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.
And what of the possibility that they’d wanted to take up weapons with the Taliban? We may judge the seriousness of that scenario by the fact that British authorities held Asif, Rhuhel and Shafiq for just one day of questioning in London before releasing them, without charges, back into the general population of Tipton.
So much for the facts. Now for the movie.
The Road to Guantánamo entwines three kinds of narration. The first consists of testimonies given straight into the camera by Asif, Rhuhel and Shafiq. They are in their mid-20s now, robust and bearded (the latter two in the flowing style of the pious). All three speak with quiet self-assurance, laughing incredulously more often than voicing anger–though you’ll notice that Asif’s eyes no longer work together well.
The film’s second narrative strand is a dramatization of these testimonies, shot in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and featuring previously untried young performers (Rizwan Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui and Arfan Usman) playing the principal roles. These boyish actors, though thoroughly convincing, look nothing like the men you see in the interviews; and so the film subtly marks their scenes as re-creations, despite the immediacy and intensity of these episodes–the jostling market crowds and jouncing buses, the swarms of flies, the shiny new six-foot-square cages.
In style, these parts of the movie recall Winterbottom’s remarkable 2002 film In This World, which re-created the journey of an Afghan boy, Jamal Udin Torabi, from a refugee camp in Pakistan to the streets of London. The probings and dartings of the hand-held camera, the unsettling rhythms of the editing, keep you caught up physically in the scenes, which tend to emphasize corporeal experience: how the characters washed, what they ate, where they went to the toilet. But for all that, you may remark during the episodes at Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta that you’re not witnessing events but watching a reconstruction of them, based on the inmates’ memories. You may wonder: Did the guards force prisoners to kneel in just this way, eating gravel while presenting their buttocks? When a five-man team in riot gear came to seize someone, did they quick-step as you see here, single-file, so they looked like a giant black caterpillar? We’ll probably never know; the Guantánamo manual of procedure is not likely to be published. These visceral realizations may therefore be the closest we’ll come to the truth, even though they are, admittedly, just realizations.
So The Road to Guantánamo establishes an implied distance between its fictionalizations and the facts–a distance that meanwhile keeps collapsing, due to the film’s third type of narration: clips of news footage, and studio-produced voiceovers made to sound like a reporter’s off-camera commentary. This material is the glue of the movie, sticking scenes together with a layer of information or a gloss of authenticity. The reportage, both fake and real, thickens the emotion (as does the film’s other glue, the soundtrack music, which is the usual Winterbottom minimalism–like “Adagio for Strings” boiled down to syrup). It also adds a weight of objectivity to whatever you’re seeing, no matter how subjective the underlying source.
Now, I don’t have any problem with this approach–but then, neither am I the sort of person who denies that something awful has been going on at Guantánamo. Those who prefer to believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the abuses are minor and necessary–that Guantánamo holds only terrorists and their allies, who are treated no more roughly than they must be–may seize on Winterbottom and Whitecross’s double game as an excuse to dismiss the whole movie. These critics (I’m sure they’re out there) will insist this docudrama is culpable on both the formal and ethical levels.
Do the ends justify the means? That depends, I suppose, not only on the nature of the ends but on whether the means have a chance of achieving them. From documented facts, rather than docudrama, we know that the means used at Guantánamo, besides being repugnant in themselves, are wildly unlikely to deter the world’s terrorists. By contrast, the means used in The Road to Guantánamo are both artful and effective.
Besides, if The Road to Guantánamo may be compared to an interrogator because of the tricks it practices–playing on the audience’s suggestibility, for example, by compiling battle scenes out of a handful of night-scope images and a whole lot of sound effects–so too might it be likened in shadiness to the Tipton Three themselves. The young men’s salvation, it turned out, was their history of run-ins with the law. “The police were our alibi,” one of the men says with satisfaction, noting that he’d been reporting to his probation officer during the whole period when supposedly–so the interrogators said–he’d been off training in an Al Qaeda camp. It’s possible for a well-timed misdemeanor to clear you of a hanging offense; and a bit of directorial fudging sometimes can make a film more rather than less ethical.
Winterbottom and Whitecross went to extraordinary lengths to tell the story of the Tipton Three, hauling their crew on a long, risky, dusty journey. That’s the adventurous part, which made this production a road movie for the subjects and filmmakers alike. The defiant part has to do with a sense of quiet outrage that runs through the picture. Some of this tone comes from Asif, Rhuhel and Shafiq themselves, but some also comes from the filmmakers’ clear determination to do justice to their story.
It’s a story that goes far beyond the immediate characters. As Winterbottom and Whitecross show, the Tipton Three were kept at Guantánamo long after it had become obvious that they had no connection to terrorists. How many others, then, are still imprisoned, even though the jailers know they’re guiltless? How many remain caged, or shut up in solitary confinement cells, only because the authorities don’t want to admit they shouldn’t have been kept at all?
Until we get an accounting, let’s be grateful we’ve got the docudrama.
* * *
A travelogue, a party, a floating psychedelic jam session on the Bosporus, the documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul plunges you into more than a dozen different versions of contemporary Turkish music and introduces you to their practitioners, from the celebrated and venerable (film and recording deities Orhan Gencebay and Sezen Aksu) to the young and unknown (the loose collective of street musicians known as Siyasiyabend).
Your guides are the German-born Turkish writer-director Fatih Akin (best known for the drama Head On) and the German composer and bass player Alexander Hacke, who serves as the film’s on-camera investigator, recording technician and occasional side man. As you might guess, this creative team values Istanbul as the world’s all-time capital of crossover. The filmmakers honor people like Selim Sesler and Aynur, whose deep-rooted gypsy and Kurdish musics were not so long ago despised, or banned. But they’re also delighted with the Canadian folk singer Brenna MacCrimmon (who revived a trove of 1950s Turkish songs), Ceza (the liquid-tongued Turkish hip-hop virtuoso) and Duman (the Golden Horn’s leading exponent of grunge rock).
“I only scratched the surface,” Hacke says mournfully at the end, as he packs up his gear. But that, of course, is the whole point.