If some people perceive “The Road to Guantanamo” as being anti-American, there is nothing wrong with that. You cannot watch the film and come away as pro-American – or at least supportive of the brutal, disastrous and utterly stupid American government policies being carried out under the banner of so-called war on terrorism.
“The Road to Guantanamo” is based on a terrifyingly true story about four your British citizens of Pakistani heritage. They fly to Pakistan in late September of 2001 for the wedding of one of the four, but while there they abruptly decide to take a trip across the border to Afghanistan. The reason for this sojourn is supposedly based on a Pakistani imam’s calls for relief workers to aid the beleaguered Afghan people.
This side trip was an act of both naivete and stupidity – the young men seem unaware of the mounting war that is engulfing Afghanistan, nor do they have the good sense to turn back when the American bombing of Afghanistan begins. In the tumult that follows, they are trapped in the country and one of the quartet becomes lost from the others (his fate remains unknown). The other three are rounded up by the so-called Northern Alliance soldiers and handed over to the American military occupiers. Even though the men are British citizens, they are treated like al-Qaeda terrorists and are routinely tortured as part of their imprisonment. They are eventually shipped to the American military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held for two years of endless interrogation and torture. Eventually, their U.S. captors were forced to admit there was no basis for their imprisonment and they were released to Great Britain.
Directed in a cinema verite style by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, “The Road to Guantanamo” is not perfect by any stretch. None of the men have individual personalities, which is curious since the real ex-prisoners appear throughout the film to speak to the screen about what their actor-counterparts are experiencing. It is a disconcerting effect, sort of a like a “Real World Guantanamo,” and it is not helped by the fact the real men (known later in their country as “The Tipton Three”) have more personality than the actors playing them.
Also, the film seems to soften a great deal of the brutality which the U.S. military poured on them. We see examples of the blatant and pointless physical torture (with kicks to the midsection, heads pounded into the ground) and the emotional abuse (a lot of yelling and name calling). But the more humiliating and painful aspects of their imprisonment are only shown in relatively brief snippets – the sensory deprivation devices strapped to their heads for their flight from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, the horror of being chained to a floor in a dark room while blaring rock music deafens them for hours on end. Certain aspects of this nightmare are stated in the film’s press kit but are not shown in the film, such as showers lasting no more than two minutes and meals which are yanked away one-to-two minutes after they are given. There are two acts of very small kindness by Marine captors at Guantanamo (a snippet of taboo conversation and the stomping of a tarantula in the cell of one prisoner), but they seem like aberrations.
What is on screen, however, is clearly disturbing enough to make any American wonder aloud what the hell is going on. The sight of American soldiers and marines acting like Nazi-style thugs is horrible enough – and the fact they’ve achieved zero results for their bullying is even pathetic (to date, no man held at Guantanamo has been convicted by a court of law of being an al-Qaeda terrorist). The British government’s complacency in this matter is equally difficult to stomach. And for that matter, where is the Red Cross? The three prisoners don’t seem to have anyone on their side at all (or at least not in this film).
As of this writing, Osama Bin Laden is still alive and at liberty. Afghanistan under the U.S. occupation is a shambles; only the opium trade is thriving. Taliban forces still operate openly in vast sectors of their country. In Guantanamo, some 500 men are being held in violation of U.S. and international law. “The Road to Guantanamo” is an alarm gong that reverberates with lethal force – time, energy and money has been wasted in torturing innocent people while the genuine enemies to American security remains at large. For telling America to acknowledge how far the country has deviated from its values and how painfully it has failed to make the world safer, this is the most important movie of the year.