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Interview: Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom is a director of rare versatility – at age 45, he has 26 directorial credits on his resume, including TV shows (“Boon”, “Cracker”), drama (In This World, Wonderland), Sci-Fi (Code 46), war (Welcome to Sarajevo) and comedy (24 Hour Party People). Now with his latest film, The Road to Guantanamo, Winterbottom delivers a hyper-energetic retelling of the story of the “Tipton Three” – three British citizens of Pakistani heritage who were detained by Afghani, British and American forces for nearly three years without evidence against them, legal counsel, or any formal charges.

Michael Winterbottom is a director of rare versatility – at age 45, he has 26 directorial credits on his resume, including TV shows (“Boon”, “Cracker”), drama (In This World, Wonderland), Sci-Fi (Code 46), war (Welcome to Sarajevo) and comedy (24 Hour Party People). Now with his latest film, The Road to Guantanamo, Winterbottom delivers a hyper-energetic retelling of the story of the “Tipton Three” – three British citizens of Pakistani heritage who were detained by Afghani, British and American forces for nearly three years without evidence against them, legal counsel, or any formal charges.

The Road to Guantanamo starts off with the group of friends (Rehul, Asif, Shafiq, and Monir) on a road trip – kind of the way a lot of horror stories start off (most recently Wolf Creek, The Hills Have Eyes, and Hostel). And The Road to Guantanamo is a horror story for it is a very, very scary film. While in Pakistan for Asif’s wedding, the four young men (two of them still teenagers, the other two just over twenty years old) visit a mosque where a Imam is looking for volunteers to go to Afghanistan to give aid to its people who have suffered under the Taliban for years and now face a major military assault by the United States and its allies. All of the men volunteer and are soon on a bus heading to Afghanistan where they will encounter something more deadly and terrifying than all the backwoods serial killers, mutant cannibals and sadists in Hollywood combined – the Northern Alliance.

There will be audience members who find it strange that these men, still kids at the time really, volunteered to go to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. There are people out there who believe the Tipton Three are terrorists and that they should have remained in Guantanamo Bay – why else would they have gone to Afghanistan? But it was not really a question of motivation, but of judgment. Their motivation to go to Afghanistan was the same motivation held by those who volunteered to go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Was going to Afghanistan a bad judgment call? Considering that they were nearly killed by countless bullets and explosions, held captive, beaten, and tortured for over two years, yes, it was a bad idea to go to Afghanistan. But this does not make them bad people, and this does not mean that they are terrorists. Also consider that they were very young, and young people tend to be both naïve and adventurous, which can be a dangerous combination.

The film is a documentary assembled out of interviews with the actual Tipton Three, re-enactments of the events they describe (with non-professional actors standing in for the actual men), and sparsely used archive footage. Winterbottom shares directorial credit with Mat Whitecross (who worked as an assistant editor with Winterbottom on 9 Songs and The Upside of Anger) and together they have created possibly the most intense cinematic experience to be had this summer. I am eager to see Mat Whitecross’s solo directorial debut (which he is rumored to be writing at this point), and also keenly anticipating Winterbottom’s next film, which fortunately, at the pace the director works at, will not be a long wait.

I had the chance to speak with Michael Winterbottom at a recent roundtable interview in New York City.

Michael Winterbottom

Question: What’s your last year been like?
Michael Winterbottom: Well, Guantanamo we were working on till the day before we exhibited it in Berlin, when we showed it in Berlin we didn’t even have the sound and picture together, so we actually had a bit of finishing after that, due to some technical sides. So before that we been working on – we started filming Guantanamo about June, maybe a week before that, and we were just finishing off Cock and Bull, we sort of finished what I had to do, but the technical side ran on to about August, but that was really just the technical side. That wasn’t too bad. We usually do about one film a year.

Q: Well you haven’t been doing that lately, you’ve been doing multiple films a year.
MW: It averages out, averages out to just a little less than a year normally. And it doesn’t come out. Cock and Bull we finished basically by about the end of May, but the technical side ran on till about July, and it didn’t really come out here till about February, and this one we showed at Berlin before we were even finished with it, so they just look closer together than they really are.

Q: How much downtime was there between Guantanamo and Cock and Bull?
MW: We usually go from one to the other, so a couple of weeks? Usually a couple of weeks.

Q: How did this story come about to you, and for you to direct it?
MW: For me to direct it? Well, we went to them when they were released. Over the time they’d been there, it’d also been reported in the papers, and when they were released there was a bit more coverage with the background of the story, and so we went to their lawyer Gareth Pierce in England, and we went to her office and met them and said if they were interested in telling their story on film we’d like to start working with you.

Q: How did you divide the duties with Mat Whitecross, did other people work on this while you were finishing up the other movie?
MW: No, we met in November and we didn’t start filming really until May. They took a while to decide, so they went away and talked about it and we met a few times and they would talk to their lawyers about it, and then Mat, in November/December at the end of the year, went and lived with them for a month, and each day interviewed them for a couple of hours, and at the end we had hundreds of hours of tape and pages of transcript.

