The Prisoners Speak

The Road to Guantánamo

a film directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross


Most moviegoers whom I’ve watched leaving the cinema after seeing The Road to Guantánamo have been wordless and whey-faced, numbed, as I was, by the film’s distressingly vivid recreation of brutal interrogations in the American detention camp on Cuba’s south coast (sequences that were filmed on location in—of all places—Iran). It takes a while to realize that one has witnessed something more than a shocking indictment of the peculiar institution of Guantánamo Bay. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s drama-documentary, a deliberately confusing medley of fact (interviews, news footage) and fictional devices (lavishly filmed reenactments), also has the great merit of exposing the special fog of “asymmetric” as opposed to conventional warfare. Grueling as it is to watch, and it’s the most protracted ninety-minute movie I’ve ever seen, it is packed with sly insights into Bush’s “long war,” hitherto known as the global war on terror.

Winterbottom’s last movie was Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and his Shandean relish for confusion, dead ends, contradictions, and non sequiturs is everywhere in evidence in this convoluted tale of how three young Englishmen from Tipton—part of the post-industrial urban sprawl of the West Midlands between Birmingham and Wolverhampton where many immigrant Pakistani families originally settled in the 1960s—went to Pakistan for a wedding (it was meant to be “a great holiday,” one of them says) and ended up in Guantánamo, via Kunduz, Afghanistan, in the chaotic aftermath of the battle there in November 2001. The Tipton Three, Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul, should have been four, but one of their original number, Monir Ali, was lost in Kunduz and is now presumed dead.

“Our idea,” Winterbottom has said, “was to let [the three] tell their story themselves.” So the directors have appointed themselves as poker-faced secretaries to the Tipton Three, whose reliability as narrators remains in question throughout the film. Winterbottom and Whitecross have tried to be as faithful as possible to the Tipton Three’s version of things, while leaving ample room for the audience to doubt the logic and plausibility of what transpires on screen. The men appear as themselves in on-camera interviews, but are played by actors who bear little or no resemblance to their real-life counterparts—and thereby continually remind us of their own fictionality. The style of trompe l’oeil, on-the-fly realism in which the three’s catastrophic intercontinental adventure is filmed—like the Battle of Namur scenes in Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy—owes a good deal to such graduates of 1960s and 1970s BBC television drama as Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, expert forgers of the blurred action and grainy texture of newsreel.

After returning from a trip to Pakistan, Asif Iqbal’s mother tells him she has found a bride for him there and that he “should go out to Pakistan and get married.” “So I got a ticket and I went,” Iqbal says flatly in his adenoidal Black Country accent. Bargain travel has much to answer for in The Road to Guantánamo, which at one level might be seen…

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