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Film: The Documentarian Strikes Back

Alex Gibney discusses his acclaimed documentary Taxi to the Dark Side

By Jason Gargano · March 5th, 2008 · Film
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  Haunting visions: The eyes of director Alex Gibney
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Haunting visions: The eyes of director Alex Gibney



Man torturing man is a fiend beyond description.

-- Henry Miller

George W. Bush's presidency might end in January, but his administration's legacy of corruption will be deep and lasting. The United States has gone from a widely admired nation of "values" to the most hated country in the world during the Bush years.

We're now seen as an arrogant, morally bankrupt superpower that believes it can run roughshod over the world -- as well as our own Constitution -- in the name of security.

The seismic events of 9/11 changed America in many ways, one of which was that it gave Vice President Dick Cheney license to unleash his Darth Vader alter ego with full force. Cheney sounded this early warning to Tim Russert on Meet the Press just days after the 9/11 attacks: "We also have to work through ... the dark side. It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."

Those means include various forms of torture, tactics the Bush administration -- led by Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- has employed via a reckless abuse of power that's given us controversial black eyes like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and a "war on terror" policy of interrogation that condones the trashing of basic human rights.

Through it all, not one administration figure of any significance has been held accountable for its ethically sketchy -- in some cases illegal -- behavior, a development documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney couldn't let stand.

The director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the executive producer of Charles Ferguson's incisive Iraq documentary No End in Sight, Gibney is a filmmaker with a rare talent for combining journalistic rigor and cinematic brio. Man torturing man is a fiend beyond description.

-- Henry Miller

George W. Bush's presidency might end in January, but his administration's legacy of corruption will be deep and lasting. The United States has gone from a widely admired nation of "values" to the most hated country in the world during the Bush years.

We're now seen as an arrogant, morally bankrupt superpower that believes it can run roughshod over the world -- as well as our own Constitution -- in the name of security.

The seismic events of 9/11 changed America in many ways, one of which was that it gave Vice President Dick Cheney license to unleash his Darth Vader alter ego with full force.

Cheney sounded this early warning to Tim Russert on Meet the Press just days after the 9/11 attacks: "We also have to work through ... the dark side. ... It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."

Those means include various forms of torture, tactics the Bush administration -- led by Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- has employed via a reckless abuse of power that's given us controversial black eyes like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and a "war on terror" policy of interrogation that condones the trashing of basic human rights.

Through it all, not one administration figure of any significance has been held accountable for its ethically sketchy -- in some cases illegal -- behavior, a development documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney couldn't let stand.

The director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the executive producer of Charles Ferguson's incisive Iraq documentary No End in Sight, Gibney is a filmmaker with a rare talent for combining journalistic rigor and cinematic brio. His Oscar-winning new documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, investigates the Bush administration