Riz Ahmed as Shafiq
Farhad Harun as Ruhel
Waqar Siddiqui as Monir
Afran Usman as Asif Iqbal
Arfan Usman as Asif
Shahid Iqbal as Zahid
Sher Khan as Sher Khan
Jason Salkey as Military Interrogator Sheberghan
Jacob Gaffney as Kandahar Interregator #1
Mark Holden as Kandahar Interrogator #2
Duane Henry as Guard #1
William Meredith as Guard #2
Payman Bina as Guard #3
Adam James as SAS Interrogator
Ian Hughes as MI5 Interrogator
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross
Michael Winterbottom’s stirring docudrama is up there with Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” as one of the most powerful and effectively done post-9/11 films.
In September 2001, four Pakistani friends from Tipton, England went to Pakistan for a friend’s wedding. On a day trip into Afghanistan, they’re arrested and accused of having connections to Al Qaeda then exported to the Camp Delta prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Imprisoned for two years without substantiated charges and forced to deal with all sorts of torture and indignities, they were finally released. Their story is told in this innovative docudrama.
You gotta love Michael Winterbottom. Well on his way to becoming this generation’s Stanley Kubrick with his widely eclectic and diverse body of work, he never shirks from taking on the most challenging topics and making the most controversial decisions.
After 9/11, many people of Muslim descent were jailed and deported from America, but it was far from a localized effort, as troops in Afghanistan were questioning and imprisoning anyone with possible connections to Al Qaeda. A true hot topic of the moment, “Road to Guantanamo” has the potential to be as controversial as Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” in how it handles the topic in a rather pointed political fashion. Codirecting with his regular collaborator Matt Whitecross, Winterbottom uses the opportunity to create a film that’s both timely and relevant to what’s going on the world right now, taking a cue from the excellent “Touching the Void” by interspersing interviews with the real-life Tipton Three with a dramatization of what happened to them.
For the most part, it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for three friends who travel to Pakistan for a wedding and cross the border to Afghanistan on a lark to see what’s really going on there. Realizing how bad the ensuing war has gotten, they try to return to Pakistan, end up on the wrong truck and are nearly killed for the mistake. (One of the four friends was left behind in Afghanistan, never to be seen again.) Things get worse when American troops show up and imprison them for having connections to the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It’s not quite clear how things got so bad, but the three men, all of whom speak English, have criminal records back in England, which certainly doesn’t make their denials of guilt very trustworthy to their jailers.
Things get far worse when they’re blindfolded and shipped off to Cuba, where they’re placed quite literally in kennels in the broiling sun. They’re not allowed to speak, stand or pray, and they’re subjected to shabby treatment and all sorts of tortures to get them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, while still not having any official charges filed against them.
Since the whole story is told from the viewpoint of the imprisoned men, who actually sued President Bush over the incident, it’s going to seem slightly biased. Even without any corroboration or rebuttal from the U.S. military, it’s not hard to believe that something like this could happen in the post-9/11 environment where a lot of people overreacted, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how ridiculous the whole thing is.
The film is technically impressive more for Winterbottom’s efforts to shoot in real MidEast locations and recreate settings like Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay than for its production values, and in that sense, it’s often hard to watch the unflinching way the camera captures the mistreatment of the prisoners and their interrogation. There are a few amusing bits used to lighten up the harsh tone of the piece, but they seem rather out of place and inappropriate. The way the film flashes back to better times in the guys’ lives as a means to endure the situation works slightly better, and the film ends on a terrific epilogue documenting the three survivors’ return to Pakistan after the ordeal.
Although the three actors who play the imprisoned Pakistanis all do a great job, you never get the impression that you’re watching real events transpiring. The illusion tends to be marred by the actors playing American soldiers and their interrogators who all overdo it a bit, which is what keeps this from being as effective as “United 93.” Still, it does get the point across very well and is likely to leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees it.
The Bottom Line:
This timely docudrama is slow but effectively unveils the indignities faced by imprisoned Muslims at Guantanamo Bay from a first hand account. While it’s often questionable how partial and unbiased a piece like this can possibly be, it’s sure to open many eyes and minds.