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To Hell and Back

Michael Winterbottom puts a face -- and a hood -- on the suffering at Guantanamo.

Just in time for its U.S. release, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's fierce docudrama, The Road to Guantanamo, received a giant shot of free publicity with the news in early June that three Arab inmates at the infamous detention center in Cuba -- none of whom had officially been charged with any crimes -- hanged themselves in the unbearably hot outdoor cages where they'd been kept for upwards of four years. A high-ranking U.S. official put forward the charming hypothesis that the men's deaths were a calculated exercise in PR, but Guantanamo begs to differ.

An unblushingly partisan blend of documentary with dramatic action, the movie shoves us roughly into the shoes of four young British Muslims who, en route to a wedding in Pakistan in September 2001, fell into the bloodstained hands of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance before being shipped off by the American military to Guantanamo, where they spent two grueling years before being released without charges or apology. Known in England as the Tipton Three (the fourth disappeared in Afghanistan and has not been heard from since) after the Midlands town where they live, Ruhel, Asif and Shafiq -- chubby-cheeked, earnest and very much jazzed by the opportunity to shape their ordeal into a narrative -- face the camera to tell their story, which a cast of non-pro actors refashions into a graphic thriller propelled by a pounding score.

Peppered with television news footage and bellicose talk from assorted Bushies and Brits, Guantanamo rushes us with larky abandon through a vacation from hell in Karachi, where the boys' tender Western stomachs fall prey to diarrhea. As they visit a local mosque and get sidetracked into a trip to Kandahar by an imam's call for humanitarian aid, the mood darkens and the movie works itself into a frenzy of smoke, gunfire and random bombing, lit in vivid ochres. We see the boys survive an attack, almost expire in an airless container, then rot in an overcrowded jail in Kunduz, until at last they arrive at Guantanamo, shackled, orange-suited and with huge black goggles or the notorious bags over their heads. The meat of the movie is torture, trickery and relentless interrogation, infrequently interrupted by small acts of kindness from the grunts who guard their outdoor cages.

Though famously adventurous with form, Winterbottom has been here before, with his terrific In This World (2003), in which he used amateur regional actors to create a fictional feature that looked like a documentary of an overland journey of two Afghan asylum-seekers. Remixing that technique, Guantanamo codes a true story as an action picture and, for better and worse, comes up with a far more excitable, impressionistic movie, at once more galvanizing and murkier with the facts. There's little reason to doubt Winterbottom's lurid account of what went on in the camp; the flagrant indifference to Geneva Convention protocol and the routine crossing of the line between interrogation and torture are torn from the headlines. Still, for a movie that relies heavily on reenactments, to have no credited screenwriter seems like a deliberate fudging of the line between reality and fiction -- a popular gambit these days, but nonetheless specious for all that.

By inviting us to trust the Tipton Three's accounts of what they were doing in Afghanistan, Guantanamo falls into a familiar trap of agitprop filmmaking: turning the victim into a hero. The movie gives us no particular reason to believe that they were up to anything nefarious -- or that they weren't. Winterbottom has called them "ordinary kids." Hardly: Two were on parole back home before they left for Karachi. Rumsfeld and associates have lied energetically about Guantanamo from push all the way to shove. But it doesn't follow that the Tipton Three are reliable narrators, even at the relatively trivial level of bragging about their defiance in the face of their captors. Back home, Ruhel, Asif and Shafiq seem a little at a loss to sum up how the trauma has changed their lives, except to say that the experience has strengthened their religious beliefs. One thing is clear, though: If it strengthens them to the point that they join Islam's fundamentalist wing, Guantanamo will not have been a war on terror, but its accessory.

 
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