Rookie director digs for the truth

by Giovanni Fazio

“The Road To Guantanamo” may be the first feature-length film
for Mat Whitecross as a director, but his collaborations with Michael
Winterbottom stretch back over several years. Whitecross worked as
assistant director and editor on Winterbottom films like “In This
World,” “Nine Songs” and “Code 46.” His leap into directing came over
drinks with Winterbottom one night at a pub; both men thought the story
of how three boys from Tipton ended up incarcerated at Guantanamo would
make an amazing movie, but Winterbottom was tied up in another project,
so he told Whitecross: “You make it.”

Mat<br />
Whitecross WIDTH="250" HEIGHT="338"/> Mat
Whitecross
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

“I thought he was just joking,” said Whitecross in an
interview with The Japan Times, “but suddenly it was
happening.”

When asked why he wanted to make this film, Whitecross said,
“Initially, it was just an amazing story — it feels like something out
of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ or ‘Sindbad.’ Here were these three Western,
middle-class kids — they were Muslim, Asian, but basically just like
me, culturally. They like hip-hop and Jean-Claude Van Damme films, but
they’ve been through this thing in the world’s most notorious
prison.”

Whitecross felt a personal connection to the story as well:
“My parents were political prisoners in Argentina in the 1970s,”
explained the director, “so this story immediately rang true to me. I
mean, as soon as these guys returned home, they were condemned by all
the tabloids and called ‘the Tipton Taliban.’

“The Sun, a Robert Murdoch paper, was trying to stitch them
up, saying ‘we have proof they’re terrorists,’ none of which was true.
That was the same with my parents; they were picked up, they hadn’t done
anything, but they could still disappear off the streets. But once you
say ‘my parents were in prison,’ people assume there was some
trouble.”

To win the confidence of his subjects, Whitecross spent a
month rooming with Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul. “I imagine
it must be difficult for them to trust anyone,” noted Whitecross. “They
must have been suspicious of our motivation. But once we got in the same
room, it was remarkably easy — they were just, like, OK, tell our
story.”

When asked if his subjects weren’t scarred by their
experiences, and whether it wasn’t traumatic for them to relive it on
screen, Whitecross ponders the question for a moment, and replies,
“They’ve got this bravado about them. They want to show people that
they’re stronger than the people who did this to them. They don’t want
to seem weak or broken, but it has affected them a lot.

“I think they realized that at the Berlin Film Festival. We
all got invited to the stage after the screening, and all the audience
stood up at the same time. It was a very emotional moment, and they all
began to cry. These guys had pretty much been abandoned by their local
community, by their local politicians, by their own government, and
finally they saw some people saying, ‘We believe you.’

“It’s disgraceful. The Tipton Three are still under
surveillance in the U.K. They’re in this weird limbo state where they’re
not guilty and not innocent. And I think they should be tried if there
are any charges. As far as I’m concerned, they’re innocent.”

Some critics have lambasted the film for not providing more
“context” regarding America’s need to fight terrorism, even if mistakes
are made. Says Whitecross, “We’ve heard Bush’s point of view, we’ve
heard Rumsfeld’s point of view, we’ve heard so many commentators and
military spokesmen, but we haven’t heard the point of view of the guys
who’ve been subjected to this behavior. Part of me feels like saying
just shut up, let’s listen to the real guys themselves. They’re gonna
tell their story and you believe them or you don’t.”

One wonders how sensible it is for a Western film crew to
shoot these days in Afghanistan — as Whitecross did for this film –
but even a bold director has his limits. “We shot everything right up to
the point where they’re captured in Kunduz in Afghanistan,” say the
director. But the scenes where you see guns, we shot in Iran. It was
dodgy (in Afghanistan), it felt like a risk that wasn’t worth taking,
especially with 17-year-old first-time actors, whose parents we had to
ask for permission to take them to Afghanistan. So we shot in Iran. It’s
the same location-wise, and the same kind of ethnic mix, but it’s safe.
And we did it with the government’s permission. And they have
infrastructure, a film industry. They were happy for us to build the
Guantanamo prison on a military base in Iran. There’s some kind of
satisfaction about building Guantanamo in the center of the Axis of
Evil.”

One wonders what happened to the faux-U.S. prison after the
filmmakers left. “I guess they pulled it down,” muses Whitecross. “Or
turned it into a theme park or something. [Laughs.] I just hope they’re
not putting their own prisoners in there!”

See related stories:
The Road to Guantanamo: In the wrong place at the wrong time
Guantanamo ex-inmates detail ordeal, plug movie