Battlefield Earth

New films from Britain and Sri Lanka illuminate the consequences of war

Asked about that triple suicide last week at Gitmo, Colleen Graffy, our deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, opined that it was a "good PR move." Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantánamo—which docu- dramatizes the case of the Tipton Three and won the Silver Bear at the last Berlin Film Festival—might be an even better one.

The great versatilist of British film, Winterbottom—here co-directing with editor Mat Whitecross—follows his hardcore structuralist musical 9 Songs and anti-adaptation of the anti-novel Tristram Shandywith the true story of three Tipton lads, British-born South Asians all around 20, who, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, find themselves hooded and flown in a cargo plane to the U.S. prison camp on Guantánamo base.

"These are bad people," George W. Bush explains, with a touch of petulance and Tony Blair at his side, of the Guantánamo detainees. In the case of Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul that term hardly applies—unless luckless and possibly stupid are synonymous with evil. Having gone to Pakistan in late 2001 for a wedding, the trio gravitate toward Afghanistan's open border and arrive at Kandahar in time for the bombing. They flee to Kabul and then, attempting to return to Pakistan, take a van that turns into a Taliban convoy.

Captivating: The Road to Guantánamo
photo: Roadside Attractions
Captivating: The Road to Guantánamo

The Tipton Three are represented as good Muslims, which is to say, they're not fundamentalists but citizens of the world—carrying Adidas tote bags, wearing Gap hoodies, and referencing Back to the Future. Arrested by American forces, they are initially unfazed. U.S.A. is OK. (Later, one will compose a rap song that captivates his American jailor until it gets too close to home.) But their interrogation degenerates into pointless brutalization—complete with menacing dogs—even before they are packed up and shipped to Gitmo.

The Road to Guantánamo is shot documentary-style, mainly on digital video, with much interpolated news footage and hectic Steadicam work. Interviews with the actual Tipton Three annotate the action, which is feverish to a fault before settling into its prison camp routine. From there on, it's effectively grueling. Less narrative than experiential in its bias, The Road to Guantánamo details the 24-7 "processing" of these prisoners, replete with beatings, stompings, sensory bombardment, cage-like cells, shackles, and endless, fruitless interrogations. What's brilliantly omitted by the filmmakers is the ostensible purpose of the violence. Although the Americans claim to want information, their intention is political. Rather than knowledge of Al Qaeda, the goal seems rather to force confessions useful in the creation of defendants for a future show trial.

Although the Tiptons are ultimately unbroken after two years in prison camp, The Road to Guantánamo is one of the most oppressive accounts of life in a military detention since Jonas Mekas's "documentary" version of The Brig or Peter Watkins's Punishment Park. How good is it as PR? (As the American guards are fond of saying, "Shut the fuck up!") By making a spectacle of the purposeless violence inflicted by frightened authority on whoever might be available, the movie could just as well have been called The Road to Haditha.


The Museum of the Moving Image takes a chance in giving a short run to a more low-key, avant-garde wartime drama, Vimukthi Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land. Winner of the Camera d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, the Sri Lankan feature is a studied piece that opens with a single tank arriving at dawn in a deceptively tranquil war zone, a rural purgatory populated by a single family—two sisters, a child, and the man of the house, conscripted to home duty. The mysterious troop deployments around this deadpan quartet accentuate the sense of alienation.

Although the decades-long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers is in relative abeyance, years of violence have precipitated a breakdown in conventional behavior patterns—resulting in civilian suicides, adulterous sex, and participation in summary executions. Beautiful but withholding, The Forsaken Land doesn't offer much in the way of explanation—the soundtrack features more birdcalls than dialogue—but the 27-year-old filmmaker's command of film language is evident and his evocation of postwar trauma is haunting.

 
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