The Road to Guantanamo, 95 mins, rated MA 15+, opening in cinemas on 9 November 2006.


(A slightly edited version of this review was  published in the November 2006 issue of the New South Wales Law Society Journal)

This is the story of the “Tipton 3”: 3 Muslim boys from the English Midlands, who say they set off to attend a wedding in Pakistan, but ended up spending 2 1/2 years in prison in Guantanamo Bay. They were tortured and badgered to sign false confessions, and finally released without ever being charged.

This film has 2 co-directors. There’s Michael Winterbottom (Tristram Shandy (2005), In This World (2002), 24 Hour Party People (2002), and Mat Whitecross, who has worked with Winterbottom as a film editor. It is an unusual mix of documentary and drama. There’s newsreel footage, mixed with interviews with the real Tipton 3, and there’s dramatised recreations of the story told by the Tipton 3. In these recreations, actors play the parts of Ruhel (aged 19 in 2001, when their journey began), Asif (also 19), Shafiq (23), and the unlucky fourth member of the group, Monir (22).

All this makes for quite a complicated melange, liable to confuse the viewer. Who is whom? How much is “objective truth” and how much is the viewpoint of the victims? How reliable is their story? Are they as innocent as they are portrayed? If they are “guilty”, what crime have they committed? These questions make for a fascinating film. And of course for the Australian viewer, the parallels with the plight of David Hicks make the film all the more compelling.

It is not giving away the story to reveal that the Tipton 3 returned home. When we see them interviewed at the beginning of the film, it is clear they are home. They tell their own story, and the directors fill in the gaps with newsreel footage and recreations. The pace of editing is fast and furious, supporting the story of the Tipton 3 absolutely. There is no attempt to question some of the fuzzier parts of their story. Yet I had plenty of questions.

If Asif was going to Pakistan to organise his wedding to a woman he had never met, why did he call only the 3 friends to join him? Why was Monir invited, when he seems to be a vague acquaintance? Why wasn’t Asif’s family involved in the wedding preparations? Why did they all ignore the bride and her family, and go off to Karachi? Did they really go to Afghanistan on impulse? Why did they continue on, even though several of them fell ill? How did they end up in a truck of Taliban prisoners surrendering to the Northern Alliance? Is this just a story of naïve kids caught up in things beyond their understanding? Or did they know what they were doing?

The directors aren’t interested in probing the story for loopholes. They simply want to tell the boys’ story in order to expose the horrors of Guantanamo. Of course, once the boys end up in Guantanamo, their experiences can be fairly well verified. This section of the film is horrific: scenes of humiliation and torture, of inane questioning sessions, where prisoners are confronted with grainy videotapes of crowds and bullied into confessing to being there, and therefore plotting with Osama Bin Laden or belonging to al Quaeda. It would be absurd if it weren’t so appalling. Why isn’t their government helping them, we think? And then we remember David Hicks.

In fact the Tipton 3 have an alibi that will eventually clear them. They were in Tipton when they were accused of engaging in terrorist acts. Of course they weren’t in Tipton when they were arrested in Afghanistan, but that did not figure in the allegations of the US military. So they were released, came home, and Asif was able to go back to Pakistan in 2005, to get married.

Meanwhile, David Hicks is still in Guantanamo, facing a new set of charges, and possibly years of constitutional challenge to the validity of the new Military Commissions which will prosecute him. If the British Government could bring home the Tipton 3, why can’t our government bring home David Hicks? As the final credits remind us, no one imprisoned at Guantanamo has ever been found guilty of a crime.