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Michael Winterbottom Takes on The Elephant

Writing about Michael Winterbottom’s 2003 science-fiction romance Code 46, set in an eerily familiar neofuture of high government security and heavily fortified borders, I suggested that the film felt like a story that might have been conceived while watching the latest news about the detainees in Guantánamo Bay. As it happens, Winterbottom’s latest film is about exactly that. The Road to Guantánamo, which Winterbottom co-directed with his 28-year-old former assistant, Mat Whitecross, combines documentary footage with dramatized reenactments to tell the story of the “Tipton Three” — Muslim friends from the Midlands who traveled to Pakistan for a wedding, ended up on a surreal tour of war-torn Afghanistan and were ultimately shipped, on suspicion of terrorism, to the eponymous U.S.-run detainment camp on the island of Cuba. The result is an unblinking work of activist filmmaking about one of the weightiest elephants sitting in the middle of America’s sociopolitical living room, and a movie getting ever more relevant by the minute.

On the Sunday night before Guantánamo’s arrival in U.S. theaters, Winterbottom and I met for dinner at Dar Mahgrib restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where, in between blasts of Moroccan music and displays of belly-dancing acrobatics, we spoke about his new film and the continuing existence of a U.S. prison that holds itself above the law.

L.A. WEEKLY: There are obviously countless stories that can be told relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why this one?

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM:For starters, this movie is about Guantánamo — it’s not about the war in Iraq. One of the starting places for making this film was a desire to draw attention to Guantánamo, to its existence. But also, this story just seemed like a really good story to tell: It’s about four friends, one of whom disappeared in Afghanistan, the other three of whom, after more than two years in Guantánamo — often separated, often isolated — came back to Britain and are still friends. It’s like an incredible adventure story, a bit like people going away to have a gap year and it all goes horribly wrong, but they survive it and are still close.

There’s a tremendous sense of urgency in the filmmaking, partly due to your inclusion of documentary interviews with the real Tipton Three and also because of the location shooting in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The aesthetics were dictated by different things. From the beginning, it seemed to me that one element of the film should be these guys telling their own stories, and that they should be in the film so that you’d get a chance to see what the real people are like. Beyond that, it was mostly about how to tell what is quite a long and complicated story in as short, simple and effective a way as possible. It seemed that, if on the one hand, they were going to be telling their story as they remembered it, we would also have to re-create certain things, just because you get so much more sense of what Guantánamo is like if you see it for yourself. Obviously, once we were making the film, we tried out different ratios between how much was told versus how much was reenacted.

To what extent was that balance achieved in the shooting and to what extent in the editing?

The first thing we did was the interviews. Mat Whitecross, the co-director, spent a month living with the three real guys and interviewing them for hours and hours. So, we had transcripts of their stories. Then we shot the early part of the film, the holiday part. We took the actors and also two of the real guys, Ruhel and Shafiq, and we shot the journey from England to Karachi up through Pakistan to Kabul, which was done very documentary-style. We were lucky in that Asif was getting married in Pakistan and we knew that could be the end of the film. Then we came back and did the re-creations. We were working with quite a constricting budget, but some things are very difficult to re-create in the first place. So we shot in Iran all the stuff we thought was too dangerous to do in Afghanistan, which was really everything from Kunduz onward, including the prison at Sheberghan and Guantánamo itself. Then, in the editing, it was a question of how to balance it out. In Guantánamo, you’re talking about more than two years of time, and the problem is that there’s nothing to do. It’s about boredom, depression, no charges against you, no way to get out. I remember one review complaining that once the film gets to Guantánamo, nothing much happens. Well, yeah: That is the point.

It’s easy to imagine how this story might have been turned into a patronizing film about the nobility of suffering, whereas The Road to Guantánamo is resolutely stark and unsentimental.

The idea was to just try to show what happened. It’s not really a dramatization; we weren’t trying to create characters as such and certainly not a dramatic structure. Because the story we’re telling is very linear, we didn’t want to manipulate that. One important thing is that this is not a film about three people who had an unfortunate experience in Guantánamo. In other words, ?as their own lawyer has said, they were very lucky. Theirs was the best possible experience at Guantánamo, not only because they were released, but also because all the things that you see in the film are what are officially permitted. This is not an Abu Grahib story or something that people don’t know about. The American government says all of these things — the short shackling, the sleep deprivation, etc. — are permitted. Most international organizations would say that what happened was torture or cruel and unusual punishment, but by American standards, this isn’t torture, because torture has to be equivalent to the sort of pain you get from organ failure or some bizarre standard like that. So, I’m sure that people in the current administration could watch this movie and think, “Well, people should go to see this, because we want people to see what we’re doing in Guantánamo.” If they created Guantánamo, they should be proud of what’s going on there.

Of course, President Bush has recently said that he wants to close down Guantánamo. What do you make of that?

Obviously, it would be good if he closed it down. What’s interesting is that when we made the film, and even when we showed it at the Berlin Film Festival in February — at that point, the British government had tacitly supported Guantánamo and there’d been virtually no criticism at all. Since then, both the attorney general and lord chancellor of Britain — the government’s two law specialists — have said it’s illegal. Given Britain’s total desire to do whatever America wants, it would appear that our politicians have decided Guantánamo will indeed close soon, and before it closes they’re getting in their opposition to it, so that when it closes, they can say that they spoke up. One of the terrible things about Guantánamo is that before it existed, no one would have believed it could exist, and once it closes down, people will be horrified that it ever existed. But for four years, we’ve all just sort of sat there and put up with it and not done anything about it.

Especially those of us living in the supposed land of the free.

Something like Guantánamo sends out a very strong signal to the rest of the world that the rule of law does not apply when America doesn’t want it to apply. But what’s strange about Guantánamo is that it was so clearly set up to avoid international law and to avoid American law, you have to assume that the administration was aware of the signal it would send out. Despite the fact that Guantánamo seems to be so terrible for the image of America abroad, it has still accomplished something for the administration. When America invaded Afghanistan, it was a useful thing to have, given that this is all about the so-called War on Terror. It was very useful to have a few hundred “terrorists” who George Bush could say were the most dangerous people in the world, who had to be put in this special prison outside the law in order to protect us from them.

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