The Road to Guantanamo is certainly remarkable for its relevancy to the ongoing controversy of the Guantanamo Bay detainment camps, but it is a notable film for other reasons besides its timeliness and availability to political exploitation. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, it is the former's most effective film (and the latter's first) in that it masterfully displays a grasp of cinema's capacities. While I disagree with most of what critics (including our own Karina) are saying of its cultural significance, I do agree with and insist on the recommendation that it be seen.
I think that it needs to be appreciated foremost as an astonishing tale of survival, a kind of modern Odyssey with a touch of the old mistaken-identity scenario, presented in a pointedly discriminating first-person narrative. Though based on a true story, the film maintains a one-sided fallibility that keeps it fairly subjective. Sure, it could be used in the campaign against the camps, but not as evidence. It is simply a visual testimony.
The film details the account of three young men from England who were imprisoned in the camps for two years under the suspicion they were members of al-Qaeda. Beginning with their trip to Pakistan, where one of them is to be married, their road to Guantanamo consists of a naive excursion to Kabul just as U.S. military action is beginning in Afghanistan, an accidental detour to the Taliban-held city of Konduz, capture by Northern Alliance forces, shipment to a Sheberghan prison via overcrowded containers, a flight to a U.S.-run detention center in Kandahar and finally their delivery to the camps. But the plot doesn't end when they reach this destination. In fact, so much of the film focuses on their experiences at Guantanamo, where they are held, interrogated and tortured without any promise of a fair trial, concluding only after their release, that a more fitting title would be Back to Britain, or perhaps The Road to Guantanamo...and Back.
I can't let an unsuitable title detract from the film's perfection, though. Its greatest achievements sufficiently outweigh its minute problems. The most brilliant of these achievements is its combination of reenactments and documentary-style interviews. The bulk of the film is a dramatization of the story and uses actors in the roles of the three men, but intercut throughout is footage of the real victims as they comment on the incidents. Not only does the technique remind us that we're watching a work of non-fiction, but it adds to the personal perspective and therefore constantly reinforces our reluctance to accept the story absolutely. What parts of the tale could be questioned? Well, there may be debate over the true motives of the men's trip to Kabul. Their claim is that they went simply as a humanitarian effort, but the film presents their decision as too impulsive for some to believe.
It isn't that The Road to Guantanamo means to keep us skeptical, however. Another part of its genius is that despite its allowance for doubt or at least uncertainty, there are actually some manipulative bits that show us its filmmakers' bias towards support for the men's case. These bits include advantageous news clips of Bush and Rumsfeld that one might expect from Michael Moore. Still, the difference between an excessively partisan film like Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Road to Guantanamo is that the former presents itself as facts and the latter presents itself as perspective.
Never once did I feel an attempt to persuade me of anything in the film. There is no emotional tugging going on, no cheap dramatic devices. The events play out surprisingly matter-of-fact, which is something that Winterbottom has said was initially fascinating to him about the three men, that they described the incident as if it was just a routine experience. Obviously he intended to portray that attitude in the dramatization in addition to letting it come across in the documentary sequences. And yet many critics discuss how gut-wrenching the film is, difficult to watch and harrowing to think about. Maybe I'm desensitized by the world's abundance of injustice and suffering as well as the constant berating of the American government, but as much as I register the violence on screen as horrific, I can't say that it is necessarily painful for me to witness in the film. It does help, too, that the U.S. interrogators are depicted as such parodies, whether this was intentional or just misfortunate casting, that the horrible actors playing them cause us to remember that we're just watching a movie.
The detachability of The Road to Guantanamo is particularly interesting because of the film's ability to engage us with the personal narrative. The storytelling is captivating thanks to its structure, but because of film's voyeuristic tendencies, thanks to an always third-person camera, we keep a relative distance from the experiences of the men. This goes for Winterbottom and Whitecross as well, by also being on our side of the camera. The filmmakers did no extra research or fact-checking for the film, deciding instead to take the men's accounts as the only influence on the script.
Basically The Road to Guantanamo is just good storytelling. And were it not so current, the story it tells would be no more significant than a fictional tale of an unfortunate-vacationer-turned-prisoner film like Brokedown Palace or a non-fiction chronicle of events that happened years before, such as Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo. The thing that makes The Road to Guantanamo a better film is in how it tells its story. Not in how it is an important exposé, which it isn't anyway.