Q: Was there anything in particular that drew you to this project?
MW: Yeah two things. One is I see it as a way of reminding people that Guantanamo still existed. At that stage when they got released it was two years after it being invented and people kind of got used to the idea of it. And also a way of seeing it through a different point of view, because all the images you have, especially looking at the archive when we were doing the research, everything the U.S. releases and gives access to is so restricted, I mean the U.S. government hadn’t released any names of prisoners. They were basically these anonymous prisoners that you could see from a distance, and all you heard over and over again from people like Bush was ‘These people are the worst of the worst, these are killers, these are bad people.’ So you have this idea that whatever you thought about the prison, these were the most dangerous people in the world and they had to be kept locked up in this kind of iron fortress. And then reading that story and meeting them, whatever else you think about Ruhel, Shafiq, and Asif, if they are the most dangerous people in the world to you, America could have protected itself from those two guys a lot more easily because they had no desire to do anything bad to you, so whatever reason they had for going to Afghanistan it certainly wasn’t because they were terrorists or because they want to blow up Britain or America.

Q: When you first met with them you said they had some concerns, what were those and was there a point where you thought the movie wouldn’t happen?
MW: Ah, well I think you know when we first met with them they were very quiet, they had just gotten out and this had obviously been a big huge experience for them and a big shock coming out as well. So I think at that point they just didn’t have any idea whether they would want to do it or not, and beyond that I think even when we made the film, right until the first time we showed it in Berlin, they didn’t do any press, they didn’t have their photographs in the papers. They didn’t want to be identified. So when we started the film we started with the basis that they might or might not be in it, they could think about it and we could do research work and come up with the story point. And then we said to them ‘Look, what we’re offering you, it’s the best thing if you tell your story in the film, so people see you and you can tell it in your own words.’ And they kind of attributed that I think to privacies or shyness or feeling that they didn’t want to become targets because mostly, people see because you’re in Guantanamo you’re a terrorist, that’s the assumption, therefore they felt formidable of that. And I think in the end they felt that they owed it to the people still there to do anything they could to publicize it and so in the end they came along to Berlin and they got a fantastic standing ovation in Berlin and I think from that point on they sort of like felt you know – it was moving to them. They hadn’t really talked about it much to their hometown or much to their families. And so Berlin was the first time they would start talking about this to people and to tell a little bit about all of this.

Q: Did you want to bring them here for the release of the film?
MW: Yeah, we did talk about that, because it’s always more interesting for the journalist to talk to the real guys. And they have been doing that. Since Berlin they’ve gone to, I know certainly Holland, Turkey, Spain, talking about Guantanamo, with the film. And it would have been good here. At first they were keen on it, and I think… they’re all different and in the end I think Ruhel would still have been keen on it. But in the end they thought discretion was the better part of valor.

Q: How much has the media exposure changed them, from the beginning when you met them to now with the release of the film and getting their story out there? Has it changed their perceptions of themselves and what happened?
MW: Well when we first met them they would be kind of quiet and go out of the room and talk about things and come back in and sort of have a spokesman. But that was the very first meeting and a few after that, but by the time we were shooting the film, which was about this time last year, once you got to know them they had pretty much become the people they are now, so I don’t think… They’re very kind of easy going. They talk the way they talk in the film, the don’t give a political commentary on it and they don’t come across as being sort of angry, they just sort of tell you what happened. I don’t think the exposure since, I mean, I don’t know too much. I’ve seen them two or three times since Berlin, and they seem the same, but I’m not sure. I know when it went out on TV and it was shown at the same time on TV and in the cinema, I think one of their relatives immediately got a text message that said ‘Your relative should be killed,’ and obviously there are people in England and people everywhere who think everyone in Guantanamo is a terrorist and everyone there deserves what they get and they shouldn’t have released them. And so there’s that element of it. But I think, picturing it as a whole, it’s the way it was really. They’re still looking to find a new start.

Q: Are they political?
MW: No. I mean… not they’re not political at all, the same way they weren’t before they left. I mean two of them were in their teens. Shafiq was the oldest and he was only a couple of years older than that. But you know at one point we – I mean we talked to them for hundreds of hours and most of the time they’re talking about their journey before getting picked up by the northern alliance – they’re talking about the gap in language and how terrible the food is and all that sort of stuff. By the time they’re in Afghanistan they don’t understand the language and they’re outsiders in the way that any of us would be outsiders. And they don’t really have a political angle at all. Well what they do say is that before they went they weren’t very religious at all, they didn’t have beards but they do now when you see the film. And that being in Guantanamo certainly – they found their religion in Guantanamo and they sort of learned about their religion from the other prisoners and so on. But that’s not so much a political angle.

