Torture Inc.

Pub date June 20, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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The Road to Guantánamo is the true story of three British citizens who were held without charges for two years at the American detention camps in Guantánamo Bay. Director Michael Winterbottom’s film combines documentary with dramatization in a way that is slightly confusing in the beginning, as we quickly cut between the men who were actually detained (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Rhuhel Ahmed) and the actors who play them (Rizwan Ahmed, Arfan Usman, and Farhud Harun). The performances are first-rate, however, and the illusion of reality is created with harrowing enough detail that the gap between reportage and acting, or between documentary footage and reenactment, quickly seems irrelevant.
The worst thing a film like this can do is leave its audience feeling manipulated into believing something it was inclined to believe anyway. But The Road to Guantánamo consistently lets the story do its own work, and dumps us into the basic situation without too much backstory; it doesn’t make its protagonists overly heroic, paste any love stories over the narrative, or overwhelm its audience with music that tells us what we should be feeling.
For a film loaded with war casualties and torture, it’s disarmingly entertaining. What begins as a buddy-flick road movie quickly becomes a journey into hell. Three friends leave Britain for Pakistan, where a bride is waiting for one of them. A naive side trip to Afghanistan, just as the US bombing is getting under way, quickly carries them beyond the typical budget travel annoyances of gastrointestinal illness and makeshift restrooms and into a war-torn landscape full of the mutilated citizens of a country being indiscriminately bombed. Their final circle, however, is that abyss located both at the center of the American psyche and in Cuba. Rounded up with a batch of suspected Taliban fighters, our heroes come face-to-face with the Bush administration’s love affair with torture, humiliation, and endless detention without charge.
“Where’s Osama bin Laden?” the American interrogators ask their clueless victims, a question so ridiculous it is comic. The Americans are so perfectly American and so perfectly piggy that it’s easy to forget these scenes are being acted. Even in other recent films that package their torture as political critique, like Syriana and V for Vendetta, the subjects and objects of the verb “to torture” have been muddled; we’ve watched only white Americans and Brits enduring the worst, at the hands of Muslims, cartoon characters, or — in movies like Hostel, in which the torture is pure entertainment — East European whores and Germanic S-M fags. As in dreams, audiences probably understand that the roles are confused, and that Americans should actually be the ones wielding the clubs and attack dogs. Finally, however, we’ve been presented with a more accurate grammar: The Americans and British are torturing and the Muslims are tortured. For that reason alone, The Road to Guantánamo is an important and necessary film. SFBG