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Road to Guantanamo, The
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by PaulBryant

"Road to Perdition."
5 stars

The American military camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which for years have operated as brutal prisons in which suspects of various crimes against the U.S. have been arbitrarily detained, inhumanely treated, and illegally sequestered from family and legal counsel, is a major blight on the face of a country that tries at every juncture to promote itself as a champion of human rights. Director Michael Winterbottom, who makes an extraordinary amount of extraordinarily different films, knows this about Guantanamo and has made a superbly effective docudrama that gets us as close as most civilians are likely to get to the camps without publicly declaring jihad. Of course, as the film harrowingly shows, thanks to America’s current administration and the hyper-paranoid years that have followed 9/11, it can take far less than public declarations of America-hate in order to find yourself one of the hundreds of luckless souls at Gitmo who spend their days in tiny cells and weighty shackles.

Emerging from the pack of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay who in the administration’s eyes suffer from wrong-place/wrong-time/wrong-religion/wrong-lastname/wrong-skincolor syndrome, are Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Ruhel Ahmed, three young English Muslims who found themselves in Afghanistan in the months after 9/11. The good news is that they avoided the bombs that were destroying the region at the time of their visit – except for one of their other friends, Masir, who disappeared during an transition from vehicle to vehicle and has not resurfaced – the bad news is that they were rounded up by American and British troops who, upon hearing they crossed into Afghanistan from the Pakistan border without proper clearance or even a very good reason, subjected them to a round of questioning (I use the term loosely) about their motives and affiliations. Not satisfied, the three men – now referred to as the “Tipton Three” – and a bevy of anonymous others (who are suspected Taliban, naturally, but its not as if their political affiliations are tattooed on their arms), are soon carted off on a military-plane out of Afghanistan and into the infamous American-occupied portion of southern Cuba.

I’m not going to go into too many details of the abuses they suffer in Guantanamo – which range from disastrously psychological viciousness to routine physical battering – except to say that it is at once ire-raising and embarrassing to watch. The men are left with black bags over their heads and orange jumpsuits covering their bodies, and left to swelter in the sun. Occasionally they are chained to the floor, hands between feet, in a black room which pounds heavy metal music at obscene volumes and is sporadically illuminated by strobe light. We only glimpse this scene for about 30 seconds, and the effect is thoroughly nauseating. Who knows how long the real men were left there, chained to the floor, unable even to sit down, with nothing to do but suffer and think about how many more times this could happen unless they confess to being Taliban fighters.

Choosing to crosscut the film with documentary interviews with the real Tipton Three and re-enactments of the stories they tell, is an extremely effective way for Winterbottom to bring the audience in to a story that is somewhat inaccessible. Of course, it also opens the film up to a certain amount of scrutiny from people who will say, What the fuck were these guys thinking going in to Afghanistan in the first place, and What is their real political motivation. However, as naïve – and in hindsight, somewhat stupid – these guys were when they decided to head off to Kandahar for kicks, it doesn’t for one second excuse what is the really important issue at hand: the despicable brutality and arbitrary detainment of men in Guantanamo. The film isn’t about What were three Brits doing in Afghanistan, it’s about What are the Americans doing in Cuba.

The US government has tried to justify the injustices by claiming that these men are not prisoners of war – as they aren’t uniformed members of any nation state – and so do not have to be protected under the Geneva Conventions. Of course, following the endless stream of political rhetoric, Winterbottom cannot help but include a video clip of Donald Rumsfeld (Rummy, to buddies) who, when questioned about the possible abuse of human rights committed by US soldiers, opined that the Geneva Conventions were being adhered to “for the most part.” In other words, the administration in charge plays on both sides of the fence, claiming to be able to commit whatever atrocities they want due to loopholes in the Geneva Conventions, while trying to tidy things up by saying that things are mostly going okay. It is only according to this kind of bogus logic that the administration gets away with saying that things are going okay in Iraq for the most part, too.

And speaking of things going well for the most part, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about the country all this stuff is happening in: Cuba, a country who probably says the same thing about its own ideas of justice. The fact that the place where the US commits such heinous abuses of human rights and freedoms is located in Cuba – a country whom the States continues to hold under brutal economic sanctions because, among other reasons, they believe Cuba to be a country which violates its own citizens’ basic human rights and freedoms – is an instance of political irony that is little short of Orwellian. The way the US has treated Cuba and treated people in Cuba is indicative of a massive campaign of hypocrisy that dissolves away any “higher ground” upon which the American government (and particularly the Bush’s rhetoric-laden administration) claims to sit morally. This is why when George W. describes the men in Guantanamo as “bad guys” who “don’t share the same values as us,” we chuckle at his ignorance of how massively paradoxical such statements are.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss the film and not highlight the wave of anti-Islamic sentiment that has infected the Western world since 9/11 and the terrorist events that have since followed in Europe. The ability for some to see the imprisonment of Muslim men at Guantanamo as justified in the current climate of post-9/11 is just astonishing, mostly because such people fail to see how things of this nature no doubt fuel the fire of anti-American sentiment abroad as well as in North America. It is this type of Islamophobia that causes some people to see the recent “Danish cartoons” as a simple product of free speech (which they are, however tasteless), and yet see the case of David Irving, the historian who is locked in an Austrian jail for publicly denying the Holocaust, as justifiable. In other words, your speech is free when it defames Islam, but not when it ignores history. This line of anti-Islamic reasoning, taken in different context, is the only reason why Guantanamo continues to function to this day.

The camps at Guantanamo are, naturally, an extreme form of this double standard and political hypocrisy. They are an embarrassment, and make the climate for extremism (in all its social and political forms – not just religious) that much headier. The Road to Guantanamo isn’t without its flaws – which come mainly in a few scenes of the reenacted interrogations which don’t ring true – but with the recent suicides of three Guantanamo inmates and the Supreme Court finally ruling against the camp only last week, it is timely, essential viewing.

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originally posted: 07/09/06 08:27:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2006 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/02/06 deathdealer all detaines should be beheaded on al jazeera 1 stars
7/15/06 michael see some of what's really happening in the real world 5 stars
7/10/06 Poop Dog It fell out of my ass 1 stars
5/07/06 Jon Wynne must see 5 stars
4/30/06 Jack Stewart Riveting and very timely. 5 stars
4/24/06 Steven Spielberg Absolutely Amazing And True To Life! 5 stars
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  23-Jun-2006 (R)
  DVD: 24-Oct-2006



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