"The Road to Guantanamo" depicts a whole range of government-approved non-torture and acts of injustice, but what’s really shocking is the film itself, the calculated cinematic equivalent of a blow to the gut. At a time when earnest agenda-docs about important, dire issues are a dime a dozen, rarely reaching past the same crowd of pre-concerned arthouse-goers or leaving any kind of lasting mark, "The Road to Guantanamo" effortlessly gets under your skin, mostly because it’s only partially a doc. Michael Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross have taken the accounts of the Tipton Three and made them into a lean and jittery re-enacted drama â€” a thriller, really. It’s uneasy, but undeniably effective â€” the tale of three hapless heroes who suffer at the hands of an Orwellian system, only to emerge unbroken and triumphant. And we’re the bad guys.
Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul are three Pakistani boys from the British midlands who, with two other friends, went on a trip to Pakistan, where Asif was to get married. Through a series of sometimes fuzzily reported misadventures, they ended up in Afghanistan right as the bombings began and were eventually rounded with Taliban troops and surrendered to the US, transferred to Guantanamo Bay and held for two years without being charged. Footage of the three (now all in their early-to-mid 20s) recounting their story is intercut with re-enactments of what they describe, played out by first-time actors shooting on location (well, not the Cuba part). All hand-held camerawork and washed-out color, the scenes recall and are sometimes blended with actual news footage, a technique Winterbottom used in 1997’s "Welcome to Sarajevo" and which comes across as a bit of a mindfuck in this melange of nonfiction and narrative.
Terrible things happen to Asif, Ruhel and Shafiq before they ever come into contact with the Americans â€” they lose one of their friends, they almost die several times â€” and the moment (a sizable way into the film) in which they’re informed "You’re in US custody now!" comes with a strange mixture of relief and dread. The camp at Guantanamo is depicted as a purgatory of boredom and semi-civilization. On one hand, you do get fed regularly and are given medical care; on the other, you also get chained in stress positions for hours with a bag over your head, and interrogated endlessly ("I want to know. Where. Bin Laden is!" one officer snarls), without even the possibility of exoneration in sight.
It’s impossible to walk out of this film feeling any less than righteously enraged, but we couldn’t help feeling manhandled as well â€” the film’s purpose may be to pull strings, but Mr. Winterbottom, must you tug so hard? Both in real life and in fiction, the Tipton Three are disarmingly young and slightly goofy â€” we don’t need anything else to make them more palatable or their experiences more disturbing, but we’re still subjected to sunny flashbacks of happier times (one in particular depicts them eating pizza and checking out a girl â€” yes, yes, just like any other teenagers, see?). The Americans are opaque and thuggish, and, cruelest slight of all, seem to be played by weaker actors; the Brits are ineffectual. But the telling details are never so overt. In one fortuitous scene that rings truer than anything else in the film, a US soldier quietly wakes one of the boys in the middle of the night because there’s a tarantula in his holding cell, a cage out in the open air. The soldier opens the door, creeps in, and stomps the spider to death, and the pair share a moment to marvel â€” whoa, that thing was huge! â€” before the soldier gently tells the boy to go back to sleep, and strides off into the night. Mission accomplished: the monster vanquished.
Opens in limited release June 23rd.
+ "The Road to Guantanamo" (Official site)