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MOVIE REVIEW

'Guantanamo' is a chilling story of cruelty and endurance

Roughly 460 terror suspects are currently detained at the American prison camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. To protest what they say is abusive treatment and their negligible legal access (some of them might be guilty, but there's scarcely a court of law to prove it), detainees have waged hunger strikes and made suicide attempts, none of which were successful until earlier this month. Three detainees hanged themselves.

Lawyers say misery drove them to do it. The US military considered it an act of warfare, with top officials notoriously describing it as a ``good PR move to draw attention" and ``to further the jihadi cause." Truth or spin? Who can say? But if ``The Road to Guantanamo" is even a tad accurate , I'm inclined to think they succumbed to despair.

The film dramatizes the true, gruesome plight of a group of young men who wound up detained at the camps. Ruhel Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Monir Ali head from the town of Tipton in the British Midlands, to Pakistan, where one of them is to be married.

The actual detainees narrate the picture in documentary cutaways, but the actors playing them -- Farhad Harun, Riz Ahmed, Afran Usman, and Waqar Siddiqui -- make a jovial quartet. Under happier circumstances, directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross might have refashioned ``A Hard Day's Night" around them.

But these are different times. The trip happens in the weeks after 9/11, during the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan. At the urging of a cleric they overhear preaching at a mosque, they go to Afghanistan with the ambiguous intention of ``helping out." The boys hit Kandahar for a day, then, after an eternal van ride, Kabul. Amid the air strikes, it dawns on them that they're not benefiting anyone. How could they? They're tired, unarmed, and dislocated.

They decide to head back to Pakistan, losing Monir somewhere along the way. (He's never found.) The van that Shafiq, Ruhel, and Asif hop into takes them, instead, to a crowded Taliban outpost in the Afghan hinterlands, where, upon the surrender of Taliban fighters, they're turned over, along with dozens of other non-Taliban men, to the Northern Alliance. After a grueling day-and-a-half trip in a huge, dark, and stifling storage container, they're handed off to the US military.

In American (and eventually British) custody, the men are treated more viciously. Sacks are pulled over their heads , and their arms are shackled behind their backs, as they're locked up first at Camp X-Ray , then at Camp Delta, where they're kept outside in cages like dogs at a kennel. Ruhel calls it a zoo, but a zoo at least allows visitors. Detainees' senses are deprived (goggles stay on even in the shower), and the indefinite stay forbids prayer, standing, and talking to your neighbor. In all, we get a jarring sense of the extreme horrors committed at Abu Ghraib and in Haditha.

Watching these and other humiliations, a viewer's awareness of the way the film switches between the actors and the interviews evaporates. The prolific Winterbottom, whose recent projects (``9 Songs," ``Tristram Shandy") have been eccentric excursions, creates a simple and brisk descent into hell. And the immediacy gets under your skin.

Only when the American s and British arrive, with their theatrical demands, does self-consciousness fog up the film's naturalist ic facade. The actors playing the interrogators, especially the American ones, go for a stock villainy: ``You're Al Qaeda! . . . Now tell me where Osama bin Laden is!" One gratuitously smokes a cigarette during his interrogation.

Another condescends during hers: ``I come from Washington ," she announces, as if she'd just gotten off a flying saucer. Her session with one detainee is outlandish in a Nancy Grace sort of way. She shows him unintelligibly grainy video footage of an Al Qaeda rally and tells him to identify himself, which, of course, he can't. ``I can see you!" she says.

``The Road to Guantanamo" makes it inarguably clear why these men need lawyers. They're never charged with any crime, yet they're serving a harsh sentence. Due process here seems like a pipe dream. But nobody falls for the military's obvious entrapment. They remain pretty strong throughout, especially Shafiq, who, in a great moment, performs a rap about his detention to an increasing ly uncomfortable American soldier. The film makes sure that we never lose sight of the men's humanity, even though they're repeatedly robbed of it. The Tipton Three, as Shafiq, Ruhel, and Asif were called in the British press, also say that their Guantanamo experience made them better Muslims.

As strongly as the movie argues that the prison should be closed, if only as a matter of remorseful political symbolism, ``Road to Guantanamo" is even more chilling as a snapshot of how the world changed for average Arab and Muslim men after 9/11. The film's insistence on the men's innocence is matter of fact. But it's also an urgent corrective to the suspicious eye the movies so often cast on Arabs and Islam. I don't know what the US military's brass would say, but that is good PR.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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