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Friday, Feb. 2, 2007
Rookie director digs for the truth
"The Road To Guantanamo" may be the first feature-length film for Mat Whitecross as a director, but his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom stretch back over several years. Whitecross worked as assistant director and editor on Winterbottom films like "In This World," "Nine Songs" and "Code 46." His leap into directing came over drinks with Winterbottom one night at a pub; both men thought the story of how three boys from Tipton ended up incarcerated at Guantanamo would make an amazing movie, but Winterbottom was tied up in another project, so he told Whitecross: "You make it."
"I thought he was just joking," said Whitecross in an interview with The Japan Times, "but suddenly it was happening."
When asked why he wanted to make this film, Whitecross said, "Initially, it was just an amazing story -- it feels like something out of 'Gulliver's Travels' or 'Sindbad.' Here were these three Western, middle-class kids -- they were Muslim, Asian, but basically just like me, culturally. They like hip-hop and Jean-Claude Van Damme films, but they've been through this thing in the world's most notorious prison."
Whitecross felt a personal connection to the story as well: "My parents were political prisoners in Argentina in the 1970s," explained the director, "so this story immediately rang true to me. I mean, as soon as these guys returned home, they were condemned by all the tabloids and called 'the Tipton Taliban.'
"The Sun, a Robert Murdoch paper, was trying to stitch them up, saying 'we have proof they're terrorists,' none of which was true. That was the same with my parents; they were picked up, they hadn't done anything, but they could still disappear off the streets. But once you say 'my parents were in prison,' people assume there was some trouble."
To win the confidence of his subjects, Whitecross spent a month rooming with Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul. "I imagine it must be difficult for them to trust anyone," noted Whitecross. "They must have been suspicious of our motivation. But once we got in the same room, it was remarkably easy -- they were just, like, OK, tell our story."
When asked if his subjects weren't scarred by their experiences, and whether it wasn't traumatic for them to relive it on screen, Whitecross ponders the question for a moment, and replies, "They've got this bravado about them. They want to show people that they're stronger than the people who did this to them. They don't want to seem weak or broken, but it has affected them a lot.
"I think they realized that at the Berlin Film Festival. We all got invited to the stage after the screening, and all the audience stood up at the same time. It was a very emotional moment, and they all began to cry. These guys had pretty much been abandoned by their local community, by their local politicians, by their own government, and finally they saw some people saying, 'We believe you.'
"It's disgraceful. The Tipton Three are still under surveillance in the U.K. They're in this weird limbo state where they're not guilty and not innocent. And I think they should be tried if there are any charges. As far as I'm concerned, they're innocent."
Some critics have lambasted the film for not providing more "context" regarding America's need to fight terrorism, even if mistakes are made. Says Whitecross, "We've heard Bush's point of view, we've heard Rumsfeld's point of view, we've heard so many commentators and military spokesmen, but we haven't heard the point of view of the guys who've been subjected to this behavior. Part of me feels like saying just shut up, let's listen to the real guys themselves. They're gonna tell their story and you believe them or you don't."
One wonders how sensible it is for a Western film crew to shoot these days in Afghanistan -- as Whitecross did for this film -- but even a bold director has his limits. "We shot everything right up to the point where they're captured in Kunduz in Afghanistan," say the director. But the scenes where you see guns, we shot in Iran. It was dodgy (in Afghanistan), it felt like a risk that wasn't worth taking, especially with 17-year-old first-time actors, whose parents we had to ask for permission to take them to Afghanistan. So we shot in Iran. It's the same location-wise, and the same kind of ethnic mix, but it's safe. And we did it with the government's permission. And they have infrastructure, a film industry. They were happy for us to build the Guantanamo prison on a military base in Iran. There's some kind of satisfaction about building Guantanamo in the center of the Axis of Evil."
One wonders what happened to the faux-U.S. prison after the filmmakers left. "I guess they pulled it down," muses Whitecross. "Or turned it into a theme park or something. [Laughs.] I just hope they're not putting their own prisoners in there!"