, and decided to go ahead with the marriage. He called his friend Ruhel Ahmed (Farhad Harun), then 19, to come be his best man. Ruhel invited two friends from Tipton, Shafiq Rasul (Riz Ahmed) and Monir Ali (Waqar Siddiqui), 23 and 22, to join him, and the three set out for Karachi.
After spending a few days of shopping and sightseeing, the friends attend a mosque with Asif's Pakistani cousin, Zahid. Inspired by the Imam's call for volunteers to travel to Afghanistan and provide humanitarian aid, and sensing an excellent adventure, the friends decide to go to Kabul to help. Crossing the border by bus, they encounter another world, a bleak and bombed-out landscape that is just coming under attack by the United States.
After their bus driver hits and kills a man on the road and abandons his passengers, the friends eventually reach Kandahar spooked and demoralized. A few days later, they travel to Kabul, where they wander for days with nothing to do. Concerned for Asif, who has become ill, they try to arrange for a ride back to Pakistan. Instead, they are taken north to Konduz, one of the last Taliban strongholds. As Konduz falls, three of the four friends (Monir disappears and is never heard from again) find themselves herded onto trucks.
What happens next will be familiar to fans of stories of adventure gone horribly wrong. After a harrowing ordeal, Asif and Shafiq are handed over to the Americans. (Zahid is imprisoned in Pakistan.)
Asif and Shafiq are initially relieved. Average Western teenagers, they have dutifully absorbed the messages the movies have taught them. "The Americans are all right," one of them says when they are turned over. "It's all right now." But they soon find themselves hooded, beaten and airlifted to Cuba, where they are placed in open-air cells at Camp X-Ray. There, detainees are forbidden to speak, pray, exercise or even look directly at the guards.
The style of the dramatizations is raw and improvisational, lending the early part of the movie a documentary feel and giving a vivid sense of the young men's ordinariness. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is how it touches, indirectly, on the problems faced by the children of immigrants, whose citizenship and national identity can be fragile under the wrong circumstances. In one scene, Asif is interviewed by an American official through a translator, who speaks to him in Urdu, his third language. He again has to point out that he speaks English.
But there are some blunders on "The Road to Guantanamo." The movie front-loads its first-person accounts with a short list of facts to keep in mind as we watch, creating an imbalance that serves only to undercut the movie's overall credibility. And the actors playing the Americans are for the most part hopeless hams in roles as nuanced as blocks of wood. Given the official response to news from Guantanamo, you'd think Winterbottom and Whitecross would have been only too happy to let the powers that be have their say, as chances are they'd wind up making the friends' story that much more credible. As it is, you wonder if the directors are protesting a bit too much on behalf of the three.
What does seem quite clear is that if Asif, Shafiq and Zahid fall into the category of "bad people," then the world doesn't have that much to fear. That's not to say they are angels — ironically, it's their police records that save them in the end. The questions that remained in my mind were these: What if, as the typical Western teenagers that they once were, the men were momentarily excited at the prospect of "fighting the power," or at least hanging around to see it get fought? What if they showed up and immediately realized the stupidity of that idea? In our country's zeal for punishment, at home and abroad, the field of what might, in a more liberal-minded time, be considered normal human behavior has consistently narrowed.
An interesting undercurrent emerges that seems rife for exploration as political forces strain to categorize and differentiate people in an increasingly global world. As "typical" British teenagers, Asif, Ruhel and Shafiq wear Gap sweatshirts and Adidas tracksuits, listen to rap and speak in slang-heavy Birmingham accents. In Guantanamo, they are tortured with death metal played at deafening levels, and later, after they're cleared but before they're released, they're rewarded with Burger King and Pizza Hut. The idea that "American culture," which we've slowly allowed to be supplanted by corporate capitalism, has become a handy instrument of torture and as well as its hasty palliative is curious to say the least.
And it seems worth noting that what seemed like a harebrained scheme when President Reagan used it against Manuel Noriega in the 1980s has become standard practice. As anyone who's ever been subjected to another's migraine-inducing music at ear-splitting levels knows, the ultimate effect is not breakdown or surrender but increased aggression. You don't want to die because your roommate won't let you sleep or think. You want to punch his lights out.
Whether the story of the Tipton Three is typical, the film doesn't speculate. But their story illustrates how the shady and reductive policies of the war on terror can distort reality and obscure the facts so much that the problem that it sets out to solve is exacerbated by the methods employed to solve it.
'Road to Guantanamo'
MPAA rating: R for language and disturbing violent content