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The Road to Guantanamo (2006) R 95min

October 3rd, 2007 by Maxim · 1 Comment · 3,425 Views


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This movie was a big hit in Europe. I was on vacation in Paris at the time it came out in theatres, and every Parisian movie theatre that I passed by was showing it. I have not seen this movie advertised in Prague or Riga: either it hasn’t reached Eastern Europe by then (they download movies anyway), or they decided there wasn’t enough interest for a documentary in countries with low personal income, or maybe they were in NATO-ass-kissing mode. Anyway, I didn’t want to waste my paid vacation time in the “city of love” on watching an embarrassing documentary, so today is the first time I’ve watched it on DVD. I had so many movies in my Netflix queue that it took a year since I added it before it was delivered.

The Road to Guantanamo, directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, is a shocking, gripping and moving docudrama that reenacts the mis-adventures of the Tipton Three, trio of 20-year old British Muslims who were held in Guantanamo for more almost 3 years along with estimated 500 other captives, until they were released without ever being charged. It begins in 2001 with three friends of Pakistani origin and one Bangladeshi (Shafiq, Ruhel, Monir and Asif played by Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui and Afran Usman) from Tipton, England traveling to Pakistan for a wedding. In Pakistan they are rallied by religious leaders in Mosques to support Taliban and their “brothers” in Afghanistan, which was being under U.S. and U.K. bombing in relation to 9/11 attacks. According to the interview with Winterbottom, who was in Karachi at that same time, everybody in Pakistan thought the invasion of Afghanistan was a bad thing. Urged by religious idealism and desire to “check it out”, the four friends decide to travel to Afghanistan and try to help however they could. The help part didn’t work out, but for two weeks they quite enjoyed those big naan breads they heard so much about. When they realise the gravity of the situation, however, they try to get back to Pakistan, but get stuck. In the war-related chaos among population and retreating Taliban Monir got lost and the remaining three are captured by the Northern Aliance, who handed them over to American forces. After “the worst of them have been sorted out”, as American general said on TV interview, the three young men are flown to U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “You are now property of United States Marines”, declares the guard. For the next 3 years they are subjected to interrogation, abuse and “stress positions” to extract confessions that they are jihadists, then al Qaeda, then Osama Bin Laden’s lieutenants – without any material proof. But, as Shafiq said, “what doesn’t kill you makes you tougher”. I am not surprised the men didn’t break, although they signed their confessions under torture, since, at least as the movie shoes, they never understood what their captors really wanted from them.

I am not going to pass judgment on actual events. People more informed and smarter then me are going to write books and make movies about it for years to come. All I can do in a 500-word review is talk about the movie. Winterbottom and Whitecross masterfully created a blend of documentary archive footage with interviews and reenactments. Filmed on location for the most part: in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Guantanamo scenes were shot in Iran actually. The story of the Tipton Three was quite broadly covered on the British media, so when they were released, Winterbottom contacted their lawyer and it wasn’t too hard to persuade them to tell their stories on film for the sake of people who were still in Guantanamo. I hate reenactments as a film style, especially what they do on History Channel or Discovery Channel – they treat viewers as idiots or little children who need to be fed from a spoon. But The Road is completely different: for some time I thought I am watching actual documentary footage made by one of the four men. Considering the story the three guys told was true (sounded like it was, but there was no opposite opinion offered in the film. If you really want the opposite view, listen to Dubya’s press-conferences), the drama of bombings, then imprisonment in Afghanistan which nearly starved them, then 2 years in Guantanamo with constant interrogations and humiliation and even torture – that’s what makes this film so important, shocking and gripping. Very “in your face” film. There was a mere hint at sexual humiliation of detainees, and nobody of guards or investigators was demonized, thus basically putting responsibility on Dubya, Blair and Rummy, who only appear in documentary footage clips with their “good against evil” demagoguery they were pushing to sell the “war on terror” and later to sell the “Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’”.

The acting was natural, the story flowed very well, and the blend of documentary footage and radio broadcasts with reenactment was exceptionally well executed.

I could not believe how thick-skulled both American and British interrogators were (as they are portrayed in the movie). Repeating same questions over and over for two years, coercing people to incriminate themselves using torture, but most importantly, treating Al Qaeda as an army or as an idea and equating Islam with terrorism. Reminds me of a auto-mechanic I met a year ago who said “Islam is an evil religion because we were told so at the Bible study group”. I understand how Americans felt after 9/11 about terrorism, but then again not many Americans knew where Afghanistan was on the map. When our government creates a prison outside of international law, what’s to stop the abuse of prisoners? “Enemy combatant” was the category invented by Bush’s military lawyers to justify secret prisons and torture and deprivation of rights extended to prisoners by Geneva conventions, which Bush’s government called “antiquated” – does it remind you of the very thing Bush said Saddam was guilty of?

Some may say, “well they got what they deserved because they were stupid enough to go on humanitarian mission to Afghanistan just when the invasion began”, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time is not a justification for being imprisoned without charge, access to relatives and lawyers for three years. But of course, when the war breaks up, innocent people are going to suffer, and usually they suffer the most. Especially when the “war on terrorism” doesn’t have the distinct enemy. Read the Dubya quote below.

Guantanamo currently holds some 460 men on suspicion of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, yet only 10 have been charged and none convicted.

The Road to Guantanamo won several awards and nominations, including Silver Berlin Bear for directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, Best British Documentary, Best Documentary at Independent Spirit Award.

I loved Shafiq’s rap he performed in the cage to the guard at Guantanamo.
My favorite Dubya quote: “These are bad murderous people who don’t share our ideals”.
My favorite Rummy quote: “The enemy combatants in Guantanamo are absolutely held in humane and dignified conditions in accordance with Geneva conventions… for the most part”.

Trivia: Michael Winterbottom was approached to direct The Cider House Rules (1999) and Good Will Hunting (1997) for $1.5 million but declined.

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Tags: DVD · Documentary · Drama · Foreign · Movies · UK

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