Road to Guantanamo's real-life narrators and the young actors who play them.
Asif leaving the UK to meet his future bride.
Asif phones from his Pakistan village where he's staying with his father: "Will you come to my wedding?"
Shafik, Monir and Ruhel fly to Karachi.
Asif joins them in the bustling capital where they enjoy themselves like tourists.
They attend a rally where the emir exhorts an attentive crowd...
They decide to take a bus trip to Kabul to see the situation in Afghanistan and offer aid.
In Kabul they do find the big nan they'd heard about.
Visual style: the seamless editing of archival and dramatic video
Intertitle comes up over archival footage of the border.
The acted newcaster's voice-off discusses aid workers pouring across the border into Afghanistan. This is either archival footage or footage that Winterbottom shot unobtrusively with a small video camera.
More unobtrusively shot video. The closer-in shots have more dramatic impact.
Archival footage of men on motorcycle...
...is seemlessly edited to a dramatic image of one of the young men crosing the border on a motorbike.
The actor Shafiq crosses the border with many other people...
...and then is shown in medium shot greeting his friends, from whom he had been separated.
Visual style in the imprisonment seqences: stress and "customary" treatment by U.S. military captors.
Arrested in Kandahar and "packaged" for sensory deprivation.
The sensory deprivation in Kandahar prison looks...
...much like that in Guantanamo.
Outside the cells, the Guantanamo sequences use archival footage.
Few showers and not enough time to soap and rinse.
Short shackling at Guantanamo: feet shackled to floor and then hands, all to same bolt.
Short shackled in the dark, loud noise blasting...
...trying to find a better position...
...but not escaping the terrible pain.
Hogtying: a punishment for unruly, often mentally disturbed prisoners.
Solitary confinement for not answering questions. The metal walls create a reflector oven in Cuba's heat.
Short shackled, with stobe lights and music bombardment...
...and beaten. A prisoner will confess to anything to stop the pain.
An U.S. interrogator shows the young men photos, saying they are small figures in the background. It was a rally with bin Laden.
A time and date stamp on the video proves they could not have been there but it still took a long time for their release, which occurred beause of intense political activism on their behalf in the UK.
Shortly before their release, they were put together in a special room where they could watch TV and eat pizza and McDonalds.
The Road to Guantanamo has a particular importance in the United Kingdom since far less information about British-intelligence collaboration with U.S.-sponsored torture has been released than documentation of torture in the United States. The 2004 release of three young British citizens from Guantanamo, largely through efforts of human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, initiated human rights protests over British collaboration with U.S. secret detention policies and practices. Even today the UK enjoys less openness around such issues as does the public in the United States, where much more testimony about detainee abuse and "whistleblowing" has allowed journalists to publish ongoing fact-filled reports. After the three young men, known as the Tipton Three, returned home to their working-class, immigrant, Birmingham suburb, they worked with Peirce to create a 115-page document of sworn testimony narrating what they'd undergone in U.S. custody. The deposition's introduction lays out its form as a combined account:
In the document, the three describe many of the things that the International Red Cross also listed as happening against inmates in other secret sites—beatings, forcible drugging, prolonged shackling and squatting, extreme temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, death threats to the prisoner and/or his family—often at gunpoint, forced shaving, keeping the inmates from prayer, and desecrating the Koran. The youth say many inmates have been driven insane and there have been "several hundred" suicide attempts. However, they and Michael Winterbottom, director of The Road to Guantanamo, say their treatment was ordinary, since they were not high-value detainees. But what they do say about their treatment significantly coincides with what others have to say. In his ground-breaking article analyzing the leaked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) secret 2007 report to the U.S. government, "The Treatment of Fourteen 'High Value Detainees' in CIA Custody," Mark Danner indicates one of the most compelling reason to accept the youths reports as fact:
Because of the consistency of the Tipton Three's allegations, in publishing their depositions their lawyer condensed what they had in common to a third person narrative, organized chronologically, with first person voices entering in boldface in the text, adding the texture of memory, feeling, and experience. Both the third person and first person segments are replete with concrete imagery, but in the first person sections, the men remember past feelings and emotions, especially the sense of despair they felt as if whirling in an interminable downward spiral with no way out. Because of its particular organization, chronologically moving the reader along in a third person narrative, with personal perspectives expressed by an "I" adding another kind of tone, the structure of the sworn testimony reads like a novel. It has the rhetorical force of evidence combined with the familiar realist aesthetic of classic literary form, thus carrying the reader along in what it has to say. Also, for that reason, it also suggests a fiction film, which has characters (speaking as "I") and also the more objective view of the camera, documenting the world in which they move.
