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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A movie that could change the world: The Road to Guantanamo

It’s one thing to gain an impression of an event or set of circumstances far outside your own experience, by reading the news. We can read about the prison at Guantanamo and possibly form very strong opinions about the fact that it exists, the way the prisoners were identified and taken into custody, the way they have been treated since. Along with many others, I have been appalled and ashamed that the US government is responsible for a place like Guantanamo. Others may feel just as strongly that such prisons are a necessity in a dangerous world. But these feelings remain abstractions, still far removed from the real prison and the real prisoners.

Now a remarkable new movie brings the reality home, simply yet with great force, by following the stories of several young British men who got caught up in the wide net of Guantanamo, and who were eventually released. They themselves describe the events in ‘talking head’ interviews, while actors recreate the stories in vivid scenes.

There is certainly room for questioning whether these men are being entirely truthful, and whether the reenactments are as fair and objective as the filmmakers seem to present them to be. But that doesn’t really diminish the power of the film. To actually see people captured in large groups during the chaos of war, to see them undergoing harsh interrogation and frightening techniques to break their wills, to see humans installed in cages and robbed of all dignity, is far different from reading about it in a newspaper. The specific circumstances of these specific individuals may have been precisely as described, or not, but there is little doubt that many, many individuals in custody have undergone similar treatment – while fewer than 5% of the prisoners have been either charged or are deemed likely to be charged any time soon.

I don't really mean to suggest that I don't believe the young men's accounts - I found them very convincing. My main beef with the film is the way American soldiers are portrayed – the actors seem to have been encouraged toward caricature as they yell at the prisoners. (The British soldiers are more convincing, at least to my ears. Since the filmmakers are British, they may have a less reliable ear for the authenticity of American speech.) Otherwise the staging and editing are of high quality, as they have been in most of the films of co-director Michael Winterbottom.

I wonder if anyone could ever persuade the President and the Secretary of Defense to watch this film. They would no doubt characterize it as agitprop, distorted and untrue. But no one watching The Road to Guantanamo could fail to be moved by the story it tells. No one who sees it will have his preconceptions unchallenged. And everyone should see it – certainly anyone with an interest in the subject, and whose previous knowledge, like my own, has been based mostly on news accounts. It’s a movie that could change the world, if enough people see it.

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