There are some subjects so grim you don’t really want to gravitate towards them but you know you really should. Michael Winterbottom’s 2006 film The Road to Guantanamo is one such story. For so long Camp X-Ray took centre stage on our nightly news reports. Shot from a distance by long lensed news cameras, how well we remember seeing hooded prisoners marched behind prison fences. Understanding the finer detail of what went on is, I would suggest, the least we can do for years of societal silence. It’s an obligatory information cold shower.
Winterbottom has put together a compelling re-creation of the stories of three British Muslim men known as the “Tipton Three”, who were arrested and transported to Guantanamo. They were held for nearly three years without charge or representation in inhumane conditions.
Interspersed with interview accounts and news footage, Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People) has staggeringly restaged this tragic tale with such conviction you could be mistaken for thinking this is actual video diary footage. Just days after September 11 2001, a group of young Muslim men travel to Pakistan for a wedding – with the benefit of history, it’s not a move anybody would recommend. Winterbottom cleverly wins sympathy for his travellers early on as starry-eyed optimists in the pursuit of love and adventure.
From the colourful culture of Pakistan the boys, somewhat inexplicably, take a road-trip to Afghanistan where they meander aimlessly. This portion of the film is somewhat loose in its logic as the boys become separated, penniless and without papers. When the allied bombings on the Taliban hit, the boys are arrested and interrogated by the full force of the US military. “Where is Osama bin Laden?” one is asked.
Hooded, chained and transported to Cuba, the prisoners are subjected to around the clock humiliation, torture and abuse. The torture in the film reportedly had to be softened for the actors, who were unable to remain in such stressed positions for more than an hour. The Tipton Three regularly endured eight hours.
Ironically, after the film’s Berlin premiere even the actors were detained by police at London’s Luton Airport under the UK’s Terrorism Act, questioned and allegedly verbally abused. It seems we may not yet have wised up to the lessons entrenched in this unforgiving film.
The Road to Guantanamo airs 10pm Tuesday on SBS.