An Absence of Framework

An Interview with Michael Winterbottom

by Cynthia Fuchs

The 'war on terror' allows them to keep keeping people at Guantánamo until they decide the war on terror is over. So they've taken something that's an abstract idea that can actually go on forever, and that will, on a policy level, affect when people can be released.

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

+ “Forcing a Twist on Reality” by Onnesha Roychoudhuri

Michael Winterbottom sounds like he’s in a hurry. And no wonder, given the jolt of urgency his film, The Road to Guantánamo, has been given by recent events. Over the past month, he’s appeared on cable news programs and radio in support not only of the film and his interview subjects, the former Guantánamo prisoners known as the Tipton Three, but also to urge the closing of Guantánamo prisons. When he took on the project, he knew he wanted to address this current issue in a way that might engender real world effects. But following the suicides of three Camp Delta detainees in June, attention to The Road to Guantánamo increased, as it did again following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against using military commissions without due process for detainees in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld.

The 45-year-old Winterbottom is famously prolific and often provocative, having made some 14 films in the past 10 years. These include last year’s brilliantly deconstructive Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, as well as Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), The Claim (2000), In This World (2002), and 24 Hour Party People (2002). Winterbottom sees the current release raising questions concerning the possibilities of representation, incorporating documentary, news, and political activism to expand the demands on all. While conventional journalism has so far been unable to do much more than show “permissible” footage from Cuba, he says, Road exposes three individuals’ stories, illustrated and narrated to convey real confusion, pain, and outrage.

The Road to Guantánamo—mixing interviews, news reports, and illustrative reenactments—seems an unusual and perhaps necessary way to get this story told, given the lack of access to prisoners still in Cuba and elsewhere.
I think the advantage of doing a film in this context was that you got three individuals. Obviously there have been 100s who have been through Guantánamo, and all of the news images have been very anonymous prisoners: they wear orange jumpsuits and are assigned numbers. So when the administration says, “These are the most dangerous terrorists in the world,” you don’t really know. This meant that even if you were shocked or worried about the fact that America had created this prison in Cuba in order to avoid American law or international law, you still sort of assumed that there were reasons, that these were obviously important terrorists.

But when you meet Ruhel or Asif, you see that they aren’t at all. Whatever other aspects you can understand about their story, they’re not international terrorists. So, it seemed good to use these three individuals’ experience to remind people that there are still 100s of other people left there, and they all have their own stories to tell. No one knows. Only 10 people, out of more than 700, have ever had any charges brought against them. The only way, really, of convincing people that there is a need for the prison is to put charges against [the detainees].

It appears that traditional journalism has been frustrated in telling such stories.
I think a lot of people within news, whether it’s TV or another form, do try to do their job, and try to bring people’s attention to it. But one thing I found while doing this was that there is a big difference between hearing about something, like, say, “stress positions,” and seeing or feeling what they are. When you try to recreate them, you find that what sounds a bit uncomfortable but not really too bad, is, after just two or three minutes, unbearable: the actors are genuinely screaming to be let out of that position. And the real people are kept like that for hours. Originally, I thought we’d be able to give the same conditions to the actors as the prisoners had, but we couldn’t come close. Not even just the way they’re shackled, but the way they’re brought in and out of their cells: it was all too painful, so we had to reduce it.

The administration’s language repeatedly reframes experience, partly because those detained are labeled “bad people,” and so deserve what they get, but also, as you’re suggesting, the euphemisms don’t convey what happens.
There was a whole debate within the administration about what constitutes “torture.” It has to be so serious you’re actually killing people before it counts as torture. This definition allows all these techniques to become permissible. And yes, there’s been a general use of language, and it hasn’t only changed people’s perceptions, but also it’s changed the way [administration representatives] can behave by changing the names of things. So, if you said, “Is America allowed to go around kidnapping people and subjecting them to torture?” the answer would obviously be no, because kidnapping’s illegal. But because they call it “extraordinary rendition,” it becomes something you can debate as to whether it’s policy or not. Similarly, the “war on terror” allows them to keep keeping people at Guantánamo until they decide the war on terror is over. So they’ve taken something that’s an abstract idea that can actually go on forever, and that will, on a policy level, affect when people can be released. When you declare a war of “good against evil,” you’ll never defeat evil. You’re never going to defeat terror in the abstract sense.

