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June 11, 2006

The Road To Guantanamo


Michael Winterbottom has never made a bona fide documentary, but he's courted the format so intensely with some of his recent films that I'm hesitant to refer to them as docudramas, or works of traditional verité. Even those that are narratively fictive (Nine Songs, Tristram Shandy) deal liberally in fact, and in the case of In This World and, now, The Road To Guantanamo, he's taken an intentional step towards dramatic indistinction. His technique has always included aesthetics commonly associated with documentary filmmaking, and while a handheld camera should not by itself imply a greater degree of truthfulness, I think he's found a formula that makes the truth implicit in his shaky images. By throwing himself - literally - into the front lines of his subject matter, by making his dramas within their actual context, he achieves the sort of urgent authenticity a retrospective documentary could not quite achieve. The deeply ingrained riskiness of his films counters the fact that they are, in fact, staged; that, on a basic formal level, they are no different than any other film that bare the 'Based On A True Story' subtitle.

In the case of The Road To Guantanamo, however, the truth is so polarized, so politicized, that Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross stray a bit closer to fact. The film, an account of the treatment of the Tipton Three leading up to and during their internment at Guantanamo Bay, is a work of visceral protest, and it backs up its statement as bluntly as it can by letting its subjects - Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - tell the story in their own words. Interviews with them are both the source of and the backbone to the narrative, and their first person accounts provide the film with some defense against those who will claim that the film is biased dramaturgy. It may not be objective, but at least it's an accurate source.

Although I think, for that very reason, that it was a wise decision to include the interview footage, it has the odd effect of rendering the reenactments that make up the majority of the film less effective. They are often harrowing, and brilliantly executed, but there's no need to suspend disbelief - there's no disbelief to suspend - when the line between the real men and the actors playing them is so clearly established. As far as polemical purposes go, this isn't necessarily a problem; the film is properly infuriating, and does what Winterbottom intended it to do very well. But I'm not sure how much it has going for it beyond its immediacy and, subsequently, its historical value. In fact, as of this very moment, the film is already overshadowede by its own subject matter.

While I was watching The Road To Guantanamo, I kept thinking about Paul Greengrass' United 93, which blurs the same lines that Winterbottom does, but in different ways. I didn't write about United 93 when it came out because I wasn't sure there was much to be said; it's a great film, but its greatness is commemorative, self-encapsulated, and isn't sustained much longer than its own running time. What has stuck with me in the weeks since I saw it, though, are the sequences in ground control. While the drama in the skies was assumptive, everything in the control rooms can be traced to actual records; adding to the impact of these scenes is the fact that many of the actors in these scenes are playing themselves (in particular, Ben Sliney, the director of operations for the FAA on 9/11, emerges as a hero both of the film and the day itself). This casting is not merely meta data; it makes reality an intrinsic element to the film, in the same way that Winterbottom's technique brings such veracity to his pictures.

That veracity is somewhat mitigated in The Road To Guantanamo (imagine if United 93 had been punctuated by similar interviews). On the other hand, Greengrass' film had little to offer aside from its own experience, and The Road To Guantanamo subjugates experience in favor of application; it is designed to open eyes, to make an impact, to inspire an immediate need for change. And in that sense, in the here and now to which it is bound, it is Winterbottom's most important film. It leaves no question that there's something rotten in Guantanamo Bay, and when it's over, we're left to reflect not on the film but on the reality it represents.

And it works. Immediately after watching it, I got in my car, tuned on the ignition, and was met with the reports breaking across the BBC of the three Gitmo prisoners who hung themselves. I listened to the press statements of the US officials, and I questioned every single word.

Posted by David Lowery at June 11, 2006 01:39 AM