"Sorting out the really bad guys"


The Road to Guantanamo

Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross

In cinemas now

Australians who support the repatriation of David Hicks have often called on our government to "follow the British lead" in bringing our citizen home from US custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Watching The Road to Guantanamo, it's hard not to see the British government in much the same deplorable light as Australia and the US, however.

The cinema of 2006 has ended brilliantly with the release of The Road to Guantanamo, as did 2005, with Good Night, and Good Luck. The year's most politically charged film confronts the ongoing abuses committed in the name of the "war on terror".

Not that there's any confusing the two films: Good Night, and Good Luck is elegant, articulate and ponderous; Road to Guantanamo grabs you by the guts and doesn't let go until the final credits roll.

It's the nightmarish true story of four young men of Muslim background from the English town of Tipton — Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul and Monir Ali — who set off in late 2001 for a Pakistani village where Iqbal's arranged marriage was to take place.

A mosque preacher encouraged them to go to neighbouring Afghanistan to offer civilian aid to villagers caught up in the war between the ruling Taliban and the future US allies, the Northern Alliance.

Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross filmed on location in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, skilfully re-creating the sights and sounds of the young men's ordeal. An uneasy calm hangs over this "road movie" part of the film, as if they've stepped right into the eye of a raging imperial storm.

Neither they nor we are prepared for the horrors to come.

Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul were captured while trying to flee the Northern Alliance takeover and the US bombing; while Monir Ali was lost without trace.

The remaining three were detained by the Northern Alliance, then the US occupation forces, who eventually flew them to Guantanamo Bay where they suffered over two years of repeated interrogation and torture. Months at a time were spent in isolation cells.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, before we shift to Guantanamo Bay, we see the exact path travelled by innocent people — and only the innocent — who ended up in the grotesque Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta prisons. No-one who's been imprisoned there has ever been found guilty of terrorist activities.

We're reminded that while the Guantanamo detention of the Tipton Three was horrendous, every US step along the way was an obscenity. The bombing of Afghanistan killed and displaced thousands of innocent Afghans, whose only distinction was that Osama Bin Laden was supposedly hiding out somewhere in their country.

A US officer at a prison in Afghanistan said to the media, "We're now down to sorting out the really bad guys, so our marines are ready for anything".

The irony couldn't be more searing.

Road to Guantanamo's premiere in the Northern Hemisphere in February re-ignited public discussion of British culpability in the "war on terror". Yes, the British government did repatriate their citizens from Guantanamo, who were immediately released without charge, but it was two-and-a-half years too late.

Last month the Australian Government refused to issue a visa for Ahmed to travel here, perhaps fearing the attention that Ahmed's visit would draw to David Hicks's plight.

Despite their innocence, the Tipton Three have been subjected to continued harassment and surveillance by the British state. Ahmed and Rasul were detained for questioning at Birmingham International Airport in early November, missing their flight to South Africa to promote the film.

Rasul decided not to undertake the trip at all, fearing further intimidation, while Ahmed pressed on undeterred.

The film's rating in Australia warns of "distressing themes". Unlike the subjects of the film, this intimate, brutal portrayal of those distressing themes does us all a favour.

Iqbal quietly reflects on the experience thus: "It either destroys you or it makes you stronger. I think it made me stronger; only destroyed me for a few weeks."