Especially when you keep defining it yourself.
Exactly. That’s why we included in the film a shot of the prison exterior. Outside the prison, which is built especially to avoid the system of trials, you have a sign with the motto, “Honor bound to defend freedom.” We’re in a world where words can be used to mean the exact opposite of what’s really there. Obviously it erodes language, but that’s not important when you have people who are being imprisoned indefinitely because we’re fighting this abstract war on terror. For those people, not convicted or even tried, it’s destroyed their lives.

To the point that, when the three prisoners killed themselves at Guantánamo in June, without any investigation, their deaths were deemed a “PR stunt,” or “acts of war.”
Yes, and there have been a lot of attempted suicides that have been reclassified to reduce the number of recorded attempted suicides. It is part of a general policy, to find ways to describe unpalatable things in language that seems more palatable.

I was struck by one of the interviewees’ comment toward the end of the film that he had “no regrets.”
Before this experience, Ruhel, Asif, and Shafiq weren’t particularly religious. In Guantánamo, they became religious, and they see that as a benefit. Religion gave them strength to carry on during their imprisonment and it gives them strength now.

How did you devise the structure of the film, as it uses different “layers” of narration in the film, including TV news reports, the interviews with the Three, and then the voiceover that describes them in the prison, by name?
When we first decided to make the film, the approach was, let’s just tell their story. What’s the most effective way to do this? We didn’t look at it from a very aesthetic point of view. When we decided the Three should be in the film, it took a while, because they weren’t sure they wanted to be in it. But as we had got all the interviews with them originally [to write the film], it seemed important to clarify that it was them telling their story. We thought viewers should see them, to get a sense of who they are. It’s such a long story, you kind of needed a narration, or you wouldn’t be able to understand what was going on. The recreations could then be illustrations rather than dramatizations, where you had to shape the scenes and create characters. I wanted to avoid all that [conventional storytelling], and use the images as a visual counterpart for their narration.

The news footage, then, was used to give them a context. So, for instance, in the middle of Kunduz, the Three don’t really know what’s going on outside, that the U.S. had started bombing. But it’s quite handy for the audience to know what’s going on. So it was partly a way for the genuine news reports to give context, to see where we are in the war. And also, one thing you can do in film which you can’t do in normal journalism is that you can get so much more of a sense of what Kabul or Camp Delta is like, or what the convoy is like, because you can show these places and events, even when there weren’t cameras at the original event. We were lucky to find places to recreate the prisons or other sites, so we could move from genuine archives—because there were cameras filming some of these incidents—to the recreations. It gives you a more vivid sense of what the event was like, which their narration doesn’t give you. Images give you so much more information, more quickly. When it came to Guantánamo, we had some archive material, which we used a little bit of, then we built the cells.

This also raises the question of how to put into visual form a very visceral, even intimate experience, an experience that’s at some level beyond language.
I think, in some ways, the section that was hardest was Guantánamo. At Camp X-Ray, the thing that was hardest is that they weren’t allowed to do anything. They literally had to sit still. That sense of not knowing where they were or what was going on—it was a completely bizarre experience. And then, the extremes of temperature, the discomfort, the immobility, the boredom, the confusion: all those things were incredibly important to them, but very hard to capture on film. There’s a limit to how long you can show something, especially in this sort of film, where you’ve got a lot of story to tell, so you want to tell everything as economically as possible. And you also want to convey, at least slightly, how disorienting all this must have been, and how stressful. That has to do with an absence of framework. So, in a way, the convoy leaving or being bombed is easier, because those events conform to ideas of what you can show in a film. Stories about people forced to sit for three or four hours a day on the ground, facing the same direction: those are harder to show in a traditional cinematic way.

Which is partly how the interrogation scenes are so jolting, as they show more conventional narrative interactions even as the questions are surreal and even unfathomable.
They had endless interrogations. They said that physically, the hardest place was Sheberghan and then Kandahar, But psychologically, Camp Delta was worst, because they had the sense that this was never going to end.

The Road to Guantanamo - Theatrical Trailer

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