Reviewed by Glen Maw

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM and co-director Mat Whitecross’s docudrama, The Road to Guantanamo, is unavoidably political. Rather than being politically didactic, the film shows us how political actions affect real people; its subjects are not the politically powerful, but the politically powerless. It is a film about intolerance, ignorance and fear, but equally about friendship and the endurance of the human spirit. The docudrama genre allows it to have the sobriety of documentary, but the empathy of drama. It is a film about the state of humanity and it deserved to be made – if only because it tells us a story from a perspective that we do not hear in the western media. Political films are often hard to watch because they try so hard to convince us of their truths that they lack an aesthetic component. Fear not, The Road to Guantanamo is innovatively shot and beautifully constructed.

The film is the true story of four young Muslims, Asif, Shafiq, Ruhel, and Monir, who travel from their home in Tipton, England to Pakistan, where Asif is to be married. It is September 2001 and across the border in Afghanistan the first phase of America’s ‘War on Terror’ is underway; bombs are falling on everyone except Osama bin Laden. At a local mosque, the boys hear about the devastation of the neighbouring country and agree to go over to do some aid-work. When they arrive in Kabul, instead of ‘helping the cause,’ they find themselves laying about, gorging on three foot naan breads, helping no one at all. Consequentially, they decide to head back to Pakistan. They jump in a car and instead of going back to Pakistan they are taken to Taliban village in the middle of nowhere. The village is bombed, Monir goes missing (he is presumed dead), and the others, accused of being Taliban fighters and possible members of al Qaeda, are taken prisoner. The three survivors then spend time in various prisons, until they reach Guantanamo Bay. The later part of the film is set inside the infamous prison.

It is a hard film to bear, but not to watch. In one sense we are horrified at the humiliation of the prisoners, their sustained abuse and the inhuman conditions in which they are kept. A naked prisoner covers his genitals and cowers as an American soldier threatens him with a barking, leaping German Shepherd. Lines of prisoners, cuffed and chained, squat painfully in stress positions with their heads stuffed in rough sacks. The film has many such powerful images reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib school of photography. Although these images are morally repugnant, they are not without a haunting beauty. Their beauty is in the symmetry of their suppressed violence, tense and dark and sadistic. Winterbottom, who directed the dramatic part of the film, could have been far more explicit in the torture scenes, but that would have lessened the effect of them. We see a few beatings but most of the torture is in the stripping away of the prisoners’ humanity. What The Road to Guantanamo tells us is that you cannot take away another person’s humanity or dignity without losing your own.

The film was shot on DV. The images, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are cut fast and are of varying grains and textures. The graininess of a low handheld shot of bodies jostling for elbow room on the back of a truck is cut into a clearer point of view shot which is cut into a wobbly scenery shot full of dust and movement. Montages like this move through the first part of the film creating an intense, heart-thumping, how-the-f**k-did-this happen-to-me realism. The cinematography and editing recall Winterbottom’s, In This World (2002), which follows two Afghani youths attempting to cross Asia and Europe with the help of people smugglers.

While In This World is thematically and stylistically similar to The Road to Guantanamo it is not as generically brave, sticking to fictional realism. Guantanamo is both a documentary and a dramatic film. It splices in interviews with Asif, Shafiq, and Ruhel with dramatised recreation of the events. The performances of Riz Ahmed (Shafiq), Farhad Harun (Ruhel), Waqar Siddiqui (Monir), and Afran Usman (Asif) are convincing and, at times, outstanding. There is an amazing balance between the solidarity of their friendship and the solitude with which each must face his own ordeal. The film’s realistic dialogue perfectly matched its gritty handheld realism. What is interesting, in terms of genre, is that the film does not follow what has become the common in television docudrama, where the drama is used to support the interviews. In this case the dramatic component makes up the majority of the film. The interviews give weight to the images as much as the images give weight to the interviews.

If I have one criticism of The Road to Guantanamo it is with the news broadcasts and documentary voiceovers which were combined with the interviews and dramatic components of the film. I was confused: they felt too constructed and overproduced to be news broadcasts, but too sporadic and unnecessary to be director voiceovers. However, this is a minor problem.

The Road to Guantanamo is an important film which deserves to be watched. If you don’t catch it at the cinema, get it out on DVD. Do what you have to do to see this film.