Forcing a Twist on Reality: The Road to Guantanamo

Since “Camp X-Ray” was established in Guantanamo Bay Cuba, a Mark Twain quote — only half of which typically sees the light of day — has circled my mind: “Truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” The logic behind locking up hundreds of people with little or no useful intelligence and insisting they were the “worst of the worst” calls for an edited version: “I will make my fiction the strange truth.”

Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun and Arfan Usman in The Road to Guantanamo.

The recently released film The Road to Guantanamo impeccably illustrates how driven U.S. civilian leaders are to push the military into making terrorists out of a randomly swept-up sample of Middle Easterners. A window into the firsthand accounts of three innocent British men (boys at the time of their nabbing), Guantanamo will grab hold and subject you to the kind of claustrophobic mind-fuck you could only get from watching an innocent person being subjected to horrific abuse by the order of politicians ostensibly elected to represent you.

The film, directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, tells the story of three young British men, Asif Iqbal and Ruhal Ahmed, both 19-, and 23-year-old Shafiq Rasul. Boyhood friends from Tipton, England, the three start out traveling to a wedding in Pakistan and end up in Guantanamo for two years, ultimately released without charge. The film opens with the three discussing their original travel plans to attend the wedding. Mundane reenactments of packing and family goodbyes are undermined by a tense and distant drumming — the perfect set up for a dramatization of one of the gravest violations of humanitarian law: the ongoing detainment of hundreds of people of Middle Eastern descent by the U.S. Government.

Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun and Arfan Usman star as the “Tipton Three” in The Road to Guantanamo.

The film proceeds at a harried pace, following Iqbal, Ahmed, and Rasul as they take a side trip to Afghanistan with the intent of providing humanitarian assistance, and end up imprisoned by Northern Alliance troops on their return trip to Pakistan. While the film does an excellent job of drawing the audience in, its aversion to nuance is a hefty shortcoming. Ostensibly in the interests of making it crystal clear that these young men were apolitical, and not terribly devout, little time is devoted to what actually motivated the side trip to Afghanistan. This is the kind of sterile simplification of their motives that ends up feeding the assumption that involvement in piety and politics in the Middle East inherently makes you one step closer to being a terrorist.

While there is no mistaking that Iqbal, Ahmed, and Rasul are British lads, there seems at times a preoccupation with emphasizing how “western” they are. Their affinity for Pizza Hut is more fleshed-out than their interests in visiting Afghanistan. In light of the fact that others sent to Guantanamo had been in Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons, the film leaves you wanting to hear more from the three on what motivated them to risk such a journey at that particular time.

An added discomfort to the film is the question begged by the persistent emphasis on happenstance and innocence in the Tipton Three story: If a detainee does possess some intelligence, isn’t it just as appalling that they would be subject to the abuses of Guantanamo? In the end, however, the importance of the film’s content outweighs its narrative shortcomings.

Prisoners on the way to Guantanamo Bay in The Road to Guantanamo.

The Road to Guantanamo is not the first dramatization of detainees held in the prison facility in Cuba. The play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom has been performed throughout the U.S. and the UK for over a year. Combining personal stories of detainees and their families with legal and political opinion, the performance put a distinctly human face on the prisoners. The Road to Guantanamo similarly weaves together interviews, archival news footage, and re-enactment, walking the line between documentary and made-for-TV drama — in fact, the film was first shown on Channel 4 in the UK. But it wasn’t long before it reached a broader audience, sweeping the Silver Bear award at the Berlin film festival this past February. As with the Guantanamo play, there is something jarring about the mix of news footage “reality” and dramatic re-enactment. But it is precisely this space, so difficult to inhabit, that makes events real in a way that sterile press reports continually fail to represent.

There is a suspension of disbelief that occurs when people attend the cinema or theatre — a willingness to experience a story. When footage of Donald Rumsfeld telling the press that treatment at Guantanamo is consistent with the Geneva Conventions “for the most part,” is juxtaposed with scenes of three British 20-somethings being “interrogated” by way of blows and insistence that they know Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, you realize that suspension of disbelief may be required in order to grapple with reality.

Prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in The Road to Guantanamo.