Q: Were the real guys involved in the casting at all?
MW: Well what happened was we picked a bunch of people, one or two more than we needed, and we had a week where they spent a week with them in Birmingham. I think there was one person in the initial group they were like, ‘Whoa, well wait, that’s wrong,’ and so we had to change one person. So it wasn’t a real kind of formal thing, it was a chance for us to see and them to see who felt right.

Q: Did they see any of the film while it was being edited?
MW: No, we showed them the film before it was kind of all really dubbed and all that, and they were kind of the hardest audience in a way, we wanted them to feel that we captured something right. And they seemed to be happy with it.

Q: When you first approached the film, how did you have it in mind to tell the story? Was it the form that you used in the film, or did you have something else in mind initially?
MW: I think we always through that it would be a good way of doing it. And obviously the process we – the process of making the film was them telling us – we have hundreds of hours of them telling us what happened, details. From the transcripts we sort of selected down the spine of the story. So it always seemed that it would be the best way, because possibly this won’t be clear unless it’s them telling their story. They never had a chance to tell their story in court because they were never charged with anything. And we wanted then telling people what happened to them. And also I thought it would be good to see them in the film, because you get the chance to have an idea, a sense of who they are as people. And also, it was a sort of the most economic way of telling the story, it’s quite a long complicated story, you can in a couple of lines get a sense of what, of how things augmented. You’re talking about a story that spans two and a half years, a lot of traveling. So it was a kind of economic was of telling the story as well.

Q: What aspect or part of their story did you find most disturbing?
MW: I don’t know really. I think one of the things that seemed most pointless about the story, not really shocking but the most pointless thing, was that they were never really allowed to have any telephone contact with anyone in their family. Even when, obviously even after they kind of refuted the charges, there was a period of months where the treatment was better, when they kind of knew they were going to be released, they were never allowed any conversation with their families at all, which just seemed like a sort of spiteful pointless thing to do to make things even worse. I mean, imagine you’re in a place in the middle of nowhere where you have no prospect of being free, you’re not a prisoner of war, but for some reason despite that fact that you were right there in that war, and a lot of people were picked up for doing what they were there to do, and for some reason America says you’re not who you are, you can be made miserable, you can be interrogated, you can have all these commissions, and then just for no reason at all we won’t even let you speak to anyone on the outside. And that just seems so petty and pointless and just inhuman really.

Q: What was your reaction to the recent suicides in Guantanamo Bay, and that the military called the suicides ‘and act of warfare’?
MW: Well it’s complicated because I don’t know the details of what happened. Obviously, when you think that people have been there for four years now and have no prospect of leaving, it’s easy to understand how people might end up psychologically kind of in that state. There have also been a lot of suicide attempts before, I mean at one point there was a crisis of attempted suicides, so they changed the language so they weren’t called that, they were called self-injurious behavior, to try and make it look like there were fewer attempted suicides than there were, and a lot of people had been on hunger strikes, so you see the reasons why that might happen. I think the someone in the administration said it was a public relations, PR stunt, and I just think it’s a particularly ugly reaction to a particularly ugly circumstance, but I don’t know the details, I don’t know the particular circumstances of the situation.

Q: Why did you chose to work with non-actors?
MW: Well to be fair the one playing Shafiq who was the older character he was at drama school, so he was wanting to be an actor. But the others we were just trying to find people who were as close as possible, we were looking for 18 and 19 year olds from the middle parts of England, particularly Birmingham, who had the right ethnic background, which is practically all Bangladeshi, Rehul actually has Bangladeshi parents. So that’s quite a particular thing, there are no professional actors that fit that bill, but anyway I wanted people who seemed as similar as possible. And another thing was they also spent quite a lot of time with the real guys, so they got to know each other closely, and Rehul and Shafiq traveled with us on the first part of the film when we were traveling through Pakistan. They traveled with us, so they were all there the whole time, and you know, I think it sort of – we just tried to sort of find people that captured the type of person our guys were when they set off. There is quite a difference to how they are now, they just pumped themselves up hugely, and we’re all kind of like these little skinny things. And it’s kind of like a weird thing about how they really are to how they were four years ago when they were just 18, 19 years old.

Q: What about the new talent behind the camera? Here you’ve given Mat Whitecross a great opportunity to advance his career as a co-director of the film. Do you intentionally try to bring in new talent on every film that you make?
MW: Well on the kind of crew side or productions or whatever, we do work with a lot of people or we deal with a lot of people, so we try to work with the same people every time and we try to keep it very small, and also working with a small crew there’s lots of work for everyone to do, so it gives everyone a chance to sort of do new things. So Mat was a runner at revolution four years ago, and then he was a runner on In This World on the trip and then he did some editing on 9 Songs. The thing is that young people tend to be enthusiastic and open about everything. The same thing with Marcel, Marcel was the cameraman, his first film was In This World and it’s brilliant. It’s always good to work with people who are younger and more enthusiastic.

Roadside Attractions released The Road to Guantánamo on June 23rd in New York and Los Angeles.

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