Will the truth really set you free? In the case of the “Tipton Three,” a trio of young Britons caught up in the invasion of Afghanistan and swept into Gitmo, truth came in the form of parole records from their home town proving that they could not have been hobnobbing with Osama bin Laden in planning 9/11. Of course, they had been insisting on that all along, throughout the interrogations, beatings, prolonged stress positions, and sleep privation of their two-year incarceration. So I guess the real moral of the story is that innocence may not pay but crime does.
DRAMA? DOCUMENTARY? Guantánamo can’t make up its mind.
Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, directors of the flawed but inflammatory The Road to Guantánamo, go about telling the truth of this injustice in a roundabout way. They could have dramatized the facts into a narrative that was part Kafka, part Catch-22 and part Midnight Express, a nightmarish classic of 21st-century absurdity. Or they could have gone the straight documentary route and compiled a compelling case against the US policy of detaining indefinitely “enemy combatants” without trial or recourse. Instead, they try to combine the two methods, and the contradictory approaches undermine each other.
The heart of the film consists of talking-head interviews with the real Tipton Three, Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, who tell how in late 2001 (along with a fourth friend, Monir Ali, who didn’t make it) they traveled to Pakistan to attend Iqbal’s wedding. While there they are moved by an imam’s sermon to take a side trip to Afghanistan to “help.” The usual pitfalls of Third World travel — ripoffs, food poisoning, chaos — pale before the carpet bombing they encounter as the US and our Afghan allies take on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They end up in Konduz with the last remnants of the jihadists, soon to be captured by the Northern Alliance and handed over to the Americans.
So far so good. Had the directors supplemented this testimony with corroborating evidence, they might have had a provocative, if unflashy, documentary. However, as in Winterbottom’s acclaimed (Berlinale Golden Bear in 2003) In This World, a fake documentary about the plight of two fictitious Afghan refugees, they resort to pseudo-vérité re-creations. In handheld digital video, actors portraying the three Britons enact the experiences they describe. These are indeed harrowing, ranging from the terror of being bombed by fighter planes to the brutality of being locked up for 18 hours with dozens of others suffocating in a sealed container to the humiliation of being short-shackled and beaten and asked ridiculous questions (“Where is Osama bin Laden?”) by inept interrogators.
But the power of these images only diminishes when, to add ironic context, the directors interject TV news reports about the ongoing operations. And when the re-creations are coupled with the actual participants’ own accounts, the disjunct between truth and simulation becomes jarring. The result is often wrenching, sometimes confusing, and in general problematic.
As a dramatic narrative, The Road to Guantánamo fails because the characters are not much more than victimized ciphers, their story a series of horrific fragments (Iqbal’s marriage to his fiancée, whom we never see, serves as a dénouement of some kind) manipulated to make a point. As a documentary, with its lack of objectivity, it will most likely antagonize those who don’t already agree with its argument. But as a reminder of the crimes being committed in our name, crimes we would not otherwise be able to see, it’s compulsory viewing.