Two former Guantanamo Bay captives joined British director Michael Winterbottom on Tuesday to promote his semi-documentary film about their experience and call for closure of the U.S. detention center.
Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul were captured in Afghanistan in 2001, then released without charge in March 2004. “The Road to Guantanamo,” one of 19 films competing at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, combines interviews with the men, news archive material and scenes recreating their experience in the facility on the island of Cuba.
“We want to show the world what’s happening in Guantanamo,” Rasul said at the film’s premiere. “What we really want is everyone to be released from there; we want the place to be closed down.”
The three Britons and a fourth friend went to Pakistan shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to attend Iqbal’s wedding. The film depicts them traveling next to neighboring Afghanistan, after hearing an imam’s call to help people in need. Of the then-ruling Taliban, Ahmed said: “We had no idea who they were.”
They were captured by Northern Alliance troops before eventually being taken to Guantanamo.
In a report released by their lawyers in 2004, the three Britons claimed they suffered systematic brutality and were kept in open cages in the sweltering Cuban heat, and that the treatment forced them to make false confessions. They did not go into detail Tuesday.
“We had it rough, but we didn’t have it as bad as others, for example the Arabs,” Rasul said. “Because we could speak English and communicate with people, I think it made it a lot easier for us.”
Focusing on the personalThe United States currently is holding about 500 people in Guantanamo on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban, though only 10 suspects have been charged. The facility has drawn widespread criticism in Europe and elsewhere.
Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross met the three about two months after their release, and Whitecross spent a month interviewing them for material for the film.
Winterbottom won the Berlin festival’s top prize in 2003 for “In This World,” a story of two young Afghans’ grueling journey to England as refugees.
He said “The Road to Guantanamo” focused deliberately on the personal story of the three — to “put faces to three of the people there and then imagine that could also apply to the other 500 people who are still there.”
“The starting point was to tell (about) these three people, not to tell the general political situation,” Winterbottom told reporters. “All the images you see — it’s hard to know whether it’s deliberate or not, they sort of dehumanize the people there, you don’t have any sense of what they’re like.”
In concentrating on the personal approach, the filmmakers did not seek comment from U.S. and British authorities, Winterbottom said. He brushed aside suggestions that the film could be seen as anti-American.
“I don’t think the film is anti-American in a general sense,” he said, adding that it aimed to send the message that “the fact of Guantanamo’s existence is shocking and terrible, and it shouldn’t be there.”
Said Rasul: “Nobody’s ever said, to this day, that we are innocent.”