Mountain Patrol: Kekexili(NR), directed by Lu Chuan, and The Road to Guantanamo (R), directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, both open Friday, July 28, at the Little Theatres.
The cinema god's generosity apparently comes with a price. "So, Dayna, do you remember last week when I allowed you to enjoy the irreverent irrelevance that is Clerks II? Well, you'd better dust off your atrophied brain, because this week you've got a film about the poaching of the Tibetan antelope and a film portraying the mistreatment of detainees at GuantánamoBay. You'll hear and see things that will shatter your heart and fill you with both fury and faith. You think you don't want to watch these movies, but you're not going to be able to look away."
Written and directed by Lu Chuan, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili is based on the true story of the Wild Yak Brigade, a group of volunteers who patrolled the Tibetan plateau during the mid '90s in hopes of preventing the extinction of its indigenous antelope, also known as the chiru. Prized for their wool, which can only be harvested by killing the animal, the chiru population had dwindled to about 10,000 by the late '80s despite its hunting being declared illegal in the 1970s. The numbers have since swelled to around 100,000 thanks to the efforts of this small group of men who performed a thankless task that put them at the mercies of both ruthless poachers and an unforgiving landscape.
Our outsider status as the viewer is personified by Ga Yu, a Beijing journalist who comes to the region in 1996 to report on the murder of a patrolman. He's quickly welcomed into a ragtag detachment headed by Ri Tai, one of those quietly rugged men of conviction who are born to lead. The heavily armed unit heads for Kekexili, a high-altitude province in northern Tibet where the poachers are believed to be. Throughout the multi-week pursuit the patrol must contend with a lack of funds, equipment failure, snipers, surroundings both brutal and beautiful, as well as the staggering sacrifice of both four-legged and two-legged life.
Oftentimes films about environmental concerns can be dry and preachy, the honorable intent overshadowed by the heavy-handed tedium. Mountain Patrol doesn't fall into that trap, despite prolonged shots of barren land and an occasional dearth of dialogue. What makes Mountain Patrol so absorbing is the warm camaraderie between these selfless warriors, and what makes it so compelling is the immediacy of its subject. The stakes are high on both sides, whether someone is dodging bullets or dispensing them, outfoxing Mother Nature or, in one agonizing scene, literally getting sucked in by her.
In 2002 our government began using the naval base at GuantánamoBay as a detainment facility to house suspects in the bizarrely titled war on terror. Hundreds have been held there, but only a tiny fraction of them have been charged with an actual crime, and none have been convicted. The Road to Guantánamo is not a strict documentary but a blend of interviews and re-enactments that relate the appalling experiences of three British Muslims who spent more than two years at Guantánamo's Camps X-Ray and Delta after being captured in Afghanistan following the US invasion.
A couple weeks after 9/11, AsifIqbal headed to Pakistan to meet the bride that his mother had chosen for him, and when friends Ruhel Ahmed and ShafiqRasif arrived for the wedding, they decided to make a trip into war-torn Afghanistan. Their reasoning isn't made terribly clear --- someone said something about "helping" --- but they were all definitely excited about the giant flatbread to be found there. Confusing bus rides led the trio straight into Taliban-controlled Kunduz, where they were taken into custody by Northern Alliance soldiers and then handed over to the American military. Things went from bad to hell once they reached Cuba.
Directors Michael Winterbottom (his most recent film was TristramShandy) and Mat Whitecross use the testimony of the three young, soft-spoken men to illustrate the horrors of their detainment. Unspeakable physical and mental abuse at the hands of 9/11-fueled soldiers led to coerced confessions from men without the benefit of charges or lawyers. It's always ironic how some have no qualms about denying the liberties that they're supposedly fighting for.
Admittedly, the views contained within the film are slightly one-sided, though reports of hunger strikes and suicides at the seemingly lawless GuantánamoBay do nothing to refute the claims of Iqbal, Ahmed, and Rasif, who were all eventually released. But Donald Rumsfeld assures us that the treatment of the Guantánamo detainees is consistent with the Geneva Convention "for the most part."