The Road To Guantánamo
Written By: (Uncredited)
Directed By: Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross
US Theatrical Release: June 23, 2006 (Limited) (Sony Pictures/ Roadside Attractions/ FilmFour)
US DVD Release: October 24, 2006
Running Time: 1:35:21 (13 chapter stops)
Rating: R (For Language and Disturbing Violent Content)
Video: 1.78:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: N/A)
Audio: English DD5.1 (Extra Features: N/A)
Subtitles: English (Extra Features: N/A)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: N/A)
Menus: Not animated.
Packaging: Standard keepcase; insert features cover images from other Sony titles.
THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3.5/5
Edgy filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and his crew have put together an interesting docudrama that, with its clever combination of re-enactment, real news footage, and interviews, resembles nothing so much as an extended, high-budget episode of a television newsmagazine. It tells the story of the “Tipton Three,” a group of young Muslim men from England who were captured in Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban in late 2001 and ended up in the US prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. According to the Three, they were in Afghanistan merely to see what the place was like, and perhaps to provide humanitarian aid, and were in no way connected to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Although some have doubted their veracity, The Road To Guantánamo is based solely on the story as they tell it. Since this is a DVD review and not a journalistic debate, for purposes of this discussion the film will be taken at face value.
The chain of events that leads to the incarceration of the men begins when one of them travels to Pakistan. Asif’s (Afran Usman) family has found a potential mate for him, and he goes to meet her. He decides after spending some time with the girl that she will make a suitable wife, and they plan a wedding. Asif invites his three best friends back in England to come and celebrate.
Shafiq (Riz Ahmed), Ruhel (Farhad Harun) and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui) are excited both to visit the old country and for Asif’s marriage. When they arrive, the four buddies make the most of the trip, sightseeing, shopping, and enjoying the culture. Everyone’s having a grand time.
At this point, they make the fateful decision to go to Afghanistan. Mind you, this is in October 2001, mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Afghanistan is about to devolve into a war zone. The film unfortunately glosses over the reasoning for the trip – the guys apparently want to “see what it’s like,” and are curious about the really big naan that they’ve heard can be found there. Are they so naïve as to think that heading into the path of the US military for a snack is a good idea? Are they even fully aware of current geopolitical events? Do they plan to help aid workers? Is there some more sinister impetus for this side trip? The truth is not made clear. Best to let it slide and just enjoy the film – there’ll be plenty of time to consider these issues after the credits roll.
A series of rickety buses carry the trekkers over the border in what is the most satisfying portion of the film. Their journey through the two countries plays out like an adventurous travelogue, with an eye for areas, shot on location, that most Westerners only ever see in brief clips as background for a television reporter’s head. If nothing else, it’s an interesting chance for the film’s audience to “see what it’s like.”
Essentially stranded in a backwater, surrounded by strangers who for the most part don’t speak their language, the boys decide to leave. However, it’s too late. They are captured by troops of the Northern Alliance, the local anti-Taliban warlords, and turned over to US forces as prisoners of war. The brutal third act relates their experiences in camps both in Afghanistan and in Guantánamo Bay. It is less successful as a conventional narrative than the middle of the film, but it offers an insider’s look at events of great topical importance. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of what goes on in those prisoner camps, actually watching a dramatization of practices that are usually the subject of abstract debate by media pundits gives them a whole new dimension of reality. (It’s also useful to keep in mind that, Tipton Three aside, there are those who have suffered treatment along the lines of what’s portrayed in this film who have been proven innocent.) Do the interrogation techniques used on these men amount to torture? Even if they do, are they still justified? Are the Tipton Three trustworthy? Those are subjects for post-film discussion.
Combining real and staged material was a solid choice for telling this story. Scenes of adventure and of terror hit close to home when they’re followed by interview footage of the men who actually experienced them. At turns depressing, infuriating, and uplifting, The Road To Guantánamo brings to life events that often merely footnote the news but that are very much worthy of consideration. Its adherence to relating events as they happened (according to the filmmakers’ sources) at the expense of traditional story development detracts a bit from its entertainment value, but that pays off once the lights come up and the discussion begins.
THE WAY I SEE IT: 3/5
The image is very inconsistent, but that’s to be expected considering the variety of sources. It’s best in the in-studio interview footage, not surprisingly. The video news footage is riddled with digital blocking and shimmy. The dramatizations and outdoor footage of the real Tipton Three are mostly solid, but there are some noticeable lapses, with occasional digital artifacting and some patterns (like chain-link fences) that may cause headaches.
THE WAY I HEAR IT: 3.5/5
The audio is fairly mellow, but has enough directional and LFE content where appropriate to keep things interesting. Dialogue is reasonably clear, although there are a lot of funky accents – the subtitles are appreciated.
THE SWAG: 0/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)
The trailers for Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Fog of War play automatically when the disc is inserted. They may be skipped.
- Fahrenheit 9/11 (2:17) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Fog of War (2:09) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Woods (2:10) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 non-anamorphic)
- Why We Fight (1:54) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- The Hunt For Eagle One: Crashpoint (0:44) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Sketches of Frank Gehry (1:58) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Connors’ War (0:44) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Lies & Alibis (2:13) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
The Way I See It: 3/5
The Way I Hear It: 3.5/5
The Swag: 0/5
Continuing its tradition of topical documentaries like Why We Fight and The Fog Of War, Sony has released another picture that’s sure to spark discussion and reflection in The Road To Guantánamo. This one’s more of a docudrama, with staged recreations of the events it portrays, although the fact that it was mainly shot on location enhances its gritty realism. Note that while its depiction of the treatment of prisoners can be brutal and disturbing, the violence is not at all graphic. Language aside, you’ve seen far worse on TV police procedurals. Purely as a piece of entertainment, it’s a little uneven, but its subject matter definitely makes it worth a look. The A/V quality of the disc is decent, but the complete lack of special features, especially for a film of this type, is terribly disappointing. More interview footage, follow-up news stories, deeper background information – all would have been welcome additions. As it is, you’ll have to rely on outside sources for further research, which you’ll probably want to do after viewing The Road To Guantánamo.