Published on Saturday, February 18, 2006 by Inter Press Service
'The Road to Guantanamo' Film Releasing Soon
by Clive Freeman
BERLIN - The Berlin International Film Festival served as a kind of political weather vane in the years when the Cold War was raging and Europe was divided. But when the Berlin Wall fell it lost that role, though never its fascination for the convulsive nature of politics and the conduct of world leaders.
The present 56th movie jamboree in the German capital was no different in this respect.
It was at the half-way stage of the Berlin International Film Festival on Tuesday that Michael Winterbottom's 'The Road to Guantanamo' received its 'in-competition' world premiere at the Berlinale Palast cinema on the Potsdamer Platz.
The movie, one of 19 films currently chasing the top Golden Bear award at the jamboree, impressed critics in Berlin and led to the liveliest press conference yet held at the ten-day Festival.
Winterbottom's film tells the true life "horror story" of four young men of Pakistan origin -- one of them now presumed dead -- who travel to Karachi, then on to a village near Faisalabad in Punjab, where one of them, Asif Iqbal, is to marry a bride chosen for him by his mother.
The group gathers shortly before the wedding. Then on the spur of the moment they embark on a well-intentioned but unwise escapade into Afghanistan to help victims of the war -- just days before American bombardments start in September 2001.
The three young men from Tipton, near Birmingham in England, soon recognise the folly of the venture but turning back proves impossible. Almost certainly betrayed by locals they are swept up by Coalition allies, and shunted into a container which ends up being machine-gunned by Northern Alliance troops led by General Dostum's forces, killing many inside.
Taken into American custody, the three young men -- Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul -- get beaten up and abused before being dispatched to Guantanamo Bay for two years and finally being released without charge and flown home to Britain.
Winterbottom's film, much of it skillfully shot at locations in Iran, weaves commentary from the three lads between credible re-enactments of their nightmare, and offers an astonishing indictment of Guantanamo, and the ruthless way it operates.
Strongly tipped to win awards in Berlin and possibly even the Festival's top Golden Bear trophy, the movie brings further embarrassment for President George W. Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, as its release comes in a week when a devastating UN investigative committee report is demanding the closure of Guantanamo and for its 500 inmates to be put on trial by American authorities or released.
In Berlin, two of the film's "victims of the war on terror" participated with Winterbottam at a news conference after the film's screening.
Asked if his Guantanamo ordeal still lived with him, Sharik Rasul said: "When we were released it was hard to sleep because one would keep hearing soldiers banging on the cells. You would be hearing it in the back of your mind and you'd wake up sweating and scared."
"But you have to start living your life. You can't forget about what happened, but you have to put it to the back of your head.. Even so, I'll never forget what we went through, and what some people are going through still."
"I think of the people that are there in Guantanamo, and what they are going through," he said. "The people we met, we know that they are innocent. They didn't do anything wrong. Some Britons are still there, we know their families. They ask us questions and we can't answer them."
All the families want to hear is when their husbands, fathers, sons will be released, he said. "That's the hardest bit, seeing their children and not being able to do anything for them. Perhaps the film will help, and show the world what's going on in Guantanamo. Hopefully it will help get them released as well."
When a German television correspondent said he was intrigued at the way Winterbottom had blended fiction and documentary in the film, the 44-year-old director replied: "We really wanted to find the best and simplest way of telling the story of Rhuhel, Asif and Shafiq.
It was important to include them in the film as the real people, he said. "But at the same time we wanted to try and find a way of imagining what that journey would have been like from their point of view."
Asked what Blair's reaction might be to the film, Winterbottom shrugged his shoulders, saying "I don't know, and I really don't care."
The 2006 Berlin Festival certainly has a powerful political edge to it, with a stronger than ever showing of movies from the Islamic world. Movies from Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Malaysia are being screened in its Panorama and avant-garde Forum sections.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is to be found in the main competition featuring two films from Iran. Jafar Panahi's 'Offside' tells the story of a girl disguised as a boy who tries to get into a soccer game at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran (in Iran women are not allowed entry inside sports stadiums).
Panahi, one of Iran's most renowned directors, won the Golden Lion Award in Venice in 2000 for his film 'The Circle' which focuses likewise on the realities of women in modern- day Iran.
Persian director Rafi Pitts, who is Paris-based, offers in his film a neo-realistic study of living and working conditions on the outskirts of Tehran. It won favourable reviews from critics after its screening this week.
Another Iranian film, 'Be Ahestegi' ('Gradually...) by director Maziar Miri involves a gang of boys living in a suburb of the capital. Its screening took place Wednesday evening.
Most films exploring the male-female divide in Iranian society have concentrated on women's problems, but in 'Men at Work', director Mani Haghighi looks at the psychological damage done to the other side.
Winking at the audience, this comedy of the absurd revolves around the mysterious obsession that four buddies returning from a ski trip develop towards a phallic-looking rock sticking out of the roadside. The movie spoof brought chuckles from its Berlin audience at its Wednesday night screening.
An important industry-related project at the 2006 Festival is the new European Film Market (EFM). It has grown considerably and has a new venue at the city's Martin Gropius building which, in the 'bad old days' used to be virtually up against the communist- guarded Berlin Wall.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service