The Road to Guantanamo (2006)


(director: Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross; cinematographer: Marcel Zyskind; editor: Mat Whitecross/Michael Winterbottom; music: Harry Escott/Molly Nyman; cast: Riz Ahmed (Shafiq), Farhad Harun (Ruhel), Waqar Siddiqui (Monir), Arfan Usman (Asif); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Andrew Eaton and Melissa Parmenter; Roadside Attractions; 2006)

“… Muddled–yet haunting even if it should prove to be only slightly true.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Winterbottom (“In This World”/”9 Songs”) and Mat Whitecross codirect this uneven POW docudrama that pretends to offer a terrifying first-hand account of three young British Muslim men from Tipton, of Pakistani descent, Riz Ahmed (Shafiq), Farhad Harun (Ruhel), and Arfan Usman (Asif), who were detained for over two years without charges at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by the American military. It’s filmed as a combination of documentary footage and dramatic re-enactments–using both interviews and news footage–that left me unsure of what to believe is true as it all seemed muddled–yet haunting even if it should prove to be only slightly true. It was the winner of the Silver Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.

The film opens with George W. Bush, in the usual simplistic way he has of putting things in black and white terms, petulantly telling the press conference “These are bad people,” referring to the Taliban prisoners captured in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance in 2001 and turned over to the U.S. forces to be held in Guantánamo. It then follows the nightmarish tale of the three above named Brits, and a fourth who disappeared there, going to Pakistan in late 2001 for a wedding. Curious about seeing Afghanistan, they easily cross the open border and arrive at Kandahar when the bombings begin. They trek to Kabul for safety, but that city is also being bombed; and when they attempt to return to Pakistan, they are unfortunate in taking a van that becomes part of a Taliban convoy and are arrested in Kundun province. Unable to articulate what they are doing there, after their stay in an Afghan prison they are held as detainees in Guantánamo. The filmmakers present them as good Muslims and not as fundamentalists, but also as being somewhat wise guys who talk in profanities–some have been in trouble with the law before for minor offenses.

The heart of the film follows their rough treatment while being processed (beatings, continual questioning that suggests they are al-Qaeda and bags placed over their heads) and then their daily regimen in prison camp (kept in shackles in dog kennel-like cages, unable to pray or talk, constant harassment and endless meaningless interrogations). The prison treatment by the Americans is the scary part, not because all those there are innocent but because it’s frightening to see how far this administration has taken us away from our core values as a decent democratic people by using torture as a viable means to get information–something the majority of Americans still would not tolerate. This inhuman imprisonment coupled with the Iraq War, indicates how low this administration is willing to take this country while still not making the world any safer or seemingly getting us nearer to those who planned the attack on the WTC or even breaking down these three Brit detainees.

This irregular imprisonment (which might be at odds with the Geneva Convention) plus all the other mistakes we have made in pursuing a war in Iraq, has made us look bad to the rest of the world. The Road to Guantánamo serves as some kind of record, even if it’s a questionable one, for us to see what we have become under this death-like Bush administration.