In fact, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross did choose to make a fiction film, or rather a docudrama, about these three men, but not in the way I just mentioned. They used the deposition and did many more interviews with these young men before writing The Road to Guantanamo's script, but then also used the three men, as they are today, as witnesses in the film, telling their story to the viewer alongside an acted version of what they went through. In addition, The Road to Guantanamo (2006, UK Channel 4) is a low budget film, with much shot in digital video. The directors had a budget of 1.4 million pounds, and could film efficiently because of Winterbottom's familiarity with Pakistan, having made the feature, In This World, there in 2003. In addition, as Winterbottom put it, he could shoot the Afghanistan and Guantanamo prison scenes cheaply and safely in Iran. There he constructed a Guantanamo set, consisting of a few rooms, later using news footage to show the prison's exteriors and also to show the Afghan war.
As it uses filmed witness testimony from the original Tipton Three and dramatic reenactments from young actors, who do not look like their now-older counterparts, The Road to Guantanamo narrates in chronological order what happened to the friends. In a style which relies heavily on narrative ellipsis, often omitting causal links, the film shows three young immigrant men, of Pakistani and Bengali origin and living in the UK, traveling from their home in the English Midlands to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan in September 2001, shortly after 9/11. Nineteen-year-old Asif Iqbal, (portrayed in the drama by Arfan Usman) flies to Pakistan to meet the woman his mother has chosen for him to marry. He calls back to England to invite three friends to join him: Monir Ali (Waqar Siddiqui), Shafiq Rasul (Riz Ahmed) and Ruhel (the depostion spells it Rhuhel) Ahmed (Farhad Harun). The four meet up in Karachi, Pakistan, where they stay at a mosque to save money and generally move about the city like tourists.
After about a week in Karachi, with Asif's cousin Zahid they go to Friday prayers at a mosque, where they hear an imam call for solidarity with the Afghan people who are now invaded and bombed by the United States. Setting off to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid, but with naiveté and a spirit of wanderlust, the fellows take a bus to Kandahar. Their mood changes when they arrive and see bombed-out buildings lining the road; in addition, there they face the consequences of eating fly-infested food and drinking the water. Arriving in Kabul, they wander about with nothing to do and are demoralized by sickness and no way to achieve any kind of humanitarian goal.
They arrange for a ride back to Pakistan on a minibus but board the wrong vehicle; their van goes north to Kunduz, a stronghold of the Taliban holding out against the Northern Alliance. There they are isolated, shown sitting by the side of a house in rocky, barren terrain; bombs from the front light up the night. Suddenly they evacuate the area, herded onto trucks with Taliban fighters. At this point, Monir disappears, his truck undoubtedly bombed. Along with many other men rounded up by Northern Alliance forces, Asif and Shafiq are handed over to U.S. soldiers and transported to Shebargan Prison. Briefly feeling relief when they can speak English to a U.S. military interrogator, they soon find themselves prisoners of the United States and treated ("packaged" in U.S. military jargon) in a way that has become familiar from many detainee reports. They are hooded, shackled with zipties, repeatedly subjected to anal searches, and airlifted to Cuba, where they are placed first in open-air cells at Camp X-Ray and then in interrogation cells at Camp Delta. The last third of the film gives a visual picture of what ordinary treatment Guantanamo consists of, with sensory deprivation, lack of exercise, forced shaving, no way to maintain cleanliness, and even more extreme abuse. Later, because of independent UK legal actions on their behalf and because they can prove they could not have been at Taliban rallies the CIA taped (according to their documented work history and juvenile criminal records), they are finally released.
