There’s been a lot written in the press about the extralegal prison the American military has been running in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, people the Bush administration has defined as “enemy combatants” are detained indefinitely, without the protection of the Geneva Conventions or any sort of rights whatsoever. No doubt, some of these people are die-hard extremists best kept behind bars. But among them, we now know, were any number of less (or not at all) dangerous people picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However many times we read these stories, it’s hard to imagine the reality of the situation at Guantanamo. The media has largely been shut out of the prison, so it’s far from clear what’s actually going on there. Claims of torture and abusive imprisonment conditions have emerged, along with counterclaims by the military that everything is humane and by the book.
Along comes “The Road To Guantanamo,” a film that tells the story of three British men of Pakistani descent who were imprisoned there for about three years before being released, uncharged and without an apology. The film, which won the Best Director award for codirectors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, intersperses interviews with the three men with documentarylike recreations of their ill-fated journey.
Things start in England’s Midlands, where we meet a 19-year-old named Asif Iqbal (played by Arfan Usman). He’s planning to return to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, and his friends Ruhel, Shariq and Monir decide to make the journey with him. While killing some time in Karachi, they decide to visit Afghanistan — in October, 2001 — to see for themselves what the situation was like in the Taliban-controlled country. Perhaps not the brightest idea, but it was also one whose consequences the boys couldn’t imagine. Shortly after arriving in Kandahar, the U.S. bombing began, followed shortly by the invasion to topple the Taliban and its al-Qaida associates.
Caught up in the chaos, Asif and his friends find it impossible to get out. A bus supposedly bound for Pakistan winds up filled with Taliban and heading for Kunduz. After a battle, the boys end up in the hands of anti-Taliban warlord forces and are thrown into an overcrowded prison in Mazar-e-Sharif where they go days without food or water. When the Americans arrive, they think things will improve, that they will be able to explain their situation in English to someone. Little do they know.
The Americans assume from the outset that any Brit in Afghanistan must be a “bad guy” and make no attempt to verify the boys’ claims otherwise. They’re hooded, gagged with masking tape, and flown to a camp in Kandahar where they’re not allowed to walk, talk, or move, and are awakened every hour. Interrogation goes like this:
U.S. officer: “You’re al-Qaida.”
Asif: “No.” (Asif is smacked around a bit.)
U.S. officer: “You’re al-Qaida . . .”
Eventually they’re flown to Guantanamo, where they are blindfolded, earmuffed and forced to sit shackled under a blazing sun. Left in wire mesh cages like dogs, they are allowed to walk only five minutes a week. During questioning, they’re so ridiculously shackled and restrained, you’d think the guards were dealing with Hannibal Lecter. Then come the beatings, the isolation cells with blaring metal music 24-7 and all sorts of other nasty experiments in dehumanization and degradation. The filmmakers can’t resist juxtaposing these scenes with a clip of Donald Rumsfeld insisting that treatment of the prisoners at “Gitmo” is “consistent with the Geneva Conventions,” which he qualifies with the weasel words, “for the most part.”
It’s astounding how this issue has been framed in the States, where people ask “Why should terrorists have rights?” The point is, however, that you have rights for prisoners so you can weed out the terrorists from the footsoldiers, the taxi drivers, and the tourists. People were rounded up pretty liberally on the Afghan battlefields, and some sort of sorting process would seem a necessity. But not to President George W. Bush, who’s seen in the film saying about the Guantanamo prisoners, “All I know for certain is these are bad people.” Yeah, just as certain as he was that there were nukes in Iraq.
“The Road To Guantanamo” continues the quasi-documentary style that Winterbottom used so effectively in “In This World,” his look at the clandestine journeys of illegal migrants from Afghanistan to the U.K. (Whitecross was assistant director on that film.) Winterbottom has tried many styles over the years, but his ability to shoot guerrilla, in real locations with actors interacting with their surroundings, has been proven time and time again in films like “Wonderland” and “9 Songs.” No doubt some will call this film anti-American; those who actually go to see it will recognize that the directors are merely reporting the reality. No doubt, that is something many people would rather not confront.