The Road to Guantánamo (2006)

The first order of business for the new Congress should be to restore the [Guantánamo] detainees’ right to habeas corpus. It’s a vital mechanism for preventing abuse of detainees and for protecting people who shouldn’t be in detention.

— Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch (5 January 2007)

On Tuesday, 2 January 2007, the FBI released over 200 pages of documents detailing 26 eyewitness accounts by agents of detainee abuse at Guantánamo Bay. The documents, obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the Bureau decided not to investigate further 17 of these abuses, and that some targeted detainees’ religious beliefs, for instance, desecration of the Koran, and the wrapping of one man’s head in duct tape because “he would not stop quoting the Koran.”

On 11 January, 2007, the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for five years. That such abuse persists is dismaying, if not precisely surprising. Repeatedly, the administration has rejected claims that it is holding prisoners illegally (without charges, without evidence, without access to lawyers or any sort of due process), instead asserting that those in detention are “the worst of the worst.” A catchall phrase as meaningless as it is extreme, the label indicates to many observers, lawyers, activists, and released prisoners the administration’s arrogance and carelessness, its disregard of the very “rights” it purports to be defending by its war.

Among the released prisoners are the Tipton Three, Shafiq Rasul, Ruhel Ahmed, and Asif Iqbal, imprisoned from 2002 to 2004. Their story is retold in Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ remarkable The Road to Guantánamo (released to an extrasless DVD in October 2006). The former prisoners recount alarming abuses at Camps X-Ray and Delta; even more extraordinary is the “process” by which they were “renditioned” into US custody. While the movie has been termed a “docudrama,” for its mix of reenactments, interviews, and archival news footage, it is not nearly so easy or easygoing about “truth” as such a label suggests. The film’s complex form corresponds to its story, in the sense that “truth” is precisely what troubles it.

Just so, the film opens with a now infamous pronouncement by President Bush, during a 2003 presser with Tony Blair. “The only thing we know for certain,” he says, “is that these are bad people.” The joint statement here proclaims the need for the secret methods of the detention camp, premised on this so-called “certain” knowledge of morality, intent, and identity. As the film goes on to show, nothing could be more uncertain than what the administration claims to “know”. To introduce this question, it cuts from the two designer-suited world leaders in front of microphones to Asif Iqbal (played here and in other reenactment scenes by Arfan Usman), in his Nike t-shirt, brushing his teeth. The camera follows him in his small apartment as he readies for a trip, an ominous thrum on the soundtrack; the real Asif recalls that he was headed to Pakistan to “get married,” according to his parents’ wishes.

Asif brings along his friends Ruhel 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 US is responding quickly and aggressively to the events of 9/11, these young men, typically wrapped up in their young-menness, remain unconcerned, seeking diversions and going on side trips without imagining consequences. Following a chance encounter at a mosque where they spend on night, they end up in Afghanistan as the bombing starts. Needless to say, they’re surprised.

As the film builds to this first point of crisis, it includes news reports concerning the targeted Taliban and reenactments of the boys shopping in Kurachi, Pakistan. Once in Kunduz (“November 2001” reads the skritchy subtitle) the reenactments turn hectic, with night vision effects, shouting and shooting, explosions and panics. The next morning, unable to find their way out of the desert, they begin to help bury bodies. Again, the film cuts from footage to reenactment, as Asif recalls his reaction: “And you could hear people screaming, and every person I come across, basically, either his legs were blown away or his stomach was popping out or his arms come off. When someone’s in agony and you can’t do nothing for them, it’s like, it affects you in a big way.”

Little does he anticipate how badly he will be affected. He and his friends are soon picked up by Northern Alliance fighters, who hand them over to US forces. “Have you seen Back to the Future?” the present-time Asif asks at one point, grasping at wild fictions to describe his experience. As the prisoners in Afghanistan watch through bars — the camera taking their points of view — Ruhel, in a Gap sweatshirt, kneels before an American Army officer in combat uniform. “What is your name?” asks the officer. “Where are you from?” On hearing the answer, the officer almost laughs, off screen. “Where in fuck is Tipton?” The kid speaks English. He’s from England. And he’s on a trip with his “mates”. The officer assures him that US custody is a “safe” place to be. And then he instructs his men to search Ruhel.

Transported for days in planes, trucks, and buses, they’re eventually interned at Guantánamo for over two years. (At the end of their ordeal, they were released without charge.) Composed according to a sort of America’s Most Wanted-ish surrealism, The Road to Guantánamo offers recollection rather than “fact”, generating a sense of anxious immediacy by means of direct address and observational camerawork. The detainees outfitted in orange jumpsuits and hoods, deprived of all contact with the outside world — come to embody the harrowing lack of context and surfeit of rhetoric that shape the war on terror.

The Americans use tactics so brutal and ridiculous they’d 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. Though they submit to these abuses, when a guard begins kicking a Koran, the prisoners leap to their feet and begin yelling in outrage (again, suggesting that religion-based offenses are most “effective” and most insidious). “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.

As talking heads, Ruhel, Shafiq, and Asif narrate their memories while the film illustrates in handheld-camera images accompanied by percussive, urgent-seeming soundtrack. The story is sometimes unbelievable: how could they have ended up in such a terrible time and place, by accident? How could the US authorities have been so wholly complicit in such horrors? “You are now the property of the US 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 ex-prisoners yet have no legal or political recourse. They can’t provide “proof” of their abuses, except as their own testimony. They say now that they’ve been named “terrorists”, they can’t return to Tipton. The US has released no records or other information to confirm their stories. The interrogations and treatments at the camps are designed to fragment 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. (This facet of the story — the fracturing of truth and sensibility, the disruption of time — brings to mind the current situation of José Padilla, a US citizen and alleged al-Qaida operative imprisoned by the US for 3 1/2 years, scheduled to undergo psychiatric tests within the coming week in order to decide his competence to stand trial; the defense hired two mental experts who have concluded that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist his attorneys.)

However you understand or rearrange the film’s various truths in your own mind, they comprise a devastating series of events and mistakes (still, unadmitted by the US, as demonstrated by Pentagon spokesman’s dismissal of the recently released FBI documents as “not new”). When the Three are first picked up in Kunduz, “the middle of nowhere”, they lose track of their friend Monir (a final epigraph says his fate remains unknown).

Some 400 prisoners remain locked up at Guantánamo. As Mukul Sharma writes in “Guantánamo Bay – A Legal Black Hole“, under such indefinite detention the detrimental “potential psychological impact” on detainees looms large (6 January 2007). “In the `war on terror,'” he writes, “governments are not only using torture and ill-treatment, they are making the case that this is justifiable and necessary. Those who claim to set their human rights standards high are at the forefront of this assault.”

“I’m from Washington,” asserts a woman interrogator in The Road to Guantánamo, presumably identifying herself as a source of truth, or more accurately, power. She shows Shafiq a videotape of a rally in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden speaks. Shafiq protests that he was working in England throughout 2000, the date on the tape, that he can prove he was not in Afghanistan. She looks at him, her eyes widening: “I can see you on the tape in Afghanistan in 2000,” she states, as if making it fact by sheer force of will. The real Shafiq speaks: “The woman who was in there said to me, ‘We’ve put people in isolation for years and eventually they’ll break.'” He endured isolation, and can now tell his story. Released, Asif sighs, “It’s time to move on.” But others remain behind, with no end of their time in sight. Among the film’s closing images is the sign on Camp Delta’s gate: “Honor bound to defend freedom”.

RATING 9 / 10