Road to Guantanamo, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/07/06 01:15:09
At some point or another, any intelligent film critic is forced to grapple with the question of art versus ideology in terms of providing critical analysis–if one finds a film to be simultaneously impressive on an aesthetic level but objectionable on a personal or political level, does one praise it because of the former or slam it because of the latter. Myself, I have always placed artistic concerns before ideological ones because that is what my job is supposed to be–if a film is thoughtful or entertaining, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that fact and praise it on that level even though I may find its politics to be appalling. (This is why I am perfectly content to admire the work of the cheerful right-wing John Milius despite my own left-leaning political bent.) With Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo,” I find myself facing the flip-side of that question by confronting a film that I completely agree with from an ideological standpoint but which has serious flaws from an artistic standpoint. Once again, I find myself leaning towards the side of art and I have to concede that while this is a film that I admire and respect from a sociological point of view, it is one that tries so hard to succeed as a polemic that it winds up falling short as a story.The film tells the story of the “Tipton Three,” a trio of young men–British citizens of Pakistani or Bangladesh descent–whose harrowing tale of their experiences as suspected Al Quaeda members imprisoned at the infamous U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay helped shine a light on the ongoing scandals involving the treatment of those even vaguely suspected of terrorist ties. Their tale begins in the days following 9/11 as one, Asif (Afran Usman), is sent off to Pakistan by his mother to get married and his three pals–Shafiq (Rizwan Ahmed), Ruhel (Farhad Harun) and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui)–decide to come along for the ride. After hanging around for a few days, the guys crash at a local mosque (only as a cost-cutting measure, they insist) and are subsequently inspired to travel into Afghanistan for a few days. This turns out to be a horrible mistake on their part as some of them fall ill, all of them get lost, one of them disappears and the rest find themselves caught up in a group of Taliban members who are captured by allied forces and imprisoned.
After their arrest, the three naively assume that their nightmare is at an end–eventually their captors will realize that they are British citizens who were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly for them, the presence of three English-speaking men among the Taliban forces sets off any number of alarms and they, along with others, are shipped off to Cuba and detained at Guantanamo. This was the start of a seemingly endless ordeal in which they were repeatedly drilled for information that they didn’t have and physically and psychologically brutalized for neither supplying such information nor confessing to being al-Quaeda members themselves. Even when they can claim they can prove that the main evidence against them is in error, they are repeatedly inflicted with any number of cruelties–at one point, one is chained to a floor while strobe lights are flashing and death metal is blasting–for a two-year period before they are finally released.
This is shocking material and even if one chooses to play pessimist by saying that the events were only half as bad as they claim, what we see is enough to inspire even the most conservative of viewers to rethink U.S. policies towards detainees. A film in which the men simply sit and calmly recount their ordeal while we in the audience try to picture what happened in our minds could have been an incredibly bold and powerful work of cinema and social commentary. The trouble with “The Road to Guantanamo” is that Winterbottom was apparently worried that such an approach simply wouldn’t be powerful enough to get his point across. Instead, he has taken a docu-drama approach to the material in which actors re-enact the material (occasionally in the actual locations where they happened) while also appearing in “interview” footage in which they further recount their stories. While this approach may give the material a far more immediate and visceral feel that the one I suggested, it also winds up inflicting an oddly distancing effect as well–since we are aware going in that these are actors recreating something instead of the real people, some of the punch is gone. One could argue that “United 93" was also a dramatic recreation that mixed real people and events with actors but that film, for the most part, told its story in an even-handed manner that gave it a documentary-like feel–here, Winterbottom is so insistent on rubbing our noses in the torture that it begins to take on a feeling of unreality.
A more fundamental flaw with “The Road to Guantanamo” is that Winterbottom is so hell-bent on illustrating the injustices that these three men went through that he eliminates any idea, discussion or suggestion that might possibly take away from that goal. We learn virtually nothing about these men that might provide any insight into who they are–including their thoughts at the time about America, the Taliban or 9/11 and its aftermath–and some of their actions, especially their decision to go into Afghanistan “to help” (as they put it), are so inexplicable that Winterbottom’s refusal to deal with them at all give the impression that somebody is hiding something and that there may be more to the story than what meets the eye. Of course, their personal beliefs shouldn’t have any bearing on the ordeal they went through–unless each of them was captured with a severed head in one hand and a Sidehack with Osama’s phone number in the other, they should not have been apprehended and mistreated in the manner that they underwent–but by painting them as blameless angels instead of actual human beings in order to create a more immediate sense of sympathy and horror, Winterbottom takes the easy way out and winds up doing a great disservice to his film.This is all the more frustrating because Michael Winterbottom is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working in the world today and one who is usually willing to take the kind of dramatic risks that most of his contemporaries would shy away from. In films as varied as “Welcome to Sarajevo,” “24 Hour Party People,” “In This World,” “9 Songs” and “Tristram Shandy,” he has given viewers challenging works that have effectively blended the techniques of fictional and documentary filmmaking in intriguing and thought-provoking ways. (Even his rare outright failures, such as “9 Songs,” are usually more interesting than the best works of too many other directors to mention.) “The Road to Guantanamo” has clearly been made with passion and anger and sincerity but in this case, those qualities simply aren’t enough to overcome its other weaknesses. Winterbottom may have wanted to produce a stirring and eye-opening bit of cinematic agitprop but all we are left with is little more than a vaguely leftist version of “Hostel.”
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