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The Road to Guantanamo/Interview with Michael Winterbottom

The commander of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has called the recent suicides acts of 'asymmetric warfare.' Co-director Mat Whitecross, says such comments confirmed why he and Michael Winterbottom wanted to make

The Road to Guantanamo .

MAT WHITECROSS: We felt the Bush Administration and that side had really had their chance to get their argument over to the audience'. And it felt like actually we needed to have some other side to the story.


That other side comes from three British Muslims. They were going to Pakistan to attend a friend's wedding shortly after September 11 2001. One of the men, Shafiq Rasul, says their first stop in Pakistan was Karachi.

CLIP Shafiq Rasul: It was Friday prayers and we were walking by the mosque and a lot of people were going in so we went in with them.

Rasul says the imam encouraged them to join a group of Pakistani Muslims traveling to Afghanistan to help out.

MAT WHITECROSS: They wanted to go over there partly out of adventure because it was a different place and it was exciting, and partly out of the sense that they might want to help people and they were going over as part of this convoy.

But Afghanistan's Northern Alliance captured the men and turned them over to U.S. troops. The three British Muslims were then sent to Guantanamo. That at least is their version of events, and The Road to Guantanamo does not challenge their account. But David Aaronovitch, a columnist for The Times newspaper of London, does not find their story completely convincing.


DAVID AARONOVITCH: What I'm not saying in this is that they are liars what I am saying however is that their story at the very least wouldn't have appeared credible if you were a British or American intelligence person trying to discover what they were doing in Afghanistan' So the issue of Guantanamo is not just a question of Americans picking up innocent people, it's also an issue of Americans picking up possibly guilty people.

Co-director Michael Winterbottom says such criticism betrays an anti-Muslim bias.

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: The idea that if a young Muslim says they are going to do aid work in a country that's at war then you don't believe them. You think they must be lying; they must be terrorists. If perhaps they'd been white Christians going to give aid in a country at war, they'd think they're very brave people going to help those people.

Winterbottom says The Road to Guantanamo gives the three British Muslims a chance to tell their side of the story. That includes allegations of abuse and mistreatment. The filmmakers recreate those scenes in brutal detail.

CLIP Soldiers yelling at prisoner

Winterbottom says it was vital to show the audience what the conditions at Guantanamo are like.

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: If you take stress positions when you read about it, it doesn't sound that bad. It's like going to the gym or whatever. But when we tried to get our actors to recreate those stress positions'where they have their hands cuffed between their legs and crouching down to the floor'after about two minutes they were like I can't stand this any more they were genuinely screaming to be let go.

Columnist David Aaronovitch concedes that the conditions as depicted in The Road to Guantanamo may be accurate.

DAVID AARONOVITCH: But it fudges the dilemma at the center of Guantanamo. The dilemma which is what do you do if you find yourself in a struggle with combatants who are committed to terrorism on an international basis? What do you do?

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: Of course if you capture terrorists you want to keep them in some sort of prison.

Co-director Michael Winterbottom.

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: But by creating a prison in Cuba what America has done is deliberately tried to put these people outside the law. It's in Cuba because it would be illegal to have this in America and although they picked these people up in Afghanistan during the war they decided they weren't prisoners of war and therefore they didn't have the protection of the Geneva Convention.

In the film, one of the British Muslims, Asif Iqbal recalls seeing American soldiers for the first time in Afghanistan, and being handed over to the U.S. forces.

CLIP Soldier: You're in U.S. custody. You're okay.

In the film, Iqbal says he felt a sense of relief at the time.

CLIP Asif Iqbal: Because you live in Britain, you think Americans are okay, right?

Soldier: Your name?

Asif: I thought things will be all right now, but I was wrong.

Co-director Mat Whitecross says Iqbal and the other two British Muslims were mislead by American popular culture.

MAT WHITECROSS: They always assumed that if you meet an American especially in a war zone he's going to be Sylvester Stallone and he's going to be on your side, he's not going to stick you in a jail for two and a half years.

Whitecross' fellow filmmaker Michael Winterbottom says that Guantanamo is reshaping world opinion about the United States.

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: It's a symbol of the idea that justice, freedom, democracy, things that we associate with America is really only for Americans.

For its part the Bush administration says it wants to close the prison at Guantanamo. But a State Department official said recently that the United States needs assurances from other countries that released detainees wouldn't pose a security risk. About 450 men are being held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of links to Al Queda and the Taliban. Only ten of the detainees have been charged with crimes.

Companion viewing: In This World -----