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Wednesday, January 18, 2017
(This review originally appeared online at Bumscorner.com in 2006.)
The prolonged imprisonment without trial of suspected Islamic terrorists within the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, Cuba remains a source of heated controversy, and the same can most likely be said of THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (2006), Michael Winterbottom's award-winning docudrama about three British Muslims, known as "The Tipton Three", who ended up there for over two years before finally being released without charge.
We are first introduced to the real Asif Iqbal in a close-up shot as he speaks into the camera and begins his story of the day he left England in September, 2001 to return to his native Pakistan in order to take part in a pre-arranged wedding, with his friends Ruhel, Shafiq, and Monir along for the ride. (Ruhel and Shafig will also appear in such interview segments throughout the film.)
Intercut with these shots is a documentary-style reenactment with actors portraying the actual people. We see them travel to Pakistan, where Asif meets his intended bride. By night they sleep in a mosque to avoid hotel charges, and by day they wander the city reacquainting themselves with their homeland.
Then the four young men, along with Shafig's cousin Zahid, decide to take a long bus ride into Afghanistan just as it is coming under attack by the U.S. military shortly after 9-11. (Their intention, ostensibly, is to "help out", but why four young sightseers from Tipton suddenly want to travel into the heart of a heavily-bombed war zone is beyond me.) Conditions steadily worsen along the way, and one of them becomes gravely ill--he dreams of eating gooey pizza back home with his friends as they flirt with the girls in the next booth--as the bombing and subsequent chaos around them intensify.
After days of lying around a mosque in Kabul doing nothing, they become disenchanted with their mission and arrange for transport back to Pakistan. This ill-fated journey takes them through scenes of death, destruction, and horror that are presented largely as though filmed through the lens of a news camera, complete with night-vision shots of people huddled in a ditch for cover, their eyes eerily aglow. Indeed, much of it is interspersed with actual news footage whenever possible, and it's sometimes hard to tell where the reality ends and the reenactment begins.
Seemingly unaware that they are being taken away from the Pakistani border and into the war zone, they soon find themselves captured near Konduz by the Northern Alliance while in the company of armed Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and are eventually flown to the U.S. base at Guantanamo, where they will be held for the next two-and-a-half years as suspected terrorists. (The fourth member of the party, Monir, disappeared while in Afghanistan and was never heard from again.)
It's at this point that THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO began to remind me a bit of Alan Parker's 1978 film MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, based on Billy Hayes' account of his ordeal in a Turkish prison replete with brutal guards and frequent torture. Just as damning and one-sided as that story was against the Turks, here we find the Americans depicted as sadistic, almost soulless tormentors subjecting our heroes to endless bouts of cruelty and relentless interrogation.
Although Billy Hayes portrayed himself as the good guy in his story, which seemed amplified even more so by Parker, he was still admittedly guilty of drug smuggling--here, the "Tipton Three" are portrayed with as much wide-eyed innocence as director Michael Winterbottom and their own first-hand accounts can muster, and it's appalling to see what they are subjected to during their stay in Guantanamo until their final release.
But how much of what we are seeing is the truth? Even if one accepts the conditions at Guantanamo to be accurately depicted, there's still the problem of just what these guys were doing in Afghanistan at the time, and whether or not they're telling us the whole truth and nothing but. Shooting a fact-based film to look like a documentary doesn't make it any more of one than, say, THE FRENCH CONNECTION (or even THIS IS SPINAL TAP!), regardless of how much the viewer may be lulled into thinking so by a realistic visual style coupled with the filmmakers' point of view.
As a film, it's pretty involving and generally well-done, although the latter half tends to drag at times. But a brief look at some of the information relating to this story on the Internet yields a few nagging questions about the history of "The Tipton Three" and their possible motives. Some of it may be true, some may not be--but you'd never know from watching THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO that there was ever any question as to the veracity of any part of this story, and thus it fails to present it in anything other than a single, biased point of view that can hardly be taken as the final word on the subject.