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DAILY DISPATCH FROM BERLIN: Personal And Political, Winterbottom's "Guantanamo" Jolts Berlinale

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire February 14, 2006 at 6:13AM

A timely new British film about the horrors of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is poised to be the buzz film of the Berlinale this year. "The Road to Guantanamo" screened for press this afternoon at the Berlin International Film Festival and will have its official world premiere tonight at the Berlinale Palast in Potsdamer Platz. The provocative new film is debuting at the festival on the same day that a draft report from the United Nations made news around the world, 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.
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A timely new British film about the horrors of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is poised to be the buzz film of the Berlinale this year. "The Road to Guantanamo" screened for press this afternoon at the Berlin International Film Festival and will have its official world premiere tonight at the Berlinale Palast in Potsdamer Platz. The provocative new film is debuting at the festival on the same day that a draft report from the United Nations made news around the world, 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.

Get the latest news, buzz and iPOP photos from the Berlinale in indieWIRE's special Berlin International Film Festival section.

Arriving for a press conference at the Grand Hyatt in Berlin to significant applause and multiple cheers of "bravo" and "great film," directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross sat alongside Shafiq Rasul and Ruhel Ahmed, the subjects of their devastating new film, "The Road To Guantanamo." The story of the now famous "Tripton Three," Winterbottom and Whitecross' new movie blends news images, documentary footage, and dramatic re-creations of the lad's experiences as detainees for more than two years in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo.

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 eventually 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.

Calling Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba an "illegal prison" during a press conference today, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has created a powerful, heartbreaking film that, by telling the story of three people, seeks to expose a situation in the hopes of instigating change.

"We are trying to show what happened to them from their point of view," explained Winterbottom at Tuesday's press conference in Berlin. 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."

A scene from Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross' "The Road To Guantanamo". Photo provided by the Berlinale

The film, funded by Channel Four in the U.K., will air on the TV network in Britain next month. Winterbottom added that he hopes for a theatrical and DVD release after the TV airdate. International buyers in Berlin are seeing the film for the first time this week; Winterbottom and producing partner Andrew Eaton's Revolution Films are intending to sell the movie worldwide. The director won the Golden Bear at the Berlin festival three years ago for his film "In This World," about Afghan refugees.

"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, is 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 are telling one story," reiterated Winterbottom later, "These are three British people who ended up in Guantanamo, the fact that the Americans were behaving badly is not some dramatic device. I don't think we are painting a particularly bad version of the Americans. We are simply trying to show what happened."

"I don't think the film is anti-American in any sense," Winterbottom added later. "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. Imaging 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."

"It was very emotional being there, seeing the other detainees, the things that they are going through," explained Shafiq Rasul at today's press conference in Berlin. "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."

Admitting that they had never heard of fellow Brit, Winterbottom, Ruhel Ahmed said that he and his mates tended to favor Hollywood films before agreeing to work with the directors to tell their story. Laughing, Winterbottom quipped, "We couldn't get anyone from Hollywood to make it."

Finally, the two 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."

"Its hard to trust the system any more," offered Ruhel Ahmed, "America says they are a democratic country, but what they have done to us...its hard to believe." Concluding, he added, "Its hard to trust democracy at all."

ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief of indieWIRE.

Get the latest news, buzz and iPOP photos from the Berlinale in indieWIRE's special Berlin International Film Festival section.

This article is related to: Festival Dispatch