Road to Guantanamo, TheReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 02/23/07 15:42:25
(Worth A Look)
In 'Midnight Express,' American audiences were horrified by the story of a young American man captured and tormented by brutal Turks. Now, in 'The Road to Guantanamo' — co-directed by controversialist Michael Winterbottom with Mat Whitecross — American audiences can be horrified by the story of three young Arabic men captured and tormented by brutal Americans.The Road to Guantanamo is not a complex work; we're clearly meant to take the protagonists' word on faith, and a certain portion of the audience is all too ready to believe that the U.S. can and does detain innocents indefinitely and subject them to various physical and psychological ordeals just out of sheer righteous belligerence. We meet four young men, one of whom, Asif, is a British citizen with family in Pakistan. Asif wants to go back to his homeland to get married, and three of his friends accompany him. Through a series of mishaps and errors, the men end up on a van headed straight into Taliban territory in Afghanistan — in October 2001, when the U.S. commences its attack on the country.
These specific men may or may not be as innocent as they portray themselves; the details are sometimes fuzzy. But we're also meant to be outraged at the idea of innocent men being caught up in the sloppy sweep of swarthy faces (in the nervous, trigger-finger aftermath of 9/11, Arab = Al Qaeda), and we are, because we have no doubt that it's happened and continues to happen. The first half-hour of The Road to Guantanamo is set-up, and its remaining hour is unrelieved suffering. The men are degraded, humiliated, literally ground into the dirt; they are subjected to extremes of heat and cold, forced to maintain agonizing positions for hours, pushed around while wearing the now-famous hoods. Winterbottom and Whitecross do their best to put us inside the experience, and it fills us with a cold fury.
The American (and sometimes British) officials who handle the detainees at Guantanamo are brusque, blinkered types who ask the same questions over and over, using lies ("Your friends told us you're a member of Al Qaeda") and manipulation to get the men to tell them what they want to hear. Sometimes they play good cop-bad cop; mostly what we see is bad cop. Occasionally there's an American soldier who isn't a screaming sadist, but rarely. As I said, this isn't a complex work — it's an effective bit of agitprop trying to highlight a reality most Americans don't want to look at even if they were officially allowed to. In any event, we experience the American captors as the captives themselves do; we've seen plenty of Iraq War films by now from the soldiers' point of view.
As docudrama characters, the men are somewhat blank, I assume by necessity as well as by design. It's easier for a wide audience (or at least as wide an audience as a film like this ever gets) to project themselves onto people without excess personality or quirks; that's why Midnight Express never told us a lot about Billy Hayes (of course, that film also misrepresented the case considerably, which is why, fairly or not, we approach something like The Road to Guantanamo with a grain of salt). Now and then, we get interview footage of the actual men, who present mostly impassive faces to the camera; they weren't going to spill their guts to the Americans, and they're not going to spill for a couple of filmmakers. They tell their stories blandly, and one of them actually says the experience made him a better person. (I appreciate the honesty of Winterbottom and Whitecross to include that bit.) They don't, in other words, give us the quivering-bottom-lip confessional gush we're conditioned to expect. They went through hell and they describe it to us impersonally, and they don't owe us anything else.You can argue with the movie's approach and thesis, but undeniably it etches a Kafka-esque nightmare for us and taps into our fear of being imprisoned and treated like animals for something we haven't done. These men, we're sure, will lead peaceful lives after their ordeal. But we're left to wonder if it occurred to anyone at Guantanamo that the whole machinery of torturing confessions out of random captives may not catch terrorists, but it may very well create them.
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