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Chamber Drama: Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s “The Road to Guantanamo”

Chamber Drama: Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's "The Road to Guantanamo"

Though it will likely play to a different crowd, make no mistake: “The Road to Guantanamo” is a not-too-distant cousin of Paul Greengrass‘s recent “United 93.” Both represent the same tendency towards visceral, present-tense cinematic reportage that, through the integration of actuality footage and that universal symbol for facile cinematic “immediacy,” handheld camerawork, the film seeks to immerse the viewer firsthand in the queasy ordeal of experiencing headline-sized tragedy.

A dive into the political quagmire of Gitmo, “Guantanamo,” co-helmed by the glib/ prolific Michael Winterbottom and his “9 Songs” camera operator Mat Whitecross, re-establishes what was evident in the duo’s indie-rock fuck-a-thon: a talent for drubbing up ready-to-order controversy and an almost complete dearth of moviemaking smarts.

“The Road to Guantanamo” re-enacts the tribulations of the Midlands-reared British nationals and Muslims of Pakistani descent who’ve come to be known as the Tipton Three–Shafiq Rasul, Ruhal Ahmed, and Asif Iqbal–who were detained for over two years without trial or legal counsel, on flimsy-to-nonexistent evidence, at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, a facility theoretically set aside for, per Don Rumsfeld, “the worst of the worst.” Shortly after their release in May 2004, the Three compiled a 115-page dossier detailing the myriad outrages that they allegedly absorbed during their captivity. This document, as well as their own testimony–Rasul, Ahmed, and Iqbal all appear, in interview footage shot for the film–forms the outline for “The Road to Guantanamo”‘s cinematic endurance test.

It’s hard not to tangle up one’s feelings on “The Road to Guantanamo” with the events it depicts, and that’s the point. The film overlays the former detainees’ interview footage with a dramatic recreation of their story (shot on-location in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with Iran standing in for Cuba; Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, and Arfan Usman are our principals) and news footage, including our always-good-for-a-laugh 43rd President (“All I know is that these are bad people,” he says, and you can believe the bit about that being all he knows). The film doesn’t fly as art or entertainment–saddled with off-the-cuff DV cinematography that constantly fumbles for photojournalistic iconography and undistinguished characterizations. The film is a very poor example of either–but it’s intended to function as more than a movie, as an “event,” a public advocacy campaign (the film’s British premiere was a national broadcast on Channel 4, watched by 1.6 million) for its protagonists/storytellers.

As “Guantanamo” tells it, the apparently apolitical pre-imprisonment Tipton Three are by no means the worst of anything–the innocuously laddish bunch of young dudes travel to Pakistan (with a fourth friend, Monir, played by Waqar Siddiqui) so Asif can check into an arranged marriage prospect. Later, when visiting a Karachi mosque, they impulsively decide to take a firsthand look at the chaos across the Afghan border in Kabul–they cross over in with some fuzzy intention of delivering humanitarian relief, but when that doesn’t pan out, decide to hitch a ride back to Pakistan. This sets in motion a chain of ill-starred road-trip coincidences that outdoes anything in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” which ends with Monir going M.I.A., the gang getting nabbed in a combat zone by inhumane Northern Alliance troops, and from there, on to Guantanamo, for a steady routine of shackled-down submission, forced confessions, isolation, and faith-based degradation. The Americans and Brits are loutish, bullying jailers–the only exception is one sentry who’s decent enough to stomp on a scorpion before it can string his sleeping ward.

The somewhat hazy details of the Tipton Three’s triptych timeline, as well as the nature of their (by some accounts, jihadist) political sympathies, has been a much pored-over item in the British media–particularly inquiring was David Aaronovitch in “The Times”– but there is no element of quibbling in “The Road to Guantanamo,” which places its absolute faith in the story of the accused. To allow some suspicion that there might be even a hint of cock-and-bull in the Three’s vacation-from-hell yarn, and even then to also clearly communicate that Camp X-Ray is an unconscionable mockery of justice would, I think, have made for a deeper, more resounding work–in representing its subjects as irresponsible, freewheeling chaps with inoffensively vaporous personalities, off into a combat zone on a lark, “Guantanamo” shirks a real rhetorical challenge for easy proselytizing.

