The Road to Guantánamo

by Louis Wittig

…is paved with slick delusions.

Ah, time. Five years ago a documentary titled The Road to Guantánamo might have been a minor PBS snoozer about Cuban folk music. This summer, it’s the 90-some minute story of Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul, three young Britons of Pakistani heritage who were swooped up by American commandos in Afghanistan in 2001 and held for two years at Guantánamo Bay.

Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross relate the tale of the Tipton Three (named for their hometown) through standard-form talking-head interviews cut together with actors recreating the scenes the three are describing (a technique familiar from 2003’s Touching the Void) and news clips, for that extra dash of authority.

But whether the film is even technically a documentary is unclear. Variety hails it as a “true story.” But the film’s website makes a point of calling itself a “part-documentary, part-dramatization.” The audience has to resolve which part is which. What The Road to Guantánamo does deliver is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that the Tipton Three want to share, juiced by Winterbottom’s credulous enthusiasm. The film spares sensationalism, but at root is as emotionally manipulative: Do not think about the facts of this case, it suggests — get mad as hell about them.  

Credibility Lost
Winterbottom spends the first third of the movie developing his lads as lighthearted, unserious teenagers. Unfortunately for the film’s credibility, it’s also the part where they explain how they ended up in Taliban-run Afghanistan.

Shortly after 9/11, Asif travels to Pakistan for his impromptu arranged marriage, and his buddies come along. For some reason the marriage gets postponed, so the group pals around Karachi. They decide a hotel ($4 a night on the low end, says “Lonely Planet”) would be too expensive. Instead, they just crash at Binori Mosque.

A crazy coincidence the film didn’t have time to mention: Binori Mosque is the headquarters of Pakistan’s Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam organization. Mullah Omar studied there. And in the fall of 2001 it was recruiting volunteers to fight with the Taliban. Anyway, a few days later the guys happen to follow a crowd into another mosque, where a speaker is exhorting everyone to go to Afghanistan to “help” — and it sounded like a fun side trip. Winterbottom shows his subjects excited about their adventure; they’ve heard Afghan-style flatbread is great.

Describing this chapter, the three speak into the camera with steady, unelaborated lines, like high-school students describing what happened in a class they cut. Between compelling landscape shots, they say they didn’t expect a war would actually happen in Afghanistan. Though by the time they crossed the border on October 14, U.S. planes had been bombing the country for a week. They shuffle aimlessly through Kandahar and Kabul. The bombs are falling around them — here their expressions take life — but they decide to leave: They’re bored. They get on a bus they think will take them back to Pakistan, but of all the luck, it takes them to Kunduz, one of the Taliban’s last strongholds at the time. Another poor choice of rides, this time with a convoy of retreating Taliban soldiers, and the jig is up: They’re captured by the Northern Alliance, handed over to the Americans and flown to Cuba.

Most of the critics have noticed that Winterbottom was willing to suspend his judgment when retelling the Tipton Three’s epic of errors. Then, just as uniformly, they absolve him. The New York Times’s A. O. Scott writes that given what they say happened after they got to Camp X-Ray, “[the trio’s] ideological commitments are really beside the point…It’s not necessary to believe they’re good guys…to be appalled by their treatment.”

That treatment is awful. Heads shaved and bodies wrapped in orange jumpsuits, it becomes even harder to tell which of the dramatic re-enactors are in the frame, and what exactly happens to which. Collectively, they are blindfolded, tossed in wire cages, beaten, interrogated (endlessly, repetitively), lied to, put in solitary confinement, and made to kneel for hours while listening to high-decibel heavy metal.

To a point, commentators like Scott are right: Abuse is abuse. Whether inflicted on an al Qaeda lieutenant or an elementary-school crossing guard, it is wrong and beneath the ideals of America.

But The Road to Guantánamo doesn’t aim to make you contemplate legal precepts, or complicated notions of justice or retribution. If it was, Winterbottom could have started the film when the trio was captured in Afghanistan; let the audience assume they were jihadi volunteers, if not particularly serious ones; he could have avoided spraining his credibility by trying to make them look implausibly innocent. Since torture is torture, his point about the injustice of Guantánamo would still have been made.

The film couldn’t have been made that way because, above all else, Winterbottom’s goal was emotional: to make you seethe with anger at U.S. policy. And on the level of emotional reasoning — where viewers approximate the relative weight of actions, values, and attitudes by feel, and mete out what people deserve based on instinct — it makes all the difference that the Tipton Three were likely Taliban gunmen. When the good guys feel less good, the bad guys reflexively feel less bad.

If you can suspend your disbelief and embrace the innocence of the Tipton Three, The Road to Guantánamo might deliver the “righteous indignation” and “punch in the gut” feeling that most reviewers seem to have come away with. If not, the cruelty visited on the trio will be painful and reprehensible — but not sickening or infuriating.

The ambiguity that Winterbottom doesn’t see is the stuff of genuinely thrilling documentaries. Rent Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 Capturing the Friedmans: a crime as viscerally repulsive as either terrorism or state sanctioned brutality is dropped on viewers’ laps. The perpetrators are intermittently vile and sympathetic, and the justice system alternately unjust and understandable. You’ll remember it vividly for at least three years.

This is more than can be said for The Road to Guantánamo. A few years hence, when people are interested in documentaries about Cuban folk music again, it will be another clever but nearsighted period polemic. 

 – Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York.