[23 June 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“The only thing we know for certain is that these are bad people.” The Road to Guantánamo begins with this assessment by George Bush, made back in 2003 under the color of a joint statement by his administration and that of Tony Blair. The footage is cut to show Blair seeming surprised, or maybe caught off-guard, or maybe knowing exactly what’s going on.
Such ambiguity is familiar in the War on Terror, where a lack of context and surfeit of rhetoric shape politics. Whether you read Bush’s expression as smirky or earnest, the “coalition forces” as a sincere assembly of nations or a politically useful label for U.S. policy, and this declaration as insight or willful ignorance, this moment at the start of Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s harrowing film sets a grim context for what follows.
That would be the story of the Tipton Three, 20-year-old British Muslims picked up in Kunduz, Afghanistan in November 2001 and held at various facilities, eventually Guantánamo, for two years, then released without charge. Here they recall their experiences in talking-head segments, while the film illustrates particular moments with reenactments. Arranged according to a sort of America’s Most Wanted-ish surrealism, Road to Guantánamo artfully affords recollection and immediacy, direct address and observation. All of it—the abuses and the endlessness—makes a convincing case that a stay at Guantánamo brings on severe and understandable depression, even suicidal depression. And all of it gives the lie to the “spin” recently applied to the three suicides at the camp, that they were a “PR stunt” or an “act of war.”
Asif Iqbal (played in the flashback scenes by Arfan Usman) sets up the situation. Living in England, he agrees to his mother’s desire that he got to Pakistan where his father lives, in order to undertake an arranged marriage. He brings along his friends Ruhal Ahmed (Farhad Harun) and Shafiq Rasul (Riz Ahmed), and once in the Middle East, they are joined by Monir (Waqar Siddiqui) and Shafiq’s cousin Zahid (Shahid Iqbal). Though it’s October 2001 and the U.S. is responding quickly and aggressively to the events of 9/11, these young men, predictably wrapped up in their young-menness, remain unconcerned, heading off on diversions without imagining consequences. And so, when they end up in Afghanistan as the bombing starts, they’re surprised.
Their responses appear in a kind of “doubled time,” that is, Ruhal, Shafiq, and Asif remember what happened as the film illustrates their memories in appropriately difficult images. The film’s digital video aesthetics—dim night scenes, handheld camerawork, skritchy captions to mark dates and places—recall Winterbottom’s film about an Afghan refugee seeking work in Britain, In This World, but the tone also recalls his science fiction essay, Code 46, in the sense that the government’s utter inflexibility makes the situation seem quite incomprehensible. (“Have you seen Back to the Future?” the present-time Asif asks at one point, grasping at wild fictions to describe the reality.) The very illegibility of the movie’s representational process, you imagine, approximates the assaults on the prisoners.
Such approximation works variously. As the prisoners yet have no legal or political recourse, they are unable to provide “proof” of their abuses, except as their own testimony. The U.S. has released no records or other information to confirm their stories. Moreover, interrogations and treatments at the camps are designed to fragment/rearrange experience, to dislocate and/or discover identities, to press for “truth” in the face of canny deceptions: as clear as this aim seems in both the interviews and the reenactments, it also suggests that precise dates and events might be jumbled.
All that said, The Road to Guantánamo reveals a devastating series of events and mistakes (unadmitted by the U.S.). When they are first picked up in Kunduz, “the middle of nowhere,” the men lose track of their friend Monir (and indeed, an ending epigraph reveals that his fate remains unknown). Following a nighttime bombing raid, the scattered men wake in the morning and regroup, back where they started, the landscape now strewn with bloody bodies and body parts. The scene is astounding: one man recalls seeing soldiers throwing corpses into a mass grave, and including people not yet dead among those buried. They’re rounded up and led into containers, where the heat is unbearable. Within minutes, they realize that the pounding they hear is gunfire: the Northern Alliance troops are firing on the containers, leaving air holes (through which filters shafts of white light) and bodies.
Briefly interned at the Sheberghan Prison, the three are handed over to the Americans when their captors hear them speak English. From here they are moved to Kandahar Airbase, then—newly clothed in orange jumpsuits—Camp X-Ray, and at last Camp Delta (a “purpose built facility,” as opposed to the outdoor cages they inhabit at X-Ray). “You are now the property of the U.S. Marine Corps,” they hear on their arrival in Cuba. And indeed, “property” is the operative word. The men at Gitmo are treated like animals and worse, a means of developing “intel.”
The Americans apply tactics so brutal and ridiculous they would be comic if not so horrific. These include stress positions, loud metal music and strobe lights, bags over prisoners’ heads, barking and biting dogs, runs around the yard while crouched over, porn magazines shoved in prisoners’ faces, and months in solitary confinement. While the prisoners buckle under their regular beatings, just trying to survive, when a guard begins kicking a Koran, the prisoners leap to their feet and begin yelling in outrage. In addition, they are repeatedly interrogated by characters who seem to have stepped out of a Steven Seagal movie (“I’m from Washington!” announces one cool blond woman). “Do you drink water?” they are asked, “Are you the fucking British traitor?” “Have you met Osama Bin Laden?” Again and again, prisoners are told they are Al-Qaeda, that their religion makes them suspects, that they attended a 2000 meeting where Bin Laden spoke (they’re shown video footage and told that figures on screen are them: “You said you were wearing an Adidas track suit!”).
The British government offers no help (though at least one of the three was officially under the jurisdiction of police, following arrest for a minor crime, on the day he was supposed to be meeting Bin Laden), and the men have no access to their families or lawyers. The film’s depiction of such appalling conditions—punctuated by Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious assertion that conditions in the camps are “consistent with the Geneva Convention, for the most part”—suggests a couple of things.
One, the prohibition of any substantive press coverage at Guantánamo (reporters were sent home following the three suicides in June, reportedly for their own safety), means that no one is accountable, ever. There has to be a way to show what goes on that does not necessitate The Road to Guantánamo‘s combinatory strategies. And two, definitions of “bad” and “good” need to be reconsidered. Or maybe just considered in the first place.