In last year’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats, British journalist Jon Ronson snooped into the US military’s submission techniques—tactics that would be wacky and hilarious, if they weren’t so sadistic. Investigating reports that detainees in the War on Terror were terrorized with death metal and Barney songs on repeat, he thus kicked the leaves off a bear trap, exposing extreme psychological torture methods designed to break the human spirit. The uniformed Americans weren’t just trying to rattle their prisoners; they were trying to warp them into passivity.
A released Guantanamo detainee, Jamal al-Harith, told Ronson that his interrogators would sometimes enter his cell with a small boombox and a stack of burned CDs (Matchbox Twenty, Kris Kristofferson) and tell him to start playing them at a normal volume one after another as soon as they left the room. Tracing those curious episodes back through documentation and interviews, Ronson and Jamal have since realized that underneath Rob Thomas’ strained yelp, he and his fellow captives were being indoctrinated with what the forces call “silent sounds,” designed to sway them to confess. Of course, beatings helped, too.
Jamal, a British aid-worker who just happened to be in the wrong place (Afghanistan) at the wrong time (October 2001) with the wrong skin color (brown) has since sued Donald Rumsfeld and 10 other US military commanders. There are three other plaintiffs, and in this brave, naked and brutal documentary-recreation, directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross tell of their enraging two-and-a-half-year false imprisonment.
Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Ruhel Ahmed left England for Pakistan just before the US invasion of Afghanistan. Asif was getting married that month to a girl from his family’s home country, and his friends came along to serve as best man and bachelor party patrol. All younger than 23 and casually religious, after a few days of gadding about on rollercoasters and promenading along the frenetic streets, a holy man convinces them and their two friends Zahid and Monir to think beyond themselves and take a bus to Kabul where they can offer help—and eat some delicious nan baked bigger than their heads. The five ride across the border under a bomb-crunched sky that looks eerily beautiful. What follows that red thunderstorm is even less calm. The towns are crumbled and chaotic; vans, bullet holes and misinformation surround them, and they don’t speak the language. As they rush about trying to get home safely, they lose each other, find each other, find each other covered in blood, and then find themselves surrounded by corpses from a bombing raid, scrambling to get on the next passing truck—which happens, unbeknownst to these confused and waylaid tourists, to be stuffed with Taliban fighters hoping, like them, to escape.
Winterbottom and Whitecross are adept, if unconventional, storytellers. Six people retell three peoples’ misery; the real Shafiq, Asif, and Ruhel face the camera and describe the events that imploded their lives (they lived with Whitecross for a month as he earned their trust), and he in turn introduced them to the three teenagers (excellent and naturalistic non-actors Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun and Arfan Usman) who would reenact their tragedy.
While the boys are still free, the filmmaking style is so free-form and manic that it captures the atmosphere of a society swirling with men—women are understatedly rare—wearing Adidas track pants under their traditional kurta and riding buses exploding with gilt and flowers (the film was shot in neighboring Iran). This world feels real, and when it’s unsentimentally ripped away from them and us to be replaced by burlap masks, handcuffs and orange jumpsuits, the loss resonates.
Imprisoned first in Afghanistan, they were starved, screamed at, sensory-deprived and beaten savagely without cause. In Guantanamo, it was the same, only with slightly more food. The jumble of actors and voices lost in Winterbottom and Whitecross’ deliberately haphazard storyline have already made it difficult to pin a name to a face, and here with their hair shaved off, they’re even harder to discern. Not that it matters; they’ve been reduced to animals who aren’t even allowed the human traits of walking and speech. If they stand, talk or pray, they get chained and punished—also if they do nothing at all. Trapped in cages, Shafiq, Asif and Ruhel are no different from each other or the rest of their fellow prisoners. Especially to their interrogators who are convinced of their guilt, thrilled that they can torture information out of English speakers, and frustrated that the three can’t fess up to anything even after years of illegal abuse. “Tell us where bin Laden is!” an agent barks, one of two moments where the blind viciousness tips over into a surreal black humor. The second comes when Rumsfeld attempts to justify his administration’s unjustifiable brutality. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it is humane and appropriate and consistent with the Geneva Convention . . . for the most part,” he says. For the most part. In those four words, inhumanity thrives.