Broadly speaking, the witness scenes present the three men speaking to the camera in a seriousness and matter-of-fact way, and the fictional scenes present the young men's impetuousness, confusion, and peril. In addition, constructed news reportage, accompanied by visual clips of the war, the Middle East, and Guantanamo is woven into the fictional part. This news material both provides needed background information and narrative glue, and to an untrained eye it is integrated seamlessly into the story's flow. Winterbottom says he uses archival news footage because it incorporate many viewers' ordinary perspective on the Middle East; that is, viewers in the United States and Europe see the Afghan war via embedded reporting from an outsider's view. However, he never mentions in interviews that he scripted the newscasters' lines so as to advance the fiction economically. I myself did not recognize the scripted narration over the news footage on first viewing, but had my attention drawn to it by Stuart Klawans:
The combination of news footage, witness explanations, and acted scenes leads to a seemingly uninterrupted chronological accounting of the young men's trip. The various kinds of footage meld together with the use of match cutting and with flawless continuity editing. However, the dramatic economy achieved by smooth narrative ellipses also masks what for many viewers remains a vexing question: why would these fellows travel into a war zone and risk their lives? Mat Whitecross, who spent a month living with the three and interviewing them, said they mostly talked about the misfortunes that befall backpacker tourists, such as getting sick on the food, not knowing the language, or getting confused about which bus to take. On re-viewing the film, I see more clearly how Winterbottom presents the youths' trajectory in Pakistan to allow for the viewer's layered interpretation of what they experienced and perhaps felt. At this point, I would like to take a close look at that section to analyze the film's style and its effect.
Asif's friends' plane trip to Karachi takes just a few shots, ending on a close-up of the in-flight map showing how far the plane has gone. Here a diegetic insert provides a way to compensate for viewers' vague geographic knowledge in a discreet way, and indeed the openings of many documentaries often include a map. With the first indication of how the film will show us just what urban Pakistani life is like, we see the actors with their rolling suitcases moving through the crowed Karachi airport. The real-life Shafiq explains their destination: "We didn't want to stay in the hostel because we thought it would be expensive, so we went to a mosque." Periodically, the film imposes the dates of the action over a location shot, particularly important in this section because we want to understand the boys' timing and motivation, so here the date 5 October 2001 (read in relation to 9/11) appears over filmed footage of a modern bus going by a mosque, angle up toward the minarets. We then see the actors wheeling their bags through a busy commercial street, being welcomed at the mosque, and sleeping on the floor. The framing moves closer to show them wash before prayers, with numerous close-ups of their ablutions as we hear the call to prayer. Such shots emphasize not only the relation of cleanliness to Muslim religious observance, but also these close-ups of washing face, hands, and legs also resonate with the fact that after capture, the men especially suffered because they could not get clean. For example, when in U.S. custody, even when they did get a chance to shower, they did not have enough time for a quick soap and rinse, and so one of their strongest memories of prison is the stink.
A shot of them praying at the mosque segues into grainy news footage of a very large crowd with sounds of a street gathering. A (scripted) UK newscaster's voice gives the viewer needed background about popular political sentiment in Pakistan at that time:
A number of elements are at work here. First, the newscaster has a very different accent than do either the adult men or the young actors, indicating the class nature and privileged observer-eye of news reportage. Second, in the news footage that Winterbottom uses over this voice, he edits from massive crowd footage to medium shots of men and boys raising their arms and chanting, and then to a close-up of two boys doing the same. This footage will echo with a later series of news-shots where an imam speaks to a crowd expressing similar widely held views.
The demonstration footage seamlessly segues into a long shots of the busy Karachi streets, with cabs and trucks heading toward the camera. We then see a variety of images showing the young actors doing tourist things in the city, such as shopping and taking rides at a theme park. Asif comes from his village to join them, as does a cousin. As the actors are shown sitting together in a restaurant, the older men's voices-over discuss their long-time friendships. One of the actors in the restaurant says he's been spending most of his time shitting. Toilets and food illnesses are repeatedly topics of discussion and are shown visually, as part of the film's gritty realism, including shots of fly-infested food. The fellows were there for about a week, and without planning, as Asif describes it,
We then see news footage of an imam addressing a crowd. Not all of his words are translated, but subtitles give this: "The bombing of Afghanistan. This can only lead to chaos and terror." A close-up of the older Ruhel follows: "We were hyped and he was shouting slogans that…" His words are continued by news footage, including close-ups and long shots of men with boys raising their arms and chanting.
