THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, with Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui and Arfan Usman. 91 minutes. An Odeon Films release. For venues and times, see Movies, page 115. Rating: NNNNN
Berlin - More than any director working, Michael Winterbottom solves the riddle of how to be a filmmaker now. How do you grapple with form after postmodernism or fiction under the onslaught of endless war?
The films in his recent blizzard of work - Tristram Shandy, 9 Songs, Code 46, In This World, 24 Hour Party People - are open-ended, globalized and plugged right into the confusing present. He made all of them, and The Road To Guantanamo, in the five years since 9/11.
So it's no surprise that the man talks a mile a minute. In Berlin for the world premiere of Guantanamo, he and co-director Mat Whitecross have come fresh from the editing suite. Winterbottom, who has the slight, English build of a DJ or a midfielder, looks like he's running on pure adrenaline.
"It was a very short-term project," he says in his quick, clipped accent. "Let's tell their story as effectively as possible."
Made with deliberate political urgency, the film uses a blistering blend of documentary interviews and dramatic recreations to tell the story of three British men who go to Pakistan for a wedding in autumn 2001. A side trip to Afghanistan gets them swept up in a Northern Alliance raid, which leads straight to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul were interrogated and abused for more than two years.
Premillennial purists may quibble with a film that features three real ex-Guantánamo inmates and actors playing them.
But "even if you don't like the idea of a mixture of interviews and recreations and archive," Winterbottom argues, "this is the best way to tell it. We wanted them to be in the film so people could see them and see what they're like. But also we wanted to make it vivid - we didn't want it just to be interviews. It's a bit of a hybrid - it may not be a very elegant cinematic form, but it just felt like it was right for this."
Winterbottom is clear about his hopes for the film. "You want people coming out thinking Guantánamo should be closed down. It really is that crude."
And yet the filmmaking is anything but. Tristram Shandy, 24 Hour Party People and 9 Songs show how well Winterbottom can keep an audience at a critical distance. When he marshals those same skills to draw viewers on side, it's overwhelming.
But will it make a difference to anyone in Guantánamo right now?
"I don't think when you make one film you can expect a change," he admits. "But obviously you hope that the press, films, television have some influence in reminding people. If you can imagine yourself in their situation, that will hopefully refresh people's shock in the fact that Guantánamo exists.
"In a way," Winterbottom says about his subjects, "these were the lucky ones. They were lucky they got out, and they were lucky they had a specific charge brought against them - which was that they were at the rally where Osama bin Laden was - because they could prove that was wrong.
"But a lot have no charges against them, so it's impossible to defend their case, because there is no case against them. So you have to remember as you're watching the film that these are the lucky guys." movie review
THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross) Rating: NNNNN
Telling the story of three Brits swept up in a U.S. security net, Guantanamo is this generation's Battle Of Algiers. Made with ferocious urgency and a will to help shut down the illegal prison camp, it is searing, activist filmmaking.
Thankfully, Michael Winterbottom has the skills to make it work as drama, too. Or part-drama. As in Tristram Shandy and In This World, Winterbottom plays fast and loose with fiction and documentary, interviewing the actual men who were arrested in Afghanistan and abused in Guantánamo. That's intercut with intense, hand-held dramatized scenes and the occasional snippet of TV news footage.
The interrogations are as absurd as Dr. Strangelove, except not funny. Overall, the effect is powerfully emotional - which could be a problem for anyone who thinks Guantánamo is a good idea. One of the best of the year.