Roadside Attractions has acquired North American rights to Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross‘s “The Road to Guantanamo,” which premiered at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival and won the Silver Bear prize for best director. The true story of three British men who were held in an American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the hybrid doc/dramatization blends news images, documentary footage, and dramatic re-creations of the lads’ experiences as detainees for more than two years at the detention center. It will have its U.S. festival debut next month at the Tribeca Film Festival and Roadside is planning an early summer release.
In Berlin where the film received considerable international media attention, directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross sat alongside Shafiq Rasul and Ruhel Ahmed, the subjects of the new film. Some charged the movie was particulary critical of the U.S. and British forces as it arrived at the festival on the same day that a draft report from the United Nations made news, accusing the U.S. of torture at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and calling for either trials or the release of detainees there.
“We are trying to show what happened to them from their point of view,” explained Winterbottom during a Berlin press conference. By blending fiction with doc footage, Winterbottom said that he hoped to find the best way to depict what these three men endured. “In the end we are just trying to tell the story as it is. To tell the story of these three people, not to tell the general story.”
“These are bad people,” U.S. president George W. Bush is seen saying as “The Road to Guantanamo” opens. He, and later U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are pictured in news footage defending the existence of the base and it’s detaining of prisoners, hundreds of which have already been released with no charges. U.S. leaders, and in particular U.S. military soldiers working the base in Guantanamo are depicted as brutal captors, leading one journalist at the press conference to question such a negative portrayal of Americans.
Asked, in his first question from the media in Berlin, how the U.S. government may react to his new film, Winterbottom said directly, “I don’t know and I don’t really care to be honest.”
“We think this film is a visceral punch to the gut that will leave everyone thinking about Guantanamo in a new way,” said Howard Cohen, Roadside Co-President, in a statement today. “It plays like a thriller, but it also shows the real-life struggle of nations to balance fighting terrorism with preserving human rights.”
The deal was negotiated by Eric d’Arbeloff, Co-President of Roadside Attractions and Joy Wong of The Works on behalf of the filmmakers. The film, funded by Channel Four Television in the U.K., was produced in association with Screen West Midlands, Co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross and produced by Andrew Eaton and Melissa Parmenter for Revolution Films. Among Roadside’s recent releases are “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” “What The Bleep Do We Know?“, and “Super Size Me.”
Traveling to Pakistan for a wedding shortly after 9/11, the three young British men — Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul — eventually made their way to Afghanistan to try to aid bombing victims there. But, through an unfortunate sequence of events, they were mistaken as members of the Taliban, rounded up, and then tortured and held for more than two years, despite a lack of proof of their terrorist ties. They were eventually released but have yet to gain an official acknowledgement of their innocence. They apparently also faced detainment by British customs when returning to England after the Berlin fest.
“It was very emotional being there, seeing the other detainees, the things that they are going through,” explained detainee Shafiq Rasul at the Berlinale press conference. “We had it rough, but we didn’t have it as bad as others, for example Arabs — we could communicate.” Continuing he explained, “People who couldn’t speak English were having a very hard time. If you were Arab, you were (considered) a member of Al Qaeda no matter what.”
“I don’t think the film is anti-American in any sense,” Winterbottom said in Berlin. “I am sure there are as many people in America who are as opposed to Guantanamo as in Britain. What we are saying is that what is happening in Guantanamo — and the fact that Guantanamo exists — is shocking. Imagine what it would be like if you were caught up in that system (with) no charges.”
Asked how they endured extended torture and imprisonment for more than two years, Shafiq Rasul explained, “If it weren’t for our religion, I don’t think we’d have been able to get through it — Islam tells us to be patient, that’s what we did, we were patient. We knew that one day we’d be out of there and we just had to be patient.”
Finally at the press conference, the two detainees were asked how they personally grapple with the reality of their ordeal, and how they recover. “You have to start living your life,” Shafiq Rasul explained, “You have to not forget about I, but put it in the back of your head. We are never going to forget about it. My main thing — at this point — is that the people there, we know they didn’t do anything. There are British residents.”
Concluding, he added, “Hopefully, this film will help show the world what’s going on in Guantanamo.”