Mat Whitecross and the Rough "Road to Guantanamo"

Susan Gerhard June 26, 2006

The simple premise that opens Mat Whitecross’s and Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo” is that a few unlucky adventure-seekers could end up in a war zone far away from home by sheer accident. It’s the kind of leap of faith a traditional documentary film would never attempt, but Winterbottom and Whitecross — whose backgrounds are in fiction and fiction/fact hybrids — ask audiences to enter this story bravely through the front door, probably because the facts are so terrible there is, frankly, no other way in at all. Walk a few thousand miles in the shoes of Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Ruhel Ahmed, the “Tipton Three” (interviewed with affectless grace that lends credence to the re-enactments of events that fill the screen) — and there’s no turning away from the inhumanity of the U.S. “detainment” camps at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. A short time after the tragic suicides there highlighted the awful processes the inmates are still facing, Mat Whitecross answered a few of SF360’s questions by email. The film continues to play at Landmark’s Embarcadero and Shattuck theaters as well as the Rafael this week.

SF360: How long did you spend interviewing and getting to know ‘The Tipton Three?’ What struck you most on first meeting?

Mat Whitecross: Initially I spent a month living with them in a house in Oxford, where I’m from originally, while Michael was filming ‘Tristram Shandy.’ I had geared myself up for the atmosphere to be quite awkward, but they are very normal people, down-to-earth and funny. During our time there, it felt like being back at college in a student flat share. Conversations veered from what soap opera was on the telly, to who’d eaten who’s pizza. They were a far cry from the fragile ex-detainees I’d expected. So what struck me was their strength and ability to look back at their experiences without bitterness.

SF360: Are they transitioning back into a semblance of normal life? Are they experiencing post-traumatic stress problems? Long-term medical problems from their treatment by U.S. military?

Whitecross: They play down any effect their experiences have had on them, partly out of youthful bravado, partly from a wish to move on. But inevitably, their time in Afghanistan and Cuba has changed them. None of them have really talked to their families about their experiences. The first time their relatives got the whole story was at a screening we organised for them in Birmingham prior to the film’s UK release. Aside from the physical aftereffects, mentally I think all three of them are far more affected than they would let on, or perhaps than they really know.

There is a pronounced divide in Tipton between white and Asian communities, and the day the Tipton 3 were released, racists hung orange jumpsuited effigies from the lampposts in their street. So the real test will be how they put their lives together after they finish promoting the film.

SF360: There’s an interesting mix of archival nonfiction footage, and material you filmed yourselves. Aside from the George Bush/Tony Blair/Rumsfeld scenes, and the interviews, it’s difficult to tell where the ‘real’ footage ends and the re-enacted footage begins. Can you talk about creating a ‘real’ look in the film? Any particular strategies you employed?

Whitecross: Michael always strives for authenticity, but on this film it was of course particularly important. We filmed as much as we could in the real locations, but when it came to shooting the Afghan atrocities, and Guantanamo Bay itself, we had to recreate the scenes in Iran. We had worked there on Michael’s film ‘In This World’ back in 2002, but more importantly the country had the right landscape and ethnic make-up. We had researched the areas we were filming and worked hard to find locations which corresponded as closely as possible to those we were recreating. Other than that, the film was graded at a post-production facility called Pepper Post, where sections were given a more uniform look. But I think for the most part, the audience can probably tell which sections of the film are news excerpts — we usually combine them with news commentary etc.

SF360: With the recent suicides at the prison, this past month has been a terrible one for maintaining the position that Guantanamo is a humane facility. How — besides the interviews — did you research the camps and their histories?

Whitecross: Aside from talking to lawyers who had had access to the facility, we spoke extensively to the Department of Defense, and Michael talked to an army translator who had taken part in many interrogations during his time at Guantanamo. There is now a huge amount of evidence from accounts by ex-detainees, as well as ex-interrogators, and leaks from CIA and FBI officials who attended the camp. The Bush administration has gone from denying abuse, to admitting certain instances, to finally arguing that the abuse we detail isn’t abuse at all. Bush and Gonzales initially redefined torture so narrowly that anything short of major organ failure could arguably be permissible.

SF360: One of the key themes of the film is that these three young men are “ordinary Brits” caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Do you think that many other prisoners at Guantanamo were caught up in equally extraordinary circumstances? Do you think audiences will translate the experiences of the Tipton Three as exceptions, or, in some ways, the norm, for Guantanamo?

Whitecross: From leaked reports and off the record briefings to press, we now know that many officials consider the prisoners at Guantanamo to be at worst foot soldiers for the Taliban, but in many cases innocent. The most important prisoners are kept as ghost detainees in facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, or other undisclosed detention centres. But in any case, even if Bin Laden were arrested tomorrow, it would be essential that he be given the same access to fair trial by jury as anyone else. If the system isn’t transparent, abuses will occur, as has been seen time and time again, across the world. The case of the Tipton 3 is only one of the more glaring examples of the miscarriage of justice in Guantanamo. There are still 460 prisoners that we know of who remain imprisoned in there. They must be given fair trial and the camp must be closed.