The older Asif continues: "The preacher was saying you should help Afghani people in whatever way you can, and also we was thinking of going over to see what Afghanistan is really like." After than, the actors sit in a crowded restaurant open to the street and continue their discussion of the upcoming trip: "…we're going, one, for the experience and, two, to help. And the food there, you know the nan (a flatbread), big nan." They all gesture with ever-broader spreads of their arms to indicate the size of the Afghan nans, and then wonder what languages might be spoken there. The older Asif says, "So we jumped on a bus then and off we went." His image segues into a close-up of the young men on the bus, one vomiting into a plastic bag.
In presenting the young men's experiences, the film uses this kind of dramatic ellipsis throughout. I describe this introductory section of the film at length because it seems so important to know what motivated the youth to take their ill-fated trip, yet there is a limit to what we can know. For example, they spent about six weeks in Afghanistan before capture and we really do not know what they did there. Because of his work in the Middle East, Winterbottom understand the differences in U.S. and European sentiments about "terrorism" and views expressed widely in the Middle East in the months following 9/11:
Much of the first half of the film is shot with digital video, providing the sensory imagery and contextual knowledge that location shooting can provide. As Winterbottom puts it, the film gives visceral evidence for the men's account. The film shows different kinds of transport common in poor countries—busses, minivans, and trucks. It also includes longer sequences showing the terrifying transportation of prisoners: First it shows one of the men being trucked in a shipping container to an Afghan prison; at one point, the Northern Alliance machine-guns holes into the container to give the men air, but many are killed and only twenty survive. Later, we see the film's version of the captives' plane ride to Guantanamo, as hooded and sensory-deprived, hands ziptied behind their backs, they are strapped into at an unendurable position, neither able to sit upright or lie down. The video captures the specific locales of Karachi, Kandahar, Kabul, Kunduz, and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the cameraperson walked through the streets or filmed from within a bus. Winterbottom said video let him constantly improvise with the actors to take advantage of the location, and the film benefits from his familiarity with local customs and how to get around. In addition to the film's rapid cutting, then, the image track gains in kinetic effect from capturing details of daily life, in particular, the jostling of people on the street with the camera often positioned for low or waist level shots to be even more unobtrusive in their presence.
The sequences in Guantanamo have a different visual style, being shot on set. Winterbottom originally wanted the young actors to stay "imprisoned" in cells for a while to experience what captivity in Guantanamo was like. However, the actors themselves could not stand shackling and demanded padding for their legs. The older men showed the younger ones the scars they still bore and said they often had to wear leg shackles for hours at a time. The worst of Guantanamo practices entailed being beaten while short shackled, which led all of the three men to confess. As shown in the film, short shackling usually consists of having the legs cuffed to a bolt in the floor with the prisoner bent over and his hands cuffed to the same bolt. In a torture sequence with strobe lights, the exhausted prisoner falls into various position, all of which produce more pain. In this way, the film uses staging and the tableaux vivantes that result from the strobe lights to show some of the worst moments the prisoners endured. In this instance, the staging has a powerful kinesthetic effect.
Finally, I think the effectiveness of the docudrama as a genre is that it does not flatten out individual experience as much as the documentary usually flattens out a witness' voice, especially when that voice is edited into a short statement in the service of an argument. The Road to Guantanamo is filled with many peculiar moments. The boys want to travel to eat those big nan, one misses a bus because he's shitting, one just disappears forever. The very title, The Road to Guantanamo, alludes to the Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour-Bob Hope "road" films, most famous being Road to Rio (1947), which has scripts filled with the characters' misadventures in an exotic locale. In the film and perhaps also in practice, interrogation procedures are illogical and inefficient, as if records or transcripts are not even kept. The young men are asked the same questions over and over, and at one point are told their images in photos and videos place them at rallies with bin Laden himself. After their parole and work records prove they were in England at the time, they are eventually moved into better quarters to hang out together, watch videos, drink sodas, and eat McDonalds and pizza. Before they leave, they are asked to work for U.S. intelligence and to sign a paper saying they've been detained there because they were linked to Al-Quaeda and the Taliban, which they refuse to do. On leaving to go to their plane, they hear admonitions such as, "Make sure you say that you were treated properly" and "Don't look out the bus window."
