The most remarkable aspect of The Road to Guantánamo isn't the fact that it is based on a true story, but that directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross managed to get it made at all. Shooting on location with skeleton crews in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, Winterbottom and Whitecross deliver a frightening picture of the front lines of the war on terrorism in a film that feels as immediate and authentic as a news report.
The film follows four British friends who travel to Pakistan in September, 2001, for a wedding. Asif (Arfan Usman), 19, the groom, is the first to arrive. He's joined later by three friends, best man Ruhel (Farhad Harun), Shafiq (Riz Ahmed), and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui). Lounging around Karachi, they learn that they can travel cheaply to Afghanistan. Prompted as much by the promise of cheap food as the hope of volunteering as relief workers, the four friends buy bus tickets to Kandahar.
They reach the city just as the United States starts bombing the country. In Kabul, the friends charter a minibus to return to Pakistan. Their route leads to Konduz, one of the last Taliban strongholds. Monir disappears. When the Taliban surrenders, the three surviving friends are imprisoned by Northern Alliance forces. Because they can speak English, they are flown to a special prison in Kandahar, where US and British soldiers interrogate them. From there they are sent to Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo.
For the next two years they will be interrogated daily by armed forces personnel. They are urged to reveal their terrorist connections, accused of attending rallies with Osama Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, and subjected to torture. Without overly demonizing the guards and interrogators, Winterbottom and Whitecross present a very plausible account of how modern-day interrogation techniques actually work. The hoods, shackles, open-air cells, heavy metal music, sleep deprivation, and dogs all help "break down" the inmates, with beatings just a part of the routine.
Winterbottom's recent films, like the sex-and-music-video 9 Songs or the in-joke-heavy A Cock and Bull Story, have seemed like stunts in search of plots. But here he and Whitecross, who edited 9 Songs, devote all their technique and energy to the story. The Road to Guantánamo is pitched at a relentless pace. Documentary footage is mixed with re-created scenes, and the amateurs who play the leads are joined by their real-life counterparts, who provide more details about their stories in interviews.
The headlong filmmaking style sacrifices clarity at times, with disorienting results. The directors provide almost no context for the events they depict. And while the film is not inaccurate about the leads (who became known as the "Tipton Three" from their neighborhood in England), it doesn't quite tell all the truth either. Two of the three were on parole when they originally flew to Pakistan, for example.
Whether you are for or against the current administration's war on terror, this is not a reassuring film. Since the central facts in the story are beyond dispute, viewers are left with troubling questions. If something like this could happen to the Tipton Three, isn't anyone vulnerable? How many other detainees at Guantánamo are as innocent? How could so many security experts get this case so wrong for so long? And if their experiences at the hands of prison personnel have politicized the Tipton Three, what has Guantánamo done to their fellow prisoners?
Cast and crew
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui, Arfan Usman, Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul, Shahid Iqbal, Sher Khan, Jason Salkey, Jacob Gaffney, Mark Holden, Duane Henry, William Meredith, Payman Bina, Adam James, Ian Hughes, Jamie Buller, Mark Sproston, Nancy Crane, Ewan Bailey, Martin McDougall, Naser Ranjha, Justin Lynch, Sara Stewart, Demitri Goritsas, James McNeill.
Credits: Directed and edited by Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross. Produced by Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter. Executive producer: Lee Thomas. Iranian co-producer: Shahryar Shahbazzadeh. Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind. Production designer: Mark Digby. Music by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman. A Filmfour presentation of a Revolutions Films production, in association with Screen West Midlands. In Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Pashtu, Dari, and English with English subtitles.