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The Road to Guantánamo

Genre: Drama
Rated: R
Directed by
: Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui, Afran Usman
Released by: Roadside Attractions

In Short: A stark, straightforward journey through the injustice, hypocrisy and paranoia of the war on terror.

The Long Way Home
Raw Docudrama Challenges Americans' Perceptions
By Kim Fay

"The Road to Guantánamo" succeeds in two significant areas. It shines a bright light on the elephant in the room: the American government's hypocrisy in maintaining a prison camp that flagrantly disregards the Geneva Conventions. And it effectively raises questions. Along with the issues that surround the arguments for torture, we wanted to know how three young British Muslims, Asif (Afran Usman), Ruhel (Farhad Harun) and Shafiq (Riz Ahmed), wound up captured with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and as a result, how the United States justifies holding the world to standards that it is insolently unwilling to adhere to.

Because this movie sidesteps rationalization—these guys aren't guilty, and they don't have to explain themselves—we were left wanting by the events that set this story in motion. Why did these friends, who came to Pakistan for Asif's wedding, cross into Afghanistan just as the United States began its 2002 bombing campaign? We are told they wanted to join humanitarian aid efforts and we believe this. Backpacking kids do stupid things in the name of idealism and adventure all the time. But the movie never satisfyingly depicts the kind of bewilderment and fear one would expect in such a situation, especially when a fourth friend, Monir (Siddiqui) vanishes—presumably killed—somewhere along the way.

Dressed in traditional skullcaps and strategically product-placed GAP sweatshirts, the young men reach Kabul just as the big bombs start falling. Soon, they’re ready to hightail it back to Pakistan. But the truck they hop onto takes them farther into Afghanistan, where in the company of rebel fighters they are captured by the Northern Alliance and turned over to the Americans, who send them, ultimately, to Guantánamo Bay. While the first part of the movie could benefit from more emotional insight, the rest of the story speaks for itself, and the impact is powerful.

We have seen the episodes in other movies: psychological harassment, degradation, stress positions, beatings and solitary confinement. But even though this film entwines dramatic reenactments with documentary interviews and archival footage, this is no E! True Hollywood Story. This is as real as it gets, and it’s horrifying. Even if you’re one of those the-war-on-terror-justifies-everything types, who don’t care that these kids are imprisoned for two years without ever being charged of a crime, the treatment of Asif, Ruhel and Shafiq cannot, under any circumstances, be excused.

Sadly, it’s possible that the very approaches that make this movie successful—its lack of melodrama, its stark portrayals, its refusal to make the trio out as angels—might also work against it in convincing the American public that Guantánamo Bay is bad. There are no cutaways to their wailing mothers. The young men are, in fact, released because two of them have alibis for an Osama bin Laden rally: at the time, they were on parole for petty crime.

Americans have never come round to the Balzacian way of thinking. They continue to insist that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to the bad. While these kids certainly aren’t bad, they don't—with their defiantly unruly beards, stoic declarations that the experience made them stronger and unshakable faith in Islam—fit the one racial profile that would make them sympathetic to the American public: the all-American hero. Like the three young men, “Road to Guantánamo” is honest, raw and unapologetic. Which raises a final question: Are we, as a country, ready for that?


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