Enduring freedom

Ben Jackson and Lesley Thompson review two films that ask: how much more freedom we can take?

If nothing else, the past five years of Us vs. The Terrorists have left us some pretty remarkable films.

Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo tells the story of the Tipton Three – three young British Muslims picked up during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and held incommunicado for over two years in the U.S. military prison network, before being released without charges in 2004.

Ruhal, Asif, and Shafiq are three likeable chaps en route to a wedding in Pakistan.  With a few days to kill, they foolishly decide to make a side-trip to Afghanistan, arriving just as war is breaking out. Realizing their mistake, they vainly try to leave the country but wind up in Taliban-controlled territory, are captured by the Northern Alliance, and handed over to the U.S. military.

They spend the next two years being interrogated, shackled, monitored and tortured – first in the dusty Kandahar Airbase, and then in America’s frightening dystopia at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Road to Guantanamo brings new credibility to the term “docu-drama”.  Feature-film elements shot in many of the original locations combine with interviews and archival footage in a surprisingly effective way.

The film brings to appalling life some of the War on Terror’s sterile euphemisms.     

The three youth become “enemy combatants” – a nebulous new category designed to evade the rules governing both civilians and prisoners of war – to be subjected to “aggressive interrogation” – meaning stress positions, sleep and food deprivation, deafeningly-loud music for starters.

We see three young men transformed from roguish, kind-hearted lads to sallow, disheveled Afghan terrorist-suspects, to finally, three orange jumpsuits, canvas hoods and number tags – “property of the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Unfortunately there’s an almost racist logic that underlies this transition.  Winterbottom seems to take pains to show the Tipton Three as ordinary, GAP-shirt-wearing Western youth.  But do they need to be presented as “just like us” in order for us to fully identify with them and their ordeal? At times you’re left wondering: what about the other prisoners, the ones without British accents?

Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ Occupation: Dreamland shows just what critical and intelligent film makers can do, even under the restricted conditions of Pentagon media management.

In January of 2004, the pair embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division, based in an abandoned Ba’athist resort outside of Falluja.  Produced without narration, the film is a surreal portrait of a failing military occupation and those who conduct it.

The film makes skillful use of night-vision photography; streets, homes, and families lit in a ghostly green.  A knowledge of later events only adds to the film’s eeriness.  In March four private military contractors would be brutally killed, their bodies strung up over a bridge.  In April, U.S. forces would lay siege to the city, expelling most of its population and killing many civilians.

The soldiers here are mostly aimless young men, many just out of high school. One soldier worked in a shoe store next to an Army recruiting office. Another hoped to go to art school but couldn’t afford the tuition.  Many are skeptical of the war and conflicted about their role in it – but they’ve signed a contract and follow orders despite their reservations.

This is modern urban warfare at its most pointless: holed up well away from the city, the troops venture into Falluja to conduct humiliating house to house searches, and to make regular patrols whose only apparent purpose is to draw enemy fire.  Sometimes they carry out “perimeter security and public relations”: walking the streets with an interpreter, trying to make friendly conversation. More often they become an outlet for peoples’ frustrations.

“We don’t accept colonialism,” says one Fallujan. “Our ancestors taught us. Excuse me, you tell him. Bear with me. This is something that is pent up inside our hearts. He has to know it, record it, and transmit it!”

During one patrol, a roadside bomb detonates in front of the convoy. Two soldiers are lightly injured – the assailants nowhere to be seen. The soldiers are shaken up, angry. Afterwards, the debriefing officer tries to be positive, but ultimately sums up the self-referential futility of their presence in Iraq:
“Back yourself up and think about what exactly are we securing? … What? … Raise your hand in here if you think that they’re gonna RPG [rocket propelled grenade] all the sheikhs and all the important people here in Falluja? …. Okay, so what are we doing then? What are we securing then? You know? Is everybody kinda catching [on] … We’re securing, essentially … ourselves.”

The Radical Media Society screens every Friday at 6pm in the Science Building at MUN, room SN-2105. Catch Occupation: Dreamland, Friday, September 22 and The Road to Guantanamo, Friday, September 29. Screenings and popcorn are FREE!