Coming on the heels of President George W. Bush’s May 8th remarks that he would like to close the prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, pending the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on how prisoners there would be tried (www. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12675642/), and the recent suicides of three Guantanamo detainees on June 11th comes Michael Winterbottom’s award-winning film, The Road to Guantanamo. It opens in theaters nation-wide on June 23.
The gritty drama/documentary tells the story of the “Tipton Three”, Ruhal Ahmed, now 24, Asif Iqbal, 24, and Shafiq Rasul, 28, and the tortures they endured at the hands of the U.S. military while in confinement first at Camp X-Ray and then at Camp Delta from early 2002 until their release in 2004. The three Britons of Pakistani parentage, two of whom were teenagers at the time of their capture by the Afghanistan Northern Alliance in the weeks following 9/11, were in Pakistan for Asif’s wedding. While staying at a mosque rather than a hotel to save money they joined a large group of men going to Afghanistan to help their brothers.
(From the dramatization of the film)
While most Americans would deem it unthinkable to travel to Pakistan, never mind Afghanistan, following 9/11, “The young men did not speak the language, Urdu,” according to filmmaker Michael Winterbottom at a question/answer session following a screening on June 18th sponsored by Amnesty International. “They were young, not politically astute, and at the mercy of the people from the mosque that they were with. They probably thought it was an adventure or charity work they were going to do.”
Althoughthe men were able to account for their presence in Great Britain before arriving in Pakistan, (one was on probation and made consistent court appearances between 2000 and 2001; another worked), they were detained in unthinkable conditions without access to lawyers or even a phone call to their families while in prison. They were never charged with any crime.
“All non-Afghans were considered enemy combatants once the U.S. began its offensive,” Jumana Musa, Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for Domestic Human rights and International Justice, told the same audience. “In a crude ‘scooping up process’ the U.S. was paying $5,000.00 for each non-Afghan they turned into U.S. and British forces by the Northern Alliance. Once they were in Guantanamo they were considered terrorists.”
“These men were not radical and not religious,” said Musa. “If you were a foreigner in Afghanistan, you were going to Guantanamo.”
The central theme of the film, however, is the dramatization of the prison regime in Guantanamo, the torture, isolation, and the absurd interrogations these young men endured while incarcerated. “You can change the terms to ‘stress positions” or loud music’ or use of ‘strobe lights’, but when you understand what these mean and how they were used together, they constitute torture to the rest of the world,” continued Musa.
Director Winterbottom, who won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear this year for the film, used a small crew of six or seven to make the film. When asked why he has a co-director (Mat Whitecross), Winterbottom responded, “He did everything I didn’t do. Once the young men agreed to the film, he spent a month with them, taking down hundreds of pages of transcript for the story. We had to compress much repetition (e.g. the interrogations) into the film’stimeframe to tell the story.” Winterbottom chose to use actors for the dramatization,recreating Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta, and the actual testimonies of the three men throughout which constitutes the documentary dimension of the film.
While the film offers much detail about the journey of the three young men (they started out as five) that is not always easy to follow, the film is effective and heart-breaking. One audience member asked how much dramatic license had been taken for the film and Winterbottom replied that it is based on the transcripts of the young men’s story, and they and their lawyer’s have seen it. He believes it is factual and true, though compressed for the film.
Winterbottom noted that none of the three men wanted to come to the United States to promote the film and that the poster for the film had to be changed. “We couldn’t use a picture with a hood on a man’s head; it was thought to be too upsetting.” At the end of the film each of the three men say what they learned from this experience. The lack of anger was impressive. One said that while before he was never religious, he has become so. The young man with the police record said this experience changed his life completely. And Asif, who did finally marry a young woman in Pakistan, said that it was time to move on with his life.
“Some detainees in Guantanamo are bad guys,” attested Musa, who has visited there with other NGO’s, but not allowed access to any prisoners and permitted only to see the remains of Camp X-ray from a distance and to be driven around the perimeter of Camp Delta. “But this doesn’t excuse throwing out the rule book” for the treatment of prisoners.
The Road to Guantanamo is astonishing on one level, and deeply evocative on another. I felt a great sadness and the burden of this knowledge. The film is a serious and worthy contributionto the growing filmography or genre about human rights violations ongoing in the world.AmnestyInternational hopes that people will talk about the film and to raise awareness. More information is available on their website, www.amnestyusa.org and educational materials area available on the film’s website: www.roadtoguantanamomovie.com.