Sony // 2006 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // October 24th, 2006
"I ain't no Al Qaeda, man."
America's military base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has served as a detainment camp for suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban since shortly after 9/11. Its use is strategic because, by existing outside the continental United States, detainees are not considered to be under American laws that regulate the treatment of prisoners. Not surprisingly, there have been several claims of torture and abuse at Guantanamo camps, with calls from human rights groups around the world for its immediate closure.
Based on a true story, The Road to Guantanamo tells the story of the Tipton Three, three British citizens who were arrested in Afghanistan in early 2002. The three men -- Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul -- were detained at Guantanamo Bay for two years. While detained they were denied legal representation and experienced severe mistreatment and coercion under duress in attempts to solicit confessions. They were released in 2004 and have provided some of the best first hand accounts of what the government is doing to suspected low-level terrorists.
The Road to Guantanamo is an intriguing mix of documentary and drama. The three real members of the Tipton Three tell their version of events while director Michael Winterbottom (Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) intersperses footage of three actors (who bear scant resemblance to the real Tipton Three) recreating the story. This cross cutting has great potential for confusion, but the dramatization is so well synched with the talking heads that you shouldn't have any trouble following the action.
Michael Winterbottom is one of the most prolific (14 films in the past 10 years) and eclectic moviemakers working today. His previous film, 2005's Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, uses the adaptation of a dense and esoteric novel as the backdrop for the actual movie, a humorous commentary on the filmmaking process and filmmaking industry. This was preceded by 9 Songs, which was basically an art house porn flick documenting the evolution of a relationship through pop music and graphic, unsimulated sex. And now he has made, with co-director Mat Whitecross (who conducted most of the interviews), a scathing political film documenting the United States' cruel and inhumane treatment of suspected enemy combatants. Though Winterbottom's career is wildly uneven, it is always interesting, much like The Road to Guantanamo.
The movie's first ten minutes are almost a whirlwind, as we follow four young Muslims who fly from England to Pakistan in search of a bride. The scenes of the boys running around Pakistan are almost as frenetic as Victor's trip to Europe in The Rules of Attraction. As such, the decision to cross the border into Afghanistan, only a few months after 9/11, in the middle of an extensive bombing campaign, is glossed over. As far as I can tell, Afghanistan's main draw for these men was its local cuisine, in particular their big naan. You really get the idea that filmmakers are pulling a bit of misdirection here, but I'm not really in a position to accuse the Tipton Three of anything, and they've already been through enough, so I'll let it drop.
However, the movie's lack of characterization is quickly rankling; all the men are largely nondescript and pretty much interchangeable. So while I know they were in search of a bride, I couldn't tell you whom it was for.
Still, I think it's safe to say your opinion of The Road to Guantanamo will depend largely on whether you think the treatment of unlawful enemy combatants should be regulated under the Geneva Conventions. The meat of the film, which is basically a fifty-minute montage, depicts members of the Tipton Three dragged before American interrogators where they are yelled at, sworn at, and belittled. They are thrown into dank cells, put into stressful positions, and kept in solitary confinement with confession to being a member of Al Qaeda the only means to relief. These are chilling scenes, and will cause extreme disturbance, as you will surely be imagining all the other innocent people who are put through similar treatment, and all of those still going through it.
It is these scenes that make The Road to Guantanamo such a vital movie; currently all that we have from Guantanamo are a few still pictures and some first hand account of the abuse of detainees. This film provides the first, and to my knowledge, only realistic depiction of the measures American servicemen (and women) are employing to secure confessions. This makes it a film that should be seen by anyone concerned with human rights or the War on Terror.
Sony has done a good job in transferring the beautiful shots of the rugged Afghan mountains and packed bazaars of Pakistan onto DVD. Though I'm an avid traveler, this is probably as close as I'm going to get to Afghanistan and this movie does just about a good a job as replicating the experience as anything short of a National Geographic special. Unfortunately, Sony has not included any sort of bonus material. Considering how the story of the Tipton Three can provide only anecdotal evidence of the Bush Administration's policy toward detainees, it is surprising that they have chosen not to include any supplemental information on current conditions at Guantanamo Bay. Thankfully, this information is readily available to anyone with an internet connection.
One of the nagging problems I had with the film, briefly touched upon earlier, concerns the inexplicable behavior of the Tipton Three. I'm not saying they're terrorists, but in addition to questioning why they entered Afghanistan, I found their behavior while speaking with American interrogators odd and counter-productive. While the interrogators are almost unfailingly obnoxious, if not abusive, the Tipton Three don't even try to explain their actions, instead mumbling, "you wouldn't believe me," or offering other curt, belligerent responses. Surely, these young men deserve no blame for their treatment, but it is a little maddening to watch them fail repeatedly to state their case.
The Road to Guantanamo is a vivid, emotional, and effective portrayal of the treatment of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Though one cannot help but question the absolute veracity of the events depicted here, I have seen enough pictures, and heard enough supporting testimony, to believe many detainees are being treated in a cruel and inhumane manner. This is a film that deserves a wide audience.
Like the Tipton Three, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official site