Faces From Guantanamo
By Anthony Kaufman, AlterNet
Posted on June 22, 2006, Printed on June 22, 2006
Editor's Note: Check out an exclusive clip from "The Road to Guantanamo" here.
After three inmates at the United States' Guantanamo Bay detention center killed themselves two weeks ago, camp commander Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. told reporters that the suicides were "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."
But the three men -- Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al-Habardi, 30, Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, 22, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, 33 -- were never charged with a crime, and no evidence has been offered to prove that they were the "smart," "creative" and "committed" warriors that U.S. officials would lead us to believe.
"The Road to Guantanamo," an engrossing new movie (opening Friday) from British filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, shows just how easy it is for innocent young people to be swept up in the United States' indiscriminate "war on terror" and suffer the kinds of indignities that could lead someone to take his own life.
The subjects of "Road to Guantamo," real-life British-Pakistani citizens Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, were eventually released from the camp and returned to Britain. But the "Tipton Three" (so dubbed for their hometown near Birmingham) were first held captive, interrogated and tortured at Guantanamo, and to this day have received neither reason nor apology for their 29-month imprisonment.
Knowing the facts of their story does little to diminish the power of seeing it unfold on screen. An effective hybrid of documentary and dramatic styles, "The Road to Guantanamo" employs interviews from the real-life Tipton Three, who narrate their own journey as it is recreated onscreen by first-time actors (a credible cast of Londoners led by Riz Agmed, Farhad Harun and Arfan Usman).
A couple years back, director Winterbottom crafted a similarly stunning docudrama called "In This World," a woefully under-seen immigration tale that followed two real-life Afghan refugees on a harrowing journey from Peshawar to Britain. (One of the "actors" in the film actually snuck into the United Kingdom on his own after production finished.)
Like that movie, "Road to Guantanamo" is subtle, realist filmmaking, never beating viewers over the head in the Michael Moore mode, notwithstanding some brief damning clips of George W. Bush ("These are bad people," he offers in his typically simple-minded fashion) and Donald Rumsfeld ("There is no doubt in my mind that the treatment is humane and appropriate and consistent with the Geneva Convention, for the most part," italics added).
"Road to Guantanamo" presents the events that led to the young men's seizure and incarceration in a straightforward, factual manner. No embellishment is needed; their actual journey was just as tense and shocking as Hollywood fiction. In fact, Shafiq, Asif and Rhuhel (and another friend Monir, lost along the way) are shown as normal, rambunctious twentysomethings right out of a teen comedy. Call it "Harold and Kumar Go to Afghanistan."
After traveling to Pakistan for the wedding of one of the young men, they answer a humanitarian call to help out the Afghani people, and set off to the neighboring country in search of adventure and oversized naan. But once in Afghanistan, U.S. bombs begin dropping and the gang tries to escape, only to end up on a bus going the wrong direction and smack dab in the middle of all-out war.
Talk about a bad spring break. Like Winterbottom's similarly improvised and inspired (but far less serious) films "24 Hour Party People" and "Tristram Shandy," it would be almost funny -- if what happened to the Tipton blokes wasn't so horrible.
At first, they think the Americans will save them. But quickly, after being badgered, beaten, shipped to Cuba and fitted with jumpsuits and blacked-out goggles, they realize quite the opposite is true.
What's potentially frustrating about experiencing "The Road to Guantanamo" -- and it is an experience: thrilling, maddening and tragic -- is how little the boys assert their innocence. If someone imprisoned you, wouldn't you try to explain your situation, call your mother or an official back home, find someone to back up your story?
But at one point, after being interrogated for the umpteenth time and accused of Al-Qaida ties, one of the men reveals the terrible double bind of Gitmo. "I can't prove it to you, and you won't believe me," he explains, "so I'm not going to say anything."
A combination of Kafkaesque absurdity and Stalinist brutality, the camp scenes reveal the sheer hopelessness of Guantanamo detention. "You're Al Qaida," repeat officials over and over again, as if the incessant reiteration of the accusation makes it true. U.S. forces are unrelenting, doing all they can to force a confession, be it true or false. You begin to wonder how anyone could handle the stress, let alone maintain their sanity through the lies, coercion, threats and torture.
And torture, it is. "Road to Guantanamo" depicts incidents where the young men are chained, standing in stress positions, in isolation cells and subjected to heavy metal music and strobe lights for hours on end. Whatever Bush, Rumsfeld or government lawyers say about the United States' policy on torture, these scenes give us a sense of the brutal reality. The fact that it isn't actual reality -- but a reenactment of it -- may actually help viewers digest the horror of torture. It's a strategic paradox often used by Winterbottom; in dramatization, he arrives at a truth that audiences may be too inured to confront in a documentary.
Never sensational, "Road to Guantanamo" isn't agit-prop, but it does strike a powerful blow at the heart of the Bush administration's callous wartime policies, revealing the suffering it has inflicted on innocent people.
As Asif Iqbal says, reflecting back on his experiences at the end of the "Road to Guantanamo," "The world is not a nice place."
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Utne Magazine.