Last night’s The Road To Guantanamo was interesting viewing.
The cinematography made me uncomfortable. In places, scenes were shot in TV format, distinguishing them from the more filmic reconstructions. However, the BBC style commentary, and the angles chosen for some of the action, did not ring quite true. I could not put my finger on what was incorrect, but it was clear by end that the most of the supposed archive footage also a staged reconstruction.
Werner Herzog once said he no qualms about re-staging certain documentary scenes for his audiences. But in Herzog’s films, we accept this dishonesty, beacuse the entire presentation is a sort of hyper-reality. This is not so with The Road to Guantanamo. In choosing to present some scenes in news-reel format, and others as drama, director Michael Winterbottom is making a clear distinction between fact and interpretation. In doing so, he forfeits his artistic licence to meddle with the former. When he does so, he blurs the distinction he himself has highlighted. Furthermore, the audience are hardly invited to share in the conceit. The conclusion is that the film-makers are trying to fudge the issue, and mislead the audience. The result is a loss of trust.
This is a real shame, as the impact of the film depends entirely upon the viewer believing the story of the three ex-detainees, Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul. Watching the way the characters, stranded in Afghanistan, stumble upon a Northern Alliance roadblock and herded at gun-point towards the the US forces is plausible. Being mistaken for Al-Q’aeda is also understandable: As Brits in the wrong place at the wrong time, they drew attention from all quarters. What is difficult to reconcile is how on earth they came to be in Afghanistan in the first place. If people of Pakistani heritage do just go on jolly road-trips into a simmering war-zone, those decisions should be explained in much more detail. Life-changing whims must be accounted for.
But one senses Winterbottom and his team are in a hurry to move on, and moralise at the monstrosity of Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay. Here, the detainees are the underdogs, and you cannot help but root for them as they struggle to maintain some dignity in the face of overwhelming power. Here the film has sting, and asks genuine questions of the US methods. In one memorable scene, Rasul, played by Rizwan Ahmed, is accused of attending an Al Q’aeda rally with Osama Bin Laden in 2000. The truth could not be more banal: “That’s bullshit,” says Rasul. “In 2000, I was working in Currys.”
The film is a warning against an extra-judicial, unaccountable system of detention. This message was reinforced recently by a bizarre twist of events. Actor Rizwan Ahmed was returning from a promotional trip to Berlin, when he was detained arbitrarily by customs officials. He was not told his rights, and was illegally searched. Just like the film in which he stars, Ahmed’s story reminds us that the rule of law must prevail, if we are to maintain our civility in these difficult times.