Prison pic packs punch

Winterbottom stirs up the fest masses

What Michael Moore and his “Fahrenheit 9/11” did for the Cannes fest in 2004, Michael Winterbottom and his “The Road to Guantanamo” may have done for the Berlinale: Give it a jolt of adrenalin.

Up until now there’s not been a single “shock and awe” kind of movie in the Competition, but judging from the press confab after the packed screening Tuesday, that may all change.

Not that the two provocateur-auteurs and their movies are anything alike.

Where Moore struck a rambling, rambunctious pose on the Croisette, and his doc was in the end an easily accessible anti-Bush satire, Winterbottom — who won the Berlin Golden Bear in 2003 with another Afghan-related film, “In This World” — comes across as a more subtle type, not at all bombastic or preachy.

And his forceful, but oddly restrained docu-drama is focused on a single corner of the ever-expanding war front. It happens to be one that many in the U.S. and abroad have probably swept to the back of their minds — the detention camp in Cuba that the American military have jocularly dubbed Gitmo.

Both as a human drama and an indictment of the illegality of detainments at Guantanamo, the pic packs a solid punch, though not exactly easy to take. It’s the kind of hot-button issue-pic that auds at Berlin typically relish, and, by and large, the audience Tuesday lunchtime didn’t seem disappointed.

Commercial prospects are another thing.

Moore’s overheated Bush-whacking doc eventually grossed a whopping $120 million in the U.S. alone, but just how receptive Yank auds will be to this more anguishing lambaste is anyone’s guess.

Plus, as one U.S. journalist put it in his question to the filmmakers, a lot of Americans won’t quite recognize their “brave” American G.I.s in the fascistic thugs who lord over the prisoners.

“That the Americans behaved badly in the pic was not a dramatic device,” is how Winterbottom defended the depiction of what happened with the prisoners.

Pic is being handled by sales company the Works and will soon air on Channel Four in the U.K., one of the companies that backed the pic. No other deals have been announced.

“We were still filming until quite recently,” Winterbottom told the crush of journos gathered for the press confab. Given the seeming interest in the pic from the international press corp, he said he hoped “good reviews” would help get it as wide an exposure as possible.

The soft-spoken Winterbottom was flanked by two of the actual British Muslim detainees, Shafiq Rusul and Ruhel Ahmed Iqbal, who (along with Asig Iqbal) are the centerpiece of the movie, as well as his co-director Mat Whitecross and his producers.

All of the questions were directed either at the helmers or detainees, and most were prefaced with praise for the film and pained concern for the detainees, who are just now re-establishing their lives in Britain after their near three-year ordeal.

Asked if he cared what the American or British government might think of the film, Winterbottom said, “I don’t really know what the government will say — and I don’t really care, to be honest.”

The director went on to say that the purpose of the film was to remind people of the “incredibly perverse system” that would allow something as insane as Guantanamo to exist.

It was not meant, he was at pains to add, as a generalized diatribe against this or that government but rather as an attempt to reimagine what these falsely, and haplessly, accused young men went through.

“Who would have thought, even five years ago, that the Americans would be in a war, holding prisons — and in Cuba of all places,” Winterbottom mused.

It’s not, the director added, “anti-American in a general sense, but the fact of Guantanamos existence is shocking. We want everyone (500 or so still locked up) to be released and the place closed down.”

For those 90 minutes, Winterbottom added, referring to the length of the movie, “you’re reminded of the insanity of it all.”

For their part, the released detainees said they had never really been cleared as innocent and that they still hadn’t quite shaken themselves loose from their ordeal.

“For a while afterwards, I’d wake up hearing banging on my cell. You don’t forget it, but you put it in the back of your head,” Rusul said.

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