BERLIN -- Four mates from the British Midlands embark on a wedding trip and side adventure in late September 2001 only to find themselves on "The Road to Guantanamo". This remarkable film by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross tracks the true story of these British citizens of Pakistani descent, using hundreds of hours of interviews so the story can come out, literally, in their own words.
The early sections are reminiscent of Winterbottom's astonishing "In This World" (2003), but the road picture soon turns into a war picture and then a prison picture as the men are incarcerated by U.S. forces convinced they are Taliban.
A tough, compelling, must-see movie, "The Road to Guantanamo" is headed for a Channel 4 airing in the U.K. As a consequence of that exposure along with its Berlin Festival competition screening and any possible honors, the film should get wider international distribution than "In This World" received. The film certainly exposes the Bush Administration's repeated assertions of their humane treatment of Islamic prisoners at extra-legal detention centers as a lie.
The film mixes staged and archival footage with recreations of the interviews with the three surviving men. Annoyingly, film does come without a writing credit, presumably because interviews supplied the stories, but clearly someone structured the events.
Just after 9/11, Asif Iqbal (Arfan Usman) sets out for Pakistan to meet the bride his mother found for him. When his best man calls to say he can't make the wedding, Asif calls another friend in England. Ruhel (Farhad Harun) agrees to be best man and he flies out with two other friends, Shafiq Rasul (Rizwan Ahmed) and Monir Ali (Waqar Siddiqui).
With some time on their hands, the four men visit a mosque and hear an Iman's call for men to travel to Afghanistan to give aid to the people. Foolishly, they jump on a bus headed for the border. They arrive in Afghanistan just in time to see the first American bombs hit. At one point during the chaos, they get separated from Monir, who is never heard from again.
The others are captured by Northern Alliance troops and shipped in containers where many die, before being turned over to U.S. forces December 28. They are beaten and tortured by American soldiers when they insist they are not terrorists or fighters. When one interrogator asks in all seriousness for the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, this provokes laughter in the theater that makes you want to weep: Is this what has become of U.S. intelligence?
The three Britons are eventually flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where they are held in detention for over two years, systematically tortured and accused of all sort of crimes. A female interrogator shows them bad video footage of an old rally attended by Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta and insists she can see all three sitting in the crowd. This is another of those laugh/cry moments.
Ironically, a police record back in England clears them. Two of the youths were on parole for minor offenses while Shafiq was working at an electrical superstore at the time they supposedly were in Pakistan cheering Bin Laden. The men were freed in England in March 2004.
Working on a budget a little over $2 million, Winterbottom and Whitecross superbly recreate these experiences in locations in Britain, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. There is little time for character or relationship development as events hit these young men fast. Similarly, the bullying American and British interrogators are all interchangeable.
The film doesn't really plead a political cause or moral crusade as show in persuasive dramatic terms what happened to these lads. It makes no attempt to enlarge the story beyond these men or to verify any of their claims. Continually, President Bush refers detainees at Guantanamo as "bad people." Clearly, these three were not.
THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO
Directors/editors: Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross
Producer: Melissa Parmenter
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: Mark Digby
Music: Molly Nyman, Harry Escott
Costumes: Esmaeil Maghsoudi
Ruhel: Farhad Harun
Asif: Arfan Usman
Shafiq: Rizwan Ahmed
Monir: Waqar Siddiqui
Zahid: Shahid Iqbal
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 95 minutes
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