Such idiosyncratic moments return the witness testimony from the realm of evidence to the realm of experience. The film moves along with the unpredictability of daily life, as we observe it, with all its irrationality and discontinuities. In this way, Winterbottom's docudrama stylistically develops a kind of "realism" that the documentary often has to do without. Docudrama is not wedded to realism, however, since it can draw on any genre for its fictional aspect. Many docudramas are melodramas, a genre with a long history of capitalizing on social issues in the news, which it reformulates in moral terms often in a story about victimization. Furthermore, low-budget location shooting like Winterbottom's may have led him to shape the first half of his "real-life" narrative in a neo-realist mode, with more of an emphasis on documenting social milieux. Traditionally neo-realist cinema, following from literary naturalism, also tells a pessimistic story about victimization, and in some ways, we would expect a docudrama about men imprisoned in Guantanamo to proceed in this way. However, Winterbottom deliberately eschews such a narrative line, and his emphasis on the haphazardness and gratuitousness of what the men experience saves the film from melodrama or neo-realism's predictable tropes, emotions, and closure.
When people hear "waterboarding" in the news, a very common, institutionalized rhetorical process has already shaped, indeed pre-digested, the concept for them. This one word summarizes a human experience, suffered by many across history, and now refers to policy decisions; the word's sensual residue provides a slight, but just a slight frisson. In the news, torture discourse, like war discourse, takes an issue of great magnitude, universalizes it—stripping it of context, and explains its course and processes with a gravitas and objectivity that's related to newscasters' and viewers' mutual assumptions about our collective right to know. Words like "waterboarding" or "stress positions" suggest a larger story, not explaining concrete instances but leaving it to the listeners' imagination to fill in the details.
Clearly it is important, and perhaps unusual, that we have all this documentation of torture—no such documentation is available for activists, lawyers, and former detainees in the UK. But using those documents to speak for the oppressed still assumes a political agency denied to those so easily rounded up, detained and abused. As information about torture circulates within institutions that will publish it—more or less fully—news reportage, survivor testimony, and government documents all run the risk of being received in a way that reassures listener/ viewer/readers of their safe distance from the "problem." For example, academics, lawyers, and medical people who deal with the topic of abuse have learned role distancing as part of their profession, which in any case places them securely in the middle class and authenticates a right to know, to examine with an objective eye. In daily life, most news viewers in the United States can absorb the story of torture within a flow of stories and not have to think about it later.
In addition, as the news or political leaders proffer such summary words like "waterboarding" or brief narratives about torture, the public discussion is rendered with deceptive temporal finitude and assurance. In this way, the torture "story" serves as a common, socially distributed narrative, which functions as all narratives do to give us a sense of closure and protection, a brief mastery over a distressing situation. Even current and potential legal procedures that could provide more definitive social closure—administrative decisions, legislation, commissions, and court cases—of necessity filter out much of what those who experience torture have gone through and the context in which such violence occurs. We cling to the possibility of a redemption narrative for both ourselves and for those who have suffered terrible abuse. We crave some kind of temporal progress, as if we could so easily, just by increasing knowledge, "put the past behind."
Even this socially reduced knowledge of torture is still too much for many media viewers to absorb. With the excess of images that surround us, many viewers think there's too much violence in the media and they flee from it to safer fare. For others, the violence of our ubiquitous primetime police dramas or action-adventure and horror films processes death and dismemberment through the reassuring tropes and genre predictability of fiction. Understanding torture, or not understanding it but trying to decipher something like the Abu Ghraib photos, means gaining painful knowledge and acting on it.