A scene from Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross’s “The Road to Guantanamo.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

It seems possible that “The Road to Guantanamo”‘s “I can smell the current events” filmmaking will vibrate with audiences in the same manner that Peter Watkins‘ 1971 “Punishment Park” might’ve struck some post-Kent State moviegoers. But as “The Road to Guantanamo” gains distance, hopefully–I would like to say inevitably–from the reality of Guantanamo, I think it will increasingly play as Watkins’s exercise in brutal verisimilitude plays today: rather shrill, trudgingly literal-minded, and slightly inhuman in its earnestness. For the simple fact is that Winterbottom and Whitecross’s petition-movie does not contain one scene, performance, detail, dialogue, or idea that resonates beyond the margins of its newsworthiness. Talking about this movie, one almost inevitably winds up talking about Guantanamo itself; this cannot be construed as a bad thing. That the case of the Tipton Three was hotly debated news in the UK and made barely a peep Stateside is an incontrovertible fact, and one that reflects shamefully on our national news media. But to confuse the slim merits of this movie with the importance of what has happened in Guantanamo Bay is no way to make amends.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]

Take 2
by Kristi Mitsuda

Say what you will about Michael Winterbottom, but the director keeps you on your toes. I’ve always found the wide-ranging nature of his output to be suitably enlivened by his slapdash style, and this holds particularly true in his latest, where the chaotic obfuscations of the “War on Terror” find harrowing expression in an adrenalized rush of images seemingly caught on-the-fly. Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross give us little time to assimilate to harsh conditions in “The Road to Guantanamo,” plunging us into the experiences of four (and, ultimately, three) British lads whose lives get hijacked for a period of two years.

The choice to jump back and forth between interviews with the involved individuals and recreations of described events creates an engrossingly disorienting tension. A distancing effect–which opens up large swaths of space for intellectual consideration–is achieved through its foregrounding of the constructed nature of its own documented “truth” (accentuated further by the casting of actors who don’t closely resemble the persons being represented), but the dramatizations also play out with an unexpected immediacy and emotional authenticity that makes you catch your breath; it brings you unbearably close. Pointedly intercut with solemn pronouncements of various British and American newscasts belied by the first-hand accounts (especially hilarious is Rumsfeld’s declaration that conditions in the prisons are “consistent with the Geneva Conventions–for the most part”), the film’s main narrative brings home anew a horrifying awareness of just how inadequate mainstream American media sources have become–these “recreations” provide more reality than what we’re offered on the nightly news.

Another dimension arises out of the fact that “Guantanamo”–recalling Winterbottom’s “In This World“–also functions as something of a politically charged road movie. With its terrible tale of English citizens rerouted on the way to a wedding, it becomes a backpacker’s travel adventure gone nightmarishly awry, a disturbing and riveting real-life revisioning of the genre for a world fucked-up and fear-mongered beyond anything previous imagined.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

A scene from Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross’s “The Road to Guantanamo.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Take 3
By Lauren Kaminsky

“The Road to Guantanamo” does many things, but what it does best is the impossible. The people caged by the U.S. Government in Guantanamo Bay do not figure prominently in our media culture, and therefore we rarely encounter their testimonies or images in our daily lives. This is due in large part to access restrictions that keep cameras and reporters away from the reality of prisoners’ lives. It is by necessity, therefore, that this film’s narrative weaves together the talking-head testimony of the “Tipton Three” (three young English men of Middle-Eastern descent who were captured, held captive, and eventually released) with staged reenactments of their story. The result is exhilarating in its disregard for documentary convention, and shocking in its visual depiction of the un-filmable. By straying from reality, “The Road to Guantanamo” manages to tell the truth.

Unfortunately, one thing that “The Road to Guantanamo” does not do is fulfill the title’s promise. The filmmakers don’t take great pains to help us understand why these boys found themselves in Afghanistan, where they were rounded up with a large group of suspected “insurgents.” The filmmakers’ disinterest in that early part of the road betrays a defensive refusal to engage with the accusation that even if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, still these boys should not have been there.

The absence is so glaring that it must be intentional: how they got there doesn’t matter, it implies, because they are innocent victims of chance and American aggression. These boys could be anyone–they are English-speaking and cosmopolitan, just like you and me. But I think that the truth is probably more interesting: few English speakers have the ability, inclination, or nerve to hitchhike through Afghanistan, but these boys did. They mention that they went to help the Afghan people, but who exactly did they think they were helping? Allowing the “real” Tipton Three more time to talk about their experiences and opinions would bring to the screen something else we never see: a serious, open minded discussion of what it means for these boys to be as much at home in Tipton, Islamabad, and Kabul.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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