Al Gore may be soaking up the spotlight with his doc du jour An Inconvenient Truth, but The Road to Guantanamo, opening today (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas, is a far more incendiary film and one that many Americans would do well to see.
Guantanamo tells a harrowing tale, and though it ends happily enough for the young Englishmen whose story it relates, it is full of anguish and anger on behalf of the potentially hundreds of innocent detainees who have not fared as well.
The film is part documentary, part dramatization. It tells the story of the “Tipton Trio,” three Englishmen of Pakistani origin who set out for their native country so that one of them can get married there. There were actually four of them at the start of the journey, but one vanished somewhere in Afghanistan, where the young men had traveled to be of some help to fellow Muslims caught in the crossfire between the United States and the Taliban.
They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, rounded up with a group of alleged Taliban soldiers, arrested by the Northern Alliance, turned over to the American military, and eventually shipped off to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were lucky to even make it that far, but that was far from the end of their troubles. At Guantanamo the trio was subjected to inhumane conditions and repeated interrogations. They were systematically humiliated, beaten, abused and degraded.
Though the story is dramatized, the action is interspersed with news footage and interviews with the Tipton Trio themselves. The technique may sound clumsy on paper but it works quite well, taking the simple, just-the-facts monologues of the young men and illustrating them with dramatic re-creations of their experiences.
The dramatized segments feature young actors with little professional experience, chosen because they reflected many of the same traits as the men they portray; they are young, adventurous, brash, not especially religious and certainly apolitical. They are just kids, really, caught up in something too dark and too vast to comprehend, and the casting of these young actors brings those qualities to the fore.
The film has already sparked controversy for its unflinching portrayal of the trespasses of the U.S. and British governments. Doubtless, its claims will be refuted, written off as politically-charged fantasies. But the tale is real.
It seems like just a few years ago that tales of abduction, torture, indefinite detention and unlawful imprisonment occurred only in far-off lands: criminal deeds done by lawless, totalitarian governments or shadowy drug cartels in exotic locales. But now the American government is in on the act, if not for the first time then certainly for the first time on such a grand scale.
Fahrenheit 9-11 kicked off this latest wave of political documentaries, but unlike that film and the many that followed in its wake—Outfoxed, The Corporation, Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost, and even An Inconvenient Truth—Road to Guantanamo is not so easy to dismiss as a politically motivated polemic, especially in light of the recent suicides at Guantanamo.
The film avoids many of the pitfalls of some of its recent predecessors, keeping the focus on the story itself rather than on the political players; George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair make only brief appearances.
The filmmakers spend little time recounting the How and the Why, instead focusing their cameras on their subjects and sticking to the What. Why distract the audience with the pale justifications, obfuscations and moral rationalizations of politicians? Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross dispense with the small talk and get right to the point, knowing that it is far more effective to simply stick to the facts, to simply show what happened to these men and leave spin to others. There is no more effective and affecting story to be told than the disturbing tale of how an unchecked government and an unwinnable war robbed these young men of more than two years of their lives.
But those two years were not wasted, for these men did not cave in; they did not give in to the temptation to ease their suffering by saying what their captors wanted to hear.
“It only made me stronger,” one of the men says in an interview, and the line received a round of applause from a recent San Francisco preview audience. This sense of irony is pervasive throughout the film, as we watch burly, ruthless Marines—“Honor-Bound to Defend Freedom,” as their slogan reads—systematically subverting every tenant of their democratic ideals in a misguided effort to protect freedom by destroying it.
At times the film draws uneasy laughter, as if it were simply a comedy of errors as the big, bad bully misses the forest for the trees, lording his power over the powerless while his world crumbles around him. It is truly bewildering and dispiriting to think of the U.S. Marines wasting the time and resources to ask a few clueless kids, over and over, “Where’s Osama?”
The film reinforces the realization that bin Laden has in fact achieved a crucial—if “asymmetric”—victory, having reduced the once-mighty United States to a nation of paranoia and recklessness, ruled by an increasingly undemocratic government bent on squandering its vast power and wealth in pursuit of the unattainable goal of an undefined victory over an unseen enemy.
But the military acts at the behest of our president, and our president prefers to paint with a broad brush, with good represented by white faces and evil represented by brown ones. The Tipton Trio never had a chance.
Even when evidence to the contrary rests right before their eyes, the Marines at Guantanamo see only what they want to see, choosing to gaze instead through the same polarizing lens favored by al Qaeda.
And for many Americans, that’s quite all right. “My country, right or wrong,” apologists say. But they never finish the quote, never include the words Missouri Sen. Carl Schurz used to modify the statement: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
A scene from the part documentary, part dramatization The Road to Guantanamo