Gaining such knowledge, having it "stick," often means absorbing information accompanied by personal narrative and visual proof. This is how anti-slavery activists taught about slavery and rallied people to their cause within the Abolition Movement, where abolition meetings often included the visual, tactile demonstration of shackling and the testimony of a former slave, who would expose part of his/her body to show corporeal proof of past abuse. Flinch or not, the meetings elicited a kind of pleasure and epistephilia both ways, with shame and shock at being a voyeur, and also not wanting to look but willing to do so within the context of gaining knowledge and acting on it. The torture documentary circulates within a similar field of reception, among activists or potential activists, many of whom really do not want to see torture. In writing about viewers who would turn away from the Abu Ghraib photographs, Susan Sontag chastised them in an unusually frank way:
What is going to happen around torture in the United States? I follow the news almost obsessively and the story drags on. As of the time of this writing, President Obama gave a speech at the National Archives—which houses the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence—to affirm that he will close Guantanamo Prison in spite of legislative balking. It is a progressive move. However, as Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, summarized Obama's characteristic way of handling these policy decisions around illegal detention and torture,
Like Michael Ratner and many other activists, I cannot tolerate the ways in which my country abrogates the Rule of Law. I am repelled by the outrages upon the human mind and body that torture, by definition, enacts. But my sense of engagement needs to be tied to something greater than fighting to right my country's wrongs and thus securing my identity as a privileged middle-class U.S. citizen within a more ethical public sphere. At this moment in history, two things have happened with the eruption of the torture narrative as a story about U.S. acts. First, it's an impassible story, just at the Abu Ghraib photos are impassible evidence; we cannot "get on with" or "settle back into" American identity until we deal with what the story entails. And it may not be an identity that should remain unchanged. That is, the torture narrative de-centers the traditional hegemonic view of the United States has of itself as a model for other nations, a beacon on a hill.
Second, the story to which we need to pay attention is larger than torture. It's about the United States going to war unjustly and fighting indefinitely. It's about the liaisons between catastrophes, international capital, privatization of the U.S. commons, and U.S. military intervention, including the use of torture. We need to conceptualize and work against torture within a global structural framework, beyond just the discourse of human rights. Judith Butler, writing about 9/11, advocates shifting our perspective in this way and its potential benefits:
As I consider the dis-ease which the Abu Graib photos engender in viewers, it seems to me that the shredded body may also stand as a metaphor for the physical and social obliteration we potentially face. Both right and left come up with different metaphors and different political solutions to deal with fragile boundaries and borders, including paranoia about impending "attack." Speaking from the Left, my fears come as I witness the world reeling from but not dealing with irrational global capital, nuclear proliferation, ecological degradation, and planet-wide warming. On the right, I see religious fundamentalisms desperately trying to establish enclaves to protect the faithful from the world's moral pollution. Many of my friends react to diffuse political insecurities by wondering what kind of world their children will inherit and by indicating on a personal level they have little sense of either bodily or social integrity: it could all be taken away. Anecdotally, I have found that such a sensibility is widespread. For example, after 9/11 a number of my Indian, Pakistani, and Korean friends indicated to me that as they watched television that day, they said among themselves something like, "Now you know what we feel."Although my fears, and our need for collective action, will not end when U.S. involvement in torture is resolved, in this historical moment we can and must deal specifically with this issue. As I mentioned at the beginning, all of us must write the "torture story" now, even if only provisionally. Meanings remain highly contested, and only some will be adjudicated in courts. We have at hand a tool both to communicate knowledge and reshape it. That is, the Internet provides an opportunity for many people to evaluate, refine, and generate information and analyses of torture. Most of the Internet sites that amplify the films or provide documentation about torture also have taken the lead in activism around this issue. These include organizations' sites such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, and International Justice Network. There are many progressive left/liberal sites and blogs such as scotusblog, the Huffington Post, Salon, and The Nation. Also mainstream news sites offer substantial coverage on the issue, such as the New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, and Guardian newspaper (UK). The documentation and analysis of torture now consists of an ever-expanding archive, constantly reinterpreted and feeding into activism in a variety of ways. The torture documentaries I have described here provide a way into this archive. To see a ninety-minute film adds to our knowledge but more importantly offers a pathway for understanding the concepts needed to struggle against torture and for the world in which we want to live.