The Road To Guantánamo (2006):
A Commentary

Chris Durham


At the very beginning of The Road To Guantánamo, the moral ambiguity of the present (and foreseeably long continuous) ‘war on terror’ is placed centre stage, by way of footage of a George W. Bush/Tony Blair press conference at the White House. As Bush unequivocally asserts the essential guilt of the prisoners held at Guantánamo, Blair is captured looking on, his facial expression one of sternness. Ironically, Blair’s face is caught in a half-shadow, resonantly (and unwittingly) expressing the moral ambiguity and culpability at the heart of the issue. For the proceeding narrative goes on to establish the apparent innocence of three Guantánamo detainees, and detail the abusive treatment meted out to them in the facility. As befitting the hugely controversial status of this issue, central as it is to the complexities of America’s ‘war on terror’, the film has itself been mired in controversy, particularly, and unsurprisingly, in the United States. Whereas the film was screened on British terrestrial television the day before it was released for theatrical and video distribution, thus guaranteeing as large an audience as possible, across the Atlantic it has only received a limited theatrical release (predominantly in theatres on the East Coast, presumably where the film will largely preach to the converted) and video distribution. That the film’s exposure in the United States is more limited speaks volumes for the institutional censorship inherent in getting films distributed in the ‘free market’; a film as defiantly ‘off message’ as this does not stand a chance, not in America, not now. Censorship of a more direct kind was required by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which required the abandonment of the original poster artwork. As a result, the original image of a suspended, shackled, and hooded prisoner was changed to an image of a pair of shackled wrists. The reasoning of the MPAA was that the original image was too upsetting for general exhibition, which is spurious given that images commonly found on the poster artwork for the horror genre constitute a greater level of ‘excess’. However, that depends on the expressive component which characterises the ‘excess’; at the political, and therefore ideological level, a fantastical image of horror – even one of severe corporeal damage, say that of the dissected fingers publicising the Saw series - is less problematic than an image of corporeal oppression based on a contemporary reality. In this case, the MPAA was not only policing a controversial image, but an image of contemporary America.

If the film’s title ironically evokes the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope escapist series of the 1940s and 1950s, The Road To Guantánamo offers a very different kind of journey, and a very different image of Americans in foreign lands. The journey is undertaken by a trio of young men who also find themselves in foreign lands, and it is the definition of the constitution of ‘foreignness’ that produces some of the film’s effective moments. After all, notions of ‘the foreign’ surface in many of the current discourses which relate in one way or another to anxieties surrounding the current ‘war on terror’, whether it is the American soldier who is unable to distinguish between hostile and friendly Iraqis (because in the eyes of the former the latter are all ‘terrorists’), or the European racist who brands all European Muslims (and/or other dark-skinned Europeans, for that matter) as potential terrorists. The problem of both observations rests in a misperception of ‘the foreign’, and The Road To Guantánamo is replete with such misperceptions, challenging the spectator to think beyond the cultural categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As British Muslims, the three protagonists of the film express both a sense of Britishness and Islam, and the film invites the spectator to regard the protagonists as emanating from a similar culture to that of the spectator. When one of the men refers to the ‘big naans’ (Indian bread) to be found in Afghanistan, an inserted flashback shows the men eating and girl-watching in a Pizza Hut restaurant back in England, the linking of naan breads with pizzas expressing a commonality of dining experiences among the inhabitants of multi-cultural Britain. Later, as prisoners in Guantánamo, one of the men finds common cultural ground with one of the guards, in performing a rap. As prisoners, in their orange boiler suits, their heads shaved, the men become anonymous as part of a deliberate process of dehumanisation at the behest of the state; as a guard explains to them, ‘You are now the property of the United States government’. Perceived to be guilty, they elicit responses from their interrogators which confirm their absolute ‘foreignness’ in the eyes of the state. Notably, when a female interrogator shows one prisoner a grainy image of a Bin Laden rally in Afghanistan, she identifies the prisoner in the image when, as is clear to the spectator, such an identification would be impossible to make. While this may represent an interrogation tactic, it invariably brings to mind the traditionally prejudicial view of non-White peoples as being indistinguishable in appearance, thereby cementing their Otherness from the White perspective. Earlier, when an American serviceman finds out where the prisoners are from, he asks ‘Where the fuck is Tipton?’ The same response might be felt by some spectators of the film (Tipton is a town in England’s West Midlands), but the point is that these men do not emanate from out there, but from our own societies. The final irony evidenced by the film is found in the men themselves, who are seen in their interview inserts to be, in two out of three cases, more fundamentalist in their appearance, by way of possessing long beards (prior to their capture their facial hair was either modest or non-existent). As many commentators have noted, a dangerous consequence of the Guantánamo process is that innocent men may well be radicalised by their incarceration; in the case of two of the ‘Tipton Three’, this seems abundantly clear.

One of the criticisms that can be levelled against The Road To Guantánamo is that it does not elaborate more on the reasons the men had to go to Afghanistan, just a few weeks after the events of September the 11th, and when it was clear that the Allied military campaign was about to begin. One must remember, however, that this is a subjective film to the degree that it captures events largely, although not exclusively, from the point of view of the men concerned. The men were young, and possessed of a naivety that many young men have when entertaining the thought of doing something ‘exciting’. It is not wholly inconceivable that they went to Afghanistan to see ‘what it was like’, and perhaps to help in providing humanitarian assistance. Once there, their experience of finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time is also a phenomenon many travellers to hostile foreign countries could relate to. Of course, it is not inconceivable that the men went to Afghanistan for jihad, as their interrogators suggested, but Winterbottom and Whitecross’s film forms a genuinely convincing account of three men who were certainly foolish, but in all likelihood not terrorists. The film utilises the traditional tropes of ‘realism’ in its use of unknown performers, natural sound, and hand-held camerawork, although its true relation to actuality is apparently confirmed by the fact that the three men were released from Guantánamo and returned to Britain without charge. In the end, The Road To Guantánamo evidences the sufferings of these three men, but leaves one wondering how many more of the approximately 500 prisoners incarcerated there are to all intents and purposes innocent men, their imprisonment only serving to give strength to anti-Western feeling in the Islamic world.

If The Road To Guantánamo can be faulted for being a subjective film, representing a partisan view of one aspect of the ‘war on terror’, then it is no more subjective than some right-wing American news channels one can think of. It forms an entry into the lexicon of representations of aspects of the ‘war on terror’, and as such it is at least more grounded in apparent reality than the logic-defying, albeit entertaining, Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004). Such is the controversy surrounding the ‘war on terror’ in the actual world; one must expect cultural products dealing with the issue to themselves be controversial. As such, The Road To Guantánamo forms part of this expansive debate; it has its own ideological agenda, but it cannot be blamed for that. As a specific account of the experiences of the three men concerned, the film is specific in its perspective; it does not refer to the contextual phenomena determining the Allied presence in Afghanistan, and indeed the extra-legal use of Guantánamo, but it does not need to. The events of September the 11th need not be referred to, because it is a background story that is well known through being well documented. Yet how much do spectators really know about Guantánamo Bay? How much footage of Guantánamo have we seen? This is a story that needs to be told, and one should be thankful for the contribution The Road To Guantánamo makes to that process.


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