A prisoner squats in the darkness of his cell, cowering under an assault of strobe lights and screeching music. You sit in the darkness of a theater, your imagination ripped open by flickering lights and a soundtrack mix. An interrogator makes up a cover identity for himself, tosses out misleading information, rattles his suspect with evidentiary photos that may not prove anything. A feature filmmaker invents characters, stretches truth to fit the plot, patches in news footage without regard to the original context (or shoots fictional scenes and makes them seem documentary).
Maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges here–or grenades to pineapples. But on the formal level at least, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s The Road to Guantánamo mimics the actions of its most shadowy characters: the American officials who held captive and brutalized three young British men, all of Pakistani background, on the grounds that they were (as George W. Bush says) “bad people.”
Since I greatly admire The Road to Guantánamo and hope millions of people will see it, I’d better be able to justify its use of the always dubious techniques of docudrama. So, to establish a base level of reality, I begin with a question: In what did the alleged badness of Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul consist? Here are the facts of the case of the Tipton Three, as you may learn from sources such as the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In September 2001, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 19-year-old Asif left his home in Tipton, outside Birmingham, and flew to Pakistan to prepare for his impending wedding. His friends Rhuhel and Shafiq soon joined him on vacation, along with a fourth buddy named Monir (later lost on the road and presumed dead). Though not unusually devout, the young men were religious enough to visit a mosque while knocking about Karachi; and there they heard, and responded to, an imam’s call to support their fellow Muslims in Afghanistan, which was then facing American invasion.
It is not clear to me, either from my reading or from the film, what exactly Asif, Rhuhel and Shafiq thought they might do in Afghanistan: fight against the Americans, provide humanitarian aid or just look around. Considering their youth and history of recklessness (we’ll get to that), they may not have had any clear idea themselves. What we do know, with reasonable certainty, is that they crossed the border, quickly realized they’d ventured into a scene of diarrhea-inducing chaos and then (once the bombs started to drop) discovered they had no sure way to leave. After a week or so, the swirl of events carried them from Kabul to the Taliban outpost of Kunduz. There, amid a horde of men surrendering to Northern Alliance forces, they were put onto a hellish transport to Shebargan Prison.
After that, things turned ugly. In late December 2001 US forces took possession of Asif, Rhuhel and Shafiq, who by mid-February 2002 were living in chain-link cages in Guantánamo, at Camp X-Ray. At its core, The Road to Guantánamo is a dramatization of the treatment the men claim to have received there, and subsequently at Camp Delta, from which they were at last released into British custody in March 2004. For more than two years, they had been kept imprisoned without any legal process, to be endlessly interrogated and (by any meaningful definition of the word) tortured–first on the possibility that they might know something about Al Qaeda, and then on the assumption that they were themselves Al Qaeda members. We may gauge the baselessness of these suspicions from the fact that the three are not still shut up in Camp Delta.