Exposé of Guantánamo blends fact and fiction


By Rania Richardson

“How far will we go in the name of security?” is the marketing tagline and underlying theme for “The Road to Guantánamo,” Michael Winterbottom’s provocative new docu-drama that is screening this weekend, the final one of the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is an apt bookend to a festival that opened with the 9/11 feature, “United 93,” as it sheds light on abuses in the detention center created in the wake of September 11.

The film follows three British Muslims who are captured in Afghanistan and held at the Guantánamo Bay military prison for two years without a formal charge. The story is based on the accounts of the “Tipton Three,” friends who traveled from their hometown of Tipton, England to Kabul in September 2001. After a military capture by the Northern Alliance, they were sent to the American detainment camp as suspected Al Qaeda militants.

For two years they were subjected to physical and psychological torture and cruelties prohibited by the Geneva Convention. In addition to beatings, they were housed outdoors in steel cages, shackled in unsustainable positions, and bombarded with earsplitting music. The accusation of a link to Osama bin Laden was discredited, and they were released without apology.

The film continues the dialogue on torture that was opened with the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

The filmmakers transcribed 650 pages of interviews with the young men. Pieces of these first-hand accounts are interspersed with reenactments of the events by actors, news footage, and vivid location shots of the ill-fated international road trip. Quick editing creates a montage that melds the dramatized and documentary elements. “The assumption is that a documentary is the truth, but the combination of the two gets more at the truth of this incendiary topic,” says Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, the film’s theatrical distributor.

“The Road to Guantánamo” premiered at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear prize for best director. Despite the positive attention the film received there, U.S. distributors were hesitant to acquire it. According to Cohen, there was a fear that the movie would not make enough money due to its commercial limitations compounded by what some interpreted as an anti-American viewpoint. Roadside Attractions, an independent distributor of films such as “Super Size Me,” saw an opportunity to expose a controversial issue and showcase an underappreciated director through his most visceral, high-concept film to date.

The 45-year-old Winterbottom is a “filmmaker’s filmmaker” with an adventurous career peppered with global travel and experiments in genre. Shanghai and Dubai were just two of the locations he used for his sci-fi thriller, “Code 46,” and his current film was shot in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran as a stand-in for Cuba, to name a few of his far-flung settings. His credits include a music film, “24 Hour Party People,” a sexually explicit romance, “9 Songs,” and an adaptation of a classic novel, the hilarious “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”

The Tribeca Film Festival marks the North American premiere for “The Road to Guantánamo.” Co-director Mat Whitecross will be in attendance for a Q&A on May 5 and 6. A theatrical release will follow at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on June 23.

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