Road to Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom, 200)

Michael Winterbottom's Road to Guantanamo (2006) is terrific, a scathing indictment of the US Government's malevolently nebulous policy on terrorist detainees.

These aren't the worse prison conditions I've ever seen; they aren't quite concentration camps, geared towards systematic genocide. And even as detention facilities I could think of worse--say, Filipino prisons where the fellow prisoners prey on each other as much as the guards do (Mario O'Hara's Bulaklak ng City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1985) comes to mind). But that a developed, supposedly advanced country organized this--worse, one that proposes to be a vanguard of democratic principles--the monumental scale of the hypocrisy, that's the real shocker, the true obscenity (I think it can be argued that this is mostly the Republican's doing--but then, where were the Democrats?).

I don't have a problem with the three youths not quite registering onscreen--truth is, they come off as shallow at first, they don't seem worth committing to memory; it's when they're being dehumanized and treated worse than animals that their identities, their very humanity, comes to fore (In a way, the film's title is brilliantly chosen, evoking as it does the Cosby-Hope "Road" movies--this is a lark, an adventure gone horribly wrong).

I don't have a problem with their motives being not that clear either--I don't think their guilt is the point, and I believe Winterbottom took care to leave their reasons as vague as they themselves allowed it to be. The point is the treatment of these prisoners; guilty or not guilty, they don't deserve this treatment, not from a civilized nation.

And that I suppose is yet another point--that with Guantanamo, the United States (or at least this Republican version of it (with the Democrats in absentia)) reveals itself as less than civilized. The early interrogations seemed not only sadistic, but incredibly inept--they appear to have been staged not to gather information but to allow these amateurs (in military uniform instead of the clothes of real intelligence operatives (those appear later, with subtler techniques)) a venue for venting their anger at the people responsible for 9/11. It's the United States trying to get a bit of its own back, and as a result perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Arguably, Winterbottom's use of both documentary and drama--re-enactments mixed with interviews of the actual detainees--is a weakness, taking away from the intensity of the re-enactments, but it does have one effect that may not be possible any other way: looking at the interviewees, it was a shock to realize that the man speaking in front of me was the smooth-faced, callow youth in the re-enactments. You wonder: what happened to him (beyond the obvious fact that, yes, they used actors (mostly non-professional) for the re-enactments)? The cliche 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' pops up, but seeing this contrast of faces, you feel as if you've witnessed the actual, working principle; you know these men have grown into their present strength. They looked like unlikely material for revolutionaries then; they seem more ready to stand up and struggle now--and that's the real danger of these detention camps.

It's interesting that Winterbottom includes scenes of the intelligence people trying to undercut the case for the detainess' innocence; they make a fairly good job of it too, or as good as they can (the three were released without any conviction, two years after they'd been captured). You get the sense that Winterbottom doesn't want to whitewash these youths, that he includes their flaws and police records and all, and at such a time--late in the film--when it would be most damaging (we've taken to them, we trust them, and it turns out they might be guilty after all?). It's arguably propaganda, but not simplistic propaganda; Winterbottom's smart enough to present the prosecution's case as well.

All in all, it's as good a film, I suspect, as we're going to get on the subject for some time. If the film hasn't made a bigger splash, well, I suspect I know the reason why: no one is eager to hear an unpleasant, unwanted truth.

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