Beyond the Multiplex

The docudrama "The Road to Guant

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 22, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Reality may be an ambiguous quality to philosophers, but it's still the hottest thing going in independent film. Every time I think the craze for documentaries has run its course, we get another. Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth" -- that's the Al Gore/global-warming movie, if you've been sailing the Antarctic Ocean for two months -- is clearly one of the event pictures of the summer, along with Robert Altman's "Prairie Home Companion" (and isn't that, in some bizarre way, a metafictional document of the "real" world too?).

Patrick Creadon's "Wordplay" had a massive opening in New York last weekend. Now, you could argue that a doc about the New York Times crossword puzzle and the "solving community" around it (that's really the phrase!) isn't exactly going to be huge in the hinterlands. But people, you and I know that the hinterlands ain't what they used to be. Folks out there drive those Volvo wagons with the magic little kiddie seats in the way-back, and they've grown accustomed to the fact that the supermarket over at Hinterland Creek Town Centre carries decent Pinot Noir, organic Meyer lemons and at least three kinds of Havarti (plain, with caraway seeds, and with those irritating little bits of dill). You bet your ass they know who Will Shortz is. (This is important: 50 Down for Wednesday is "Utah." "Ariz" throws the whole thing out of whack.)

Reality comes with a sharp and jagged knife-edge this week. It's impossible to say whether the nationwide audiences who have flocked to see "An Inconvenient Truth" will respond to Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' blood-curdling docudrama "The Road to Guantánamo." But this story of three British Muslims who were captured in Afghanistan and held as suspected terrorists for more than two years at Gitmo makes Big Al's doomsday scenarios look like a Shirley Temple production number, and may divide viewers on political lines even more sharply than Guggenheim's film does.

Since "The Road to Guantánamo" strikes me as the most important and most challenging film we're likely to see in the United States this year, I don't have much space to pay serious attention to anything else. But let's cast a surprised and grateful glance at aging cinematic bad boy Larry Clark ("Kids," "Bully," etc.), whose new film "Wassup Rockers" opens in New York this week, and also spare a thought for another veteran, Japanese director Yoji Yamada, whose sensitive and moving samurai drama "The Hidden Blade" should appear briefly in big-city theaters before its DVD release.

"Road to Guantánamo": Three Stooges from the Midlands go to "1984"
I don't know if it's possible for American viewers to have an appropriate reaction to "The Road to Guantánamo." I can only tell you that when I saw it, at a daytime screening during the Tribeca Film Festival, I walked out into the spring sunshine and felt profoundly confused. I was horrified, angry and upset, which are all more or less predictable reactions to the subject matter. But in all honesty, reaction No. 1 was: This can't really be happening. After that came the thought that, yeah, lots of other Americans would feel the same way: This can't be true. This isn't real. Something's wrong with this picture.

At the risk of retreating into Waffle House aesthetic relativism, I think the unsettling power of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' film stems from its contradictions. It combines documentary elements -- interviews with the three young British Muslims known as the "Tipton Three," from their hometown outside Birmingham -- with a harrowing fictional re-creation of what they say happened to them after they were taken prisoner in Afghanistan. It offers the most scathing possible critique of American (and British) tactics in the so-called war on terror, but only by way of a story whose details cannot be verified. (I'll be interviewing Winterbottom soon for Salon's Conversations series.)

"The Road to Guantánamo" challenges American viewers to confront the possibility (note that word, please) that the worst fantasies of the Chomskyite left fringe have already come to pass. In other words, the possibility that the country some of us still believe is capable of fulfilling the rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt has already become a new kind of totalitarian superstate, enforcing consumer narcosis at home with a borderless secret-police apparatus that spans the globe. At the same time, the film cannot dispel other hypotheses: Maybe the Tipton Three are a complete anomaly, and everybody else sent to Gitmo is a hardened al-Qaida assassin. Maybe the Tipton Three are not the hapless bozos they appear to be, but decided to prey on the sympathies of weak-minded liberal journalists after their release.