The first-person interviews begin to seep in, and the connection is made between these more fleshed out faces, and the stark (un)reality they endured. Making the violations of law and decency of Guantanamo real in an emotional way is a near impossible endeavor. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote,

Guantanamo is a not-place. It’s neither America nor Cuba. It is peopled by people without names who face no charges. Non-people facing non-trials to defend non-charges are not a story. They are a headache. No wonder the prisoners went on hunger strikes. Not-eating, ironically enough, is the only way they could try to become real to us.

In a similar vein, it seems that dramatizing, and sensationalizing the realities is the key to conveying just how sensational it really is. This kind of massive-scale abuse, dependent on a dystopic infrastructure laid out clearly in torture memos written by advisors and members of the Bush administration, is near impossible to wrap your mind around. No matter how often you are confronted with the number of innocent people held in Guantanamo, with the facts of the shoddy non-evidence against the majority, what hits home are the desperate suicide notes, the families destroyed.

The Road to Guantanamo.

Ultimately, the element that clings most stubbornly to the psyche is the One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest madness you get from watching Iqbal, Ahmed, and Rasul with guns held to their temples, relentlessly told that they are al-Qaeda; and when they deny it, being savagely beaten. Or when a bigwig from Washington flies down to show the three what she claims to be footage of them attending a rally headed by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan — the day of which all three were in Tipton, England.

The premise behind American operations in Guantanamo is that you can strong-arm someone into being who you want them to be. As we see in the film, those apprehended, whether turned over by someone from a neighboring village with a vendetta, or for the $5,000 allegedly being offered for people of interest to the U.S. military, or whether they were one of a handful of people with alleged al Qaeda ties, were all immediately dehumanized and treated as terrorists. With bags over their heads and numbers taped around the bags, the human cargo was flown to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were kept in cages. As the Tipton Three relate in the film, to make eye contact with any of the guards was asking for punishment. One scene features an American guard late at night asking Rasul, known to freestyle for the benefit of those in nearby cages, to rap for him. Rasul begins,

My name’s Shafiq Rasul, and I’m from Tipton
I tell them I ain’t Taliban but they don’t wanna listen.
You don’t believe I came for my mates wedding do ya?
Never thought my ass would have ended up in Cuba…

The Road to Guantanamo.

After a few more lines, the guard, smile falling to a frown, tells him that it’s enough, that he doesn’t want to hear anymore. It’s an intensely human drive: Only through making the detainees the bad guys can they be the good guys. And after all that military guards, police, and intelligence have done under the trickle down torture orders from civilian armchair warriors like David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and Donald Rumsfeld, they desperately need to feel like the good guys.

And so do we. About 30 minutes into the film screening, clutching my sweater around my shoulders in the refrigerated air, I glanced surreptitiously around the room. Here is what I thought: This film should be banned. Having covered Guantanamo for for over a year, I knew the truth of what I was seeing. But there was still a hurdle in my mind: If U.S. political leadership is, as we know it is, responsible for creating and sustaining Guantanamo, shouldn’t they be trying to hide it? It must be illegal. Surreptitious.

Riz Ahmed as Shafiq Rasul in The Road to Guantanamo.

In other words, I didn’t want to know what I know because to acknowledge such a thing would make me complicit. But the film has not been banned. Despite some difficulties in filming (ironically enough, the actors who play the three in reenactments were briefly detained in a British airport for questioning, one actor asked whether he planned to make more “political films”) the film is slated for release this Friday across the country. The information is there.

It’s certainly not pleasant to look at. But there is no doubt that the next generation will look back upon this chapter in American history and ask us where we were, what we did, and what we knew about our conduct in the war on terror, in detaining thousands of prisoners without accusing them of a crime. And how it was that we just went on with three square meals a day while the basic tenets of our legal system — innocent until proven guilty and habeas corpus — were completely turned on their head. And how a presidential administration known for its straight talk, its black and white perception of the world, managed to talk us into a grey area where we were willing to accept torturing human beings — people whose dramatized stories made it onto the big screen even as the abuses continued.

What a terrible story, a fellow reviewer said as we filed back out onto the street, squinting into the midday sun.

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Onnesha Roychoudhuri has written for Mother Jones and AlterNet. She is currently working with Gloria Feldt, former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. You can reach her at [email protected]

The Road to GuantanamoTheatrical Trailer