dir: Michael Winterbottom & Matt Whitecross
[img_assist|nid=777|title=We want to be locked up. We're just gagging for it.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=295]
This is an odd film, on a number of levels and for a number of reasons. In essence it is a dramatic recreation of events occurring in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US, specifically as they relate to three unfortunate British-Pakistani guys. It blends talking head documentary style footage with film footage in an attempt to display and explain what happened when they found themselves in the wrong place at the absolute worst time possible.
Called the Tipton Three, four young lads travel from their local hood over to Pakistan, allegedly so that one of them, Asif (Afran Usman) can get married to a local girl. I say allegedly for reasons that will become clear later in the review, or at least clearer. The timing of their visit to this part of the world couldn’t be more fortuitous, because it’s just after 9/11.
For even more unclear reasons, they end up in Afghanistan, just after the retaliation has begun for the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers and of America’s illusion of invulnerability. The lads, losing one of their number, end up in the hands of the Northern Alliance, who effectively sell them to US forces.
This actually happened. However credible or incredible many parts of the story may seem, the Tipton Three, Asif, Ruhel (Farad Harun) and Shafiq (Riz Ahmed), were caught and kept in incarceration in Afghanistan, sternly interrogated for their believed connection to evil terrorists and eventually labelled ‘enemy combatants’, for 29 months. Their claims of innocence are ignored, and their imprisonment and poor treatment continues until they are sent to Guantanamo.
Yeah, that Guantanamo. Interspersed with the action are interviews with the Tipton Three, which seeks to represent just how innocent these guys just had to be, and just how awful their treatment was.
I’m not in a position to know anything for sure. I can’t categorically state for certain that my own mother loves me, that I know who killed JFK, or that bears or popes actually shit in the woods. I just can’t know anything for absolute certain. It’s not my nature. Everything is, in the dark and horrible place known as my mind, up for grabs, reality-wise, and a malleable chaos that tends towards directions but never with absolute finality.
But that doesn’t stop me from forming opinions about what is or isn’t likely to be true. The explanations given by the guys as to why they made their various trips don’t wash with me, but lacking any conclusive proof to the contrary, I have to accept their explanation. What is indisputable is the nature of the torture they suffered for years whilst the US took its time determining these guys were nobodies, instead of the right hand men of their terrorist Most Wanted.
Yeah, it’s torture. Forcing guys to squat for hours and days with their hands and feet chained to a ring in the floor is torture. Housing prisoners in wire cells, preventing them from having access to any form of legal help or family for years, terrorising them with the threat of this being a permanent state for then on, is torture. Verbally and physically abusing these luckless mugs daily and nightly is torture. Giving them hamburgers and Pringles afterwards, after years of this crap, to mollify them, was a form of torture.
With all my misgivings about the gaps in the story, and the motivations of the protagonists, it is a scorching indictment of what is still going on in this world with our complicity. I say ‘our’ because this isn’t just about the treatment of Muslims, detainees, enemy combatants, terrorists and whatever Other du jour you care to mention, by the current US Administration. These systems require the complicity of many other governments, and ultimately the citizens of those governments who reward these sadists and utilitarians at the polls. People who accept that there is a price for the freedoms we enjoy, and that the price is that some people need to be chewed up by the cogs of Justice in order to keep the rest of us in line.
On one level it looks like their captors are subjecting them to these torments because they actually believe these chaps might be aligned with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. When it becomes rapidly clear that these guys aren’t anything of the sort, they’re accused of being present at a rally where some crazed imam preaches a variation on ‘death to” the usual suspects. You know, America, Israel, Kazakhstan: all the nasty tyrants. If that part is accurately portrayed, then the curious question becomes why they continue to be incarcerated and interrogated past the point where it is pointed out to the “authorities” that the tape of their alleged attendance at this rally is dated prior to their ever having left Britain?
It’s never articulated in the flick, and this is pure supposition on my part, but the case you could make as to why people like these guys, British citizens, and someone like David Hicks had to be singled out and treated even rougher than the rest of the goatherds and taxi drivers nabbed and tormented post 9/11, is because the message to the wider world has to be reinforced: sure, these camel-jockeys and pork dodgers will be treated like crap if we catch them, but if you’re a Westerner, and you dare to even think of travelling to these evil places, let alone hooking up with the terrorists, you’re doubly fucked.”
Tell me I’m lying, and I’ll laugh in your face. In these crazy days in which we live, the absence of evidence is seen as evidence of guilt. In the mentality of the people manning and womaning these camps, these prisons and sources of freedom and democracy, the denials of the accused, the absence of proof of guilt or innocence, is confirmation enough that they are guilty and deserve their treatment. And even if they’re innocent (as if any of them could be), at least it’ll show them and the rest of ‘em who’s boss.
The melding of documentary and dramatic recreation doesn’t always work well. The acting is amateurish at best, at least by the guys playing the Three, but, perversely, the guys and gals playing guards and interrogators are very convincing. It’s not a great film, but it is harrowing.
What is Winterbottom’s motivation? He, and the many other people involved, want to give us an idea of what 29 months of incarceration looks like at the hands of military personnel given carte blanch by a regime less interested in justice than it is in tenuous results liking proving what a badass America still is. As such they give us a very clear idea of what it looked like for these three guys and for hundreds, if not thousands of other people sent to places like Guantanamo and all the other black or ghost sites set up in countries not averse to torturing people for fun or profit.
You see, the Road of the title isn’t just the path taken by these guys: the Road to Guantanamo isn’t even paved with good intentions, and it's a journey ending in moral perdition that begins when we begin to justify the torment and ill-treatment of the lowliest people, whether they’re Muslims, Eskimos or the worst criminals available. It dehumanises the perpetrators as well as the victims, no matter how personally loathsome we may find them.
Harrowing and very disturbing. No matter how you cut it, no matter how you look at it, the justifications and rationalisations don’t add up, the ends aren’t justifying the means, and the method with which this is being sold, with the palliative platitudes of freedom and democracy cakes for all, is an even more depressing affront to human dignity.
J.M. Coetzee, the South African author and Nobel Laureate, in his recent book Diary of a Bad Year, has one of his narrators speak of the possibility that when ugliness such as what is being perpetrated in our name goes on at Guantanamo, at Abu Ghraib, it brings shame and dishonour not only on those who order it and perpetrate it, but on all of us, on humanity collectively.
If ten per cent of Road to Guantanamo is true, then we should all be deeply ashamed.
7 times looking at this fucked up world makes me hang my head and cry out of 10
“You won't believe I just came out here, for my mate's wedding, do ya?
I never thought my ass would be heading for Cuba.” – The Road to Guantanamo.