We're going to hear all these theories, and more besides, as this film percolates into the American consciousness. My point, ladies and gentlemen, if I have one, is this: "The Road to Guantánamo" will drive you crazy, if you aren't crazy yet. It documents a period of acute insanity, and all possible responses to it will sound paranoid to someone. (I have the feeling that I should end every sentence of this review with three exclamation marks: You just are totally not going to believe this!!! This is so way fucked-up!!!) Treat it as the gospel truth, treat it as terrorist-loving lefty hogwash, treat it as some unstable narrative middle ground between truth and fiction. Essentially all these routes have the same destination: We have gone through the rabbit hole. We've swallowed the red pill. Yo, Toto -- we left Kansas behind a long time ago, dude.

Let's get more specific. Rahul Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul were captured in late November of 2001, in northern Afghanistan, by Northern Alliance forces who were aiding the United States invasion. Along with other suspected Taliban fighters and supporters, they were packed into crowded, unsanitary prisons where many detainees died. When it was discovered that they spoke English and were British citizens, coalition military authorities became extremely interested, and they were handed over to U.S. Special Forces. They were transferred to an American-run prison in Kandahar and then to Guantánamo, where they spent two years, first in the outdoor wire cages of Camp X-Ray and then in the indoor steel barracks of Camp Delta.

I don't think any of those facts are in dispute, nor is the fact that the three men were eventually released (in March 2004) and no charges against them were ever filed. Winterbottom, who directed the fictional portions of "Road to Guantánamo," has decided to dramatize their version of events, from their first capture through their eventual release, and has admitted that no one can be certain it's absolutely all true. (It's not like the U.S. government is offering informational tours, or making the files of detainees available to filmmakers.)

Still, if many people were suspicious of the Kafka-by-way-of-Three-Stooges nightmare portrayed to the British media by Ahmed, Iqbal and Rasul after their release, you'd have to say that it all sounds significantly more plausible today. If it were possible to watch this film from a dispassionate distance, you'd say it was a classic prison yarn, a story of innocents terrorized, in which every twist that seems to offer a way out only becomes another downward spiral into deeper despair. As one of the real-life detainees muses in an interview segment, they thought they'd be all right once they were in American hands. He had grown up in Britain, he says, with an inherent trust of Americans: "Them's all right, yeah?"

Them's not all right, at least not in this story. The U.S.-run prisons depicted here, both in Afghanistan and Cuba, are bastions of undisciplined macho sadism, characterized on one hand by systematic violence and ritual humiliation, and on the other by clueless interrogations. The three men say they were interrogated about 200 times by American and British investigators, who had convinced themselves the three had met Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta in Afghanistan in 2000, when they were actually unemployed louts hanging out at the pizza parlor in Tipton.

In the film, Ahmed (played in the dramatic sections by Farhad Harun), Iqbal (Arfan Usman) and Rasul (Riz Ahmed) are repeatedly beaten, kicked and spat upon. Their interrogations, by both British and American intelligence officers, involve the crudest forms of violence and intimidation -- a punch in the stomach, a gun to the head -- and extended sessions of more sophisticated torture, like the infamous "music room" treatment, in which a detainee is immobilized in an uncomfortable position for many hours and forced to listen to deafeningly loud heavy metal or screeching machine noise. After enough of this, they eventually sign false confessions linking themselves to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

If you've been paying attention over the last three or four years, you know this stuff is happening. In attempting to respond to a threat that is amorphous and almost invisible, but that may be global in scale (or may not), the United States has pretty much abandoned all pretense of civilized and lawful behavior. If the prison camps of "The Road to Guantánamo" are not quite on the Nazi or Soviet scale, they are much, much further down that road than any of us want to contemplate. If the hubris of neoconservative ideology lies in the idea that anything Americans do in the name of virtue is inherently virtuous, up to and including willfully torturing and killing the innocent, this film depicts a universe in which that hypothesis is being tested to its limits. Depressingly, it is far more convincing, and much scarier, to see this in a well-made feature film than to read about it in Salon or the New York Times.

Winterbottom's intense and devastating film was mostly shot in replicas of the Kandahar and Guantánamo prisons, custom-built on location in Iran. (I don't know if that's ironic, exactly, but it sure is weird.) Winterbottom and Whitecross mix in news footage of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld, along with actual images from the war in Afghanistan and the Guantánamo facility. It's often hard to tell where the real ends and the fake begins, which seems to be a hallmark of Winterbottom's career. (See also "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "24 Hour Party People.")

That, of course, also leaves "Road to Guantánamo" open to an inevitable chorus of attack, most of which will focus on the slippery story about what these three guys were doing in Afghanistan in the first place. They were in Pakistan for a wedding, they say, and wound up road tripping across the border, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, just as the Taliban regime was collapsing. Maybe they went to lend humanitarian assistance (which is pretty much what they say now); maybe they got talked into fighting for Islam and then got cold feet.

These questions may matter a little, but not much. Maybe these guys were or are zealots, I don't know. Maybe their story about the horrors at Guantánamo are exaggerated, I don't know. You can nibble at the factual edges of this film; you can point out, as I have tried to do, that it throws out all sorts of philosophical and aesthetic and maybe epistemological problems it can't solve. But you can't quite confront it; you can't, I can't and I'm not sure any Americans really can. It'll make you crazy.

"The Road to Guantánamo" opens June 23 in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Washington; July 7 in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle and Stamford, Conn.; and July 14 in Houston, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Larry Clark goes goofball in "Wassup Rockers"; the samurai epic gets thoughtful in "The Hidden Blade"
Yes, "Wassup Rockers" might be the most embarrassing title ever -- at least for a film made by a man in his 60s, and yes, this is another of Larry Clark's voyeuristic examinations of American youth. As usual, he has cobbled together a semi-improvised script based on the real lives of his actor-characters, in this case a group of Latino skate punks from East L.A. who make an epic journey across town to Beverly Hills. Shifting his focus away from white kids seems to have done Clark good, because "Wassup Rockers" is the least sensationalistic, and hence the least moralistic, of his films. It's an enjoyable if haphazard picaresque, a mildly psychedelic yarn about a group of goofball innocents facing a hostile universe that's closer in spirit to "Alice in Wonderland" than to the ponderous, two-bit nihilism of "Kids" writer Harmony Korine.

The heroes of "Wassup Rockers" are the children of Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants, but like all good American kids they've grown up with an urge to rebel. So instead of speaking Spanish, driving low-riders and wearing baggy clothes, they dress like the Ramones, circa 1976, play in a hardcore band and speak an idiomatic blend of Southern Calfornia slang (all of it in English) so dense you may wish the film was subtitled. The ringleader of this group is sleepy-eyed chick magnet Jonathan Velasquez, who's played by, um, Jonathan Velasquez. While the film is fictional, it's supposedly based on the stories Velasquez and the other performers told Clark about their lives, and all these guys appear under their real names.

I haven't seen the final cut of "Wassup Rockers," so some of its languorous and/or silly patches may have been removed. But even at its two-hour Slamdance festival length, it gradually developed its own rhythms and immersed you in these boys' half-macho, half-naive worldview. Clark can't restrain himself, here and there, from extreme close-ups of boy-nipples and underwear bulges, but by his standards this is a work of almost Victorian modesty. Our lads eventually make it to the skaters' heaven of Beverly Hills High, after various false starts, on the bus (actually two buses). They get hassled by the cops, meet some randy 90210-style white chicks (and some pissed-off 90210-style boyfriends), get shot at by an action-movie hero and cruise a ridiculous Hollywood party full of arty poseurs. If Clark's attempts to weave in both tragedy and farcical comedy don't completely click, this journey to the end of the night has an unexpected sweetness and joy at its gooey center. (Opens June 23 in New York; June 30 in Los Angeles; July 7 in Boston, San Francisco and Washington; and July 14 in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, with other cities to follow.)

There's also room in my heart for a dramatic film with no particular bearing on present-day reality, if that doesn't blow your mind too much. "The Hidden Blade" is something like the 78th feature directed by Yoji Yamada (a lot of them were entries in the seemingly endless "Tora-san" comedy series), who had a modest international hit with "The Twilight Samurai" in 2002. It's a sensitive, slow-moving 19th century samurai drama that will appeal to that tiny cadre of filmgoers who savor the classic Japanese films of Mizoguchi and Inagaki. Yamada's not quite in that class, but this is a sympathetic and spirited work. Anchored in fine performances by Masatoshi Nagase as a conflicted, lower-caste samurai ordered to kill his oldest friend and Takako Matsu as the servant girl he loves, it slowly builds up an emotional wallop. (Opens June 23 at the Cinema Village in New York this week, and will be available soon on DVD. )

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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