The Road to Guantánamo (Roadside Attractions), Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ half-feature film, half-documentary about three British youths who spent over two years in military prison for no justifiable reason, is exhausting, depressing, slightly nauseating, and unfortunately necessary. It turns an abstract debate about human rights and the Geneva Conventions into a visceral experience of lived injustice: What if you were rounded up with friends on the eve of your own wedding; shipped to an American airbase to be shackled, beaten, and interrogated; and then sent without trial to languish in a cage in Cuba?
The trajectory of the so-called Tipton Three isn’t quite that simple, of course—outside a Kafka story, very little is—and the urge to simplify it for agitprop purposes is the principal weakness of Winterbottom and Whitecross’ occasionally murky but always engrossing film. Like In This World, Winterbottom’s 2002 docudrama about two Afghan refugees en route to London, The Road to Guantánamo uses nonprofessional actors and documentary techniques to re-create actual events. But unlike the earlier film, it intercuts those re-enactments with interviews with the real detainees. This makes for some confusion initially, especially since the actors don’t especially resemble their real-life counterparts, but soon the talking-head segments become integral to understanding the tangle of circumstances that led to this awful event.
We begin with the journey of four young British Muslims to Pakistan, where one of them, Asif, plans to marry a girl chosen for him by his family. When his best man backs out at the last minute, Asif asks another friend, Ruhel, to fly out from their hometown of Tipton in the English Midlands. Ruhel meets him in Karachi, accompanied by two buddies, Shafiq and Monir.
The boys’ problem is their timing; all this is happening only weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, hardly the most auspicious moment to be a young Islamic man crossing international borders. Soon after their arrival, the four men join a mosque-led humanitarian mission bringing food and aid to the Afghan people, arriving in Kandahar just as the first American bombs begin to fall. Through a series of mix-ups and bad choices too elaborate (and, frankly, too confusing) to summarize here, they wind up in a remote village that’s one of the last Taliban strongholds, sick, trapped, and unable to communicate in the local language. Captured by the Northern Alliance, they are turned over to U.S. forces for interrogation. Somewhere in the confusion, Monir disappears, never to be heard from again.
The other three boys (and these kids, who quote Eminem and yearn for stuffed pizza, are really more boys than men) are eventually shuttled to Guantanamo, where they are kept in the chain-link cages appropriately known as “Camp X-Ray.” There, the prisoners’ every move is watched by patrolling guards; even the attempt to string up a sheet to block the sun meets with a barked prohibition. Periodically they are taken away to be questioned by military personnel whose obdurate Catch-22 logic would be funny in a fiction film. “Where’s Osama?” one officer repeats threateningly, as the 20-year-old Brit in a Gap hoodie blinks in befuddlement.
As dreadful as the directors have made Guantanamo look in this film, it all appears to be more or less within the bounds suggested by the Alberto Gonzales memo and other descriptions of conditions at the prison. There are stress positions, isolation, the use of loud music, and the occasional punch to the head, but we don’t see any sexual humiliation or dog piles, not even an instance of waterboarding. Even if the conditions at Guantanamo are limited to what we see here (and something about human nature, and Abu Ghraib, tells me they may not be), The Road to Guantánamo is a forceful argument to close the facility. Given that even the poster for this movie has provoked an MPAA flap over its depiction of a hooded and shackled prisoner, it’s easy to imagine the outcry the film itself could cause—assuming, that is, that anyone sees it.
Where Winterbottom and Whitecross edge closest to leaden propaganda is in their portrait of the American soldiers at Guantanamo. The men and women who surveil and question the prisoners are interchangeably pink-faced and stupid, like the piggish Nazis in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. But the Tipton lads are no angels themselves. Two have been in and out of jail for minor offenses (a fact they invoke as an alibi with interrogators; how could they have been attending rallies with Mohammed Atta when they were in England on parole?). And all three treat their questioners with the studied contempt of teenage rebellion: “Fuck off,” mumbles one when asked to sign a document linking him to al-Qaida. Watching, you bury your head in your hands, thinking: If you ever want out of there, kid, you’d better learn to play nice.
A detractor might point out that this film never allows for that possibility the boys actually were in Afghanistan for nefarious purposes in October of 2001. A defender might counter that, given that the United States couldn’t come up with a justification for their detention even after the case went before the Supreme Court in 2002, the burden of proof hardly rests on Michael Winterbottom. After staying at Camp X-Ray and the slightly less horrible Camp Delta for more than two years, the Tipton Three were released into British custody, never having been charged with any crime. In July of 2005, Asif got married in Lahore, Pakistan, with his friends Ruhel and Shafiq in attendance. The film’s final shots show the real-life wedding party making their way down a street, bedecked in sparkling finery. The groom, now 25 years old, looks like a sad-eyed man of 40.