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.