The Road to Guantánamo
and Mat Whitecross (2006)
The über-prolific British director Michael Winterbottom has made 12 movies in the last ten years, a remarkable feat if you consider filmmaking akin to a typing test. In his best films (24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), this speed can create a buzzing energy around the whole production that overwhelms any flat jokes, bad judgment, or poorly conceived character. But more often the mistakes add up, revealing a film that could have benefited from a longer gestation period.
Winterbottom’s new docudrama The Road to Guantánamo (co-directed with his editor, Mat Whitecross) suffers from the urgent need to have its story told right now, and as such, it’s precisely half the devastatingly important movie it could have been. The film tells the story of the Tipton Three, twenty-something British Muslims who, after traveling in October of 2001 to Pakistan and then Afghanistan, are captured as supposed Taliban members and then detained, tortured and endlessly “interrogated” by U.S. troops at Guantánamo for more than two years. Mixing neorealist reenactments, news footage, and recent interviews with the three men, the film blurs fiction and nonfiction à la Winterbottom’s other recent work. Yet, the interplay of the real and non-real does not illuminate the story (as it did in Tristram Shandy) or even complicate our sense of truth – it just seems pointlessly redundant. This is especially true of the present- day interviews with Asif, Shafiq and Ruhel, who seem as nice and normal as their naturalistic fictional counterparts but don’t add anything new to their story.
It’s a missed opportunity because these interviews could have filled in many of the story gaps and unclear motivations in the film’s rushed and incoherent first half. As if in a hurry to get to the torture sequences, the film quickly portrays the men’s decision to enter Afghanistan as a bit of foolish curiosity, tempered only by a vague desire “to help” that they never pursue. With no medical or military training, the men are virtually useless in Afghanistan anyway, making the choice seem more exceptionally naïve than courageous.
Still, there’s no denying the monumental impact of the film’s second half, especially in light of the recent suicides at Guantánamo. Kept in outdoor cages, locked in solitary confinement for months on end, repeatedly beaten and chained to floors, they experience treatment that is another appalling example of our war on terrorism. The film shows how interrogation is just another word for coercion, that Guantánamo is designed to break spirits in order to force guilty admissions from the completely innocent. It’s a sickening, mindnumbing abuse of power, conveyed with an eyes-wide-open horror through the directors’ subtle, effective filmmaking. Much of the credit here belongs to the cast of non-professional actors, who flawlessly detail the men’s incredible strength and fortitude in the face of unspeakable conditions. As expected, the film ends with text outlining the continued abuse of Guantánamo’s “illegal combatants” and the shaking anger it inspires is almost enough to make one forget the film’s many faults.
The Road to Guantánamo is currently playing in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.