The Road to Guantanamo
British director Michael Winterbottom is the most interesting filmmaker in the Anglo-American world. By that, of course, I don’t mean that he makes the best films. I only mean that he makes the most intriguing choices. One day he’ll be making a neo-noir sex thriller shot only in primary colours and the next he’ll try adapting Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. And what’s all this about needing two or three (or seven) years to hone and polish your picture? Winterbottom churns out material at an almost unhealthy rate. In the last four years, he has given us an anarchic, truth-bending look at the rise and fall of Manchester’s Factory Records (24 Hour Party People); an epic tale of Afghan refugees trying to get to Britain (the Golden Bear-winning In the World); a futuristic re-telling of the Oedipus story (Code 46); the most sexually explicit film ever to receive general release in the UK (9 Songs) and an endlessly inventive adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s famously unfilmable Tristram Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story). So what if some of his films don’t quite work? They’re all originals—intelligent films animated by a ferocious and unrelenting personal vision.
Which brings us to Winterbottom’s newest, The Road to Guantanamo. Co-financed by England’s Channel 4, this film can’t be faulted for looking a big rushed. It was made for television. The only real reason that it’s made it to the big screen at all is because of the content. Guantanamo retells the story of the Tipton Three—a trio of young Muslim men from a town in the British West Midlands. The men travelled to Pakistan to attend a wedding, were apprehended in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance and ended up spending two years in the infamous American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The film doesn’t really find its footing until Winterbottom’s scenes of dramatic re-enactment land us inside Gitmo. Before that, we follow the boys around as they decide to leave England for Pakistan, fool about like the young ‘uns they are and then foolhardily “stumble into Afghanistan.” It’s slow and confusing going to be sure. The film constantly dances back and forth between interviews with the now-released Tipton Three and the scenes with Winterbottom’s actors. The correct balance between these two halves seems to elude the director. Knowing a little about the story of the Tipton Three, I wanted a far better explanation of what the boys thought they were doing entering Afghanistan, but none is ever presented. Who are these boys? In the end, we know them only as the objects of great and unjust violence.
Violence is really the star of the film. Once the boys are apprehended, Winterbottom’s film becomes insanely engrossing (the racing, hypnotic soundtrack doesn’t hurt). While Guantanamo lacks any story arc (beyond the escalation of torture), the sheer inhumanity of the situation more than compensates. Even those who know a good deal about the camp will be surprised by the powerful depiction of the trio’s treatment.
So yes, Road to Guantanamo isn’t the fairest piece of journalism I’ve ever seen. But is it agit-prop? I wouldn’t want to smear a film this important with that kind of brush. The important thing about Winterbottom’s film is that it gives us a chance to see and feel what life is like on the flipside of the War on Terror. Discussions about torture and human rights often become so abstract that we forget we’re talking about real people. Films like this one, as flawed as it may be, are worthwhile if only for that reason.
The Road to Guantanamo opens at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.) on Friday.