In September 2001, a group of friends left Tipton, the UK, to travel to Pakistan and attend a wedding.

Hannah Patterson

Patterson is a screenwriter and producer. She has a background in film journalism and as commissioning editor of Creative Essentials, a series of books about filmmaking.

En route, their journey took a dramatic turn, and three of them ended up in a different destination: the US military base in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. They remained there, without legal representation or contact with their families, for over two years. Their story forms the basis of The Road to Guantanamo, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s drama-documentary, winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Employing a similar technique to Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void, the film intercuts dramatic reconstruction of events and TV footage with talking head interviews of the real Tipton Three – Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shariq Rasul. It’s a clever device which, when used to best effect as here, can create an empathic personal connection whilst also heightening a situation’s emotional drama.

Initially, the film is a light-hearted road movie. The boys banter amongst themselves and encounter the usual holiday annoyances. Then the tone shifts. With time to kill, they decide to cross the border into Afghanistan. They claim to offer charitable aid to families, not, as accused, to join the fight against the Northern Alliance. Once in Kabul, US bombs begin landing. Taking a minibus that’s supposedly heading towards Pakistan, they find themselves instead in the city of Kunduz, which is then surrounded by the troops of Afghan warlord General Dostum. It’s here that they are separated from the fourth member of their group, Monir Ali, who has not been seen since. Captured by Dostum’s men, they survive a massacre of prisoners, time sealed in containers where others suffocated, and a month in a Sherbargan prison.

Handed over to the US military, they are then flown to Guantanamo, and here the pace of the film slows. The prisoners are shown locked in big cages out in the open, under interrogation, and in solitary confinement, chained to the floor, forced to listen to loud music and endure strobe lighting. The overall atmosphere is pretty grim – both physically and mentally abusive – although moments of levity do occur, one in particular when Rasul is shown a video of himself at an Al Qaeda rally, shot on a day when he was working in a local shop in his home town.

Guantanamo has attracted accusations of anti-Americanism and one-sidedness. Yet the reconstructions by no means demonise all Americans; occasionally, the soldiers treat the prisoners with compassion, one stamping out a tarantula, another asking a prisoner to perform a rap song. And as Winterbottom has commented, his film unashamedly takes the stance of the Tipton Three’s lawyer in attempting to prove their innocence. Their decision to cross the border into Afghanistan may seem astonishingly naive, but the suggestion that they are guilty of being members of Al Qaeda becomes increasingly ludicrous as the narrative unfolds and, as the audience, we are left wanting justice for their treatment. If the film’s ultimate aim is to shine a light on an anomalous institution that infringes people’s rights, humanises “terrorists” and convinces us of the need for change, it is extremely effective. To date, the US army has not produced any evidence to contradict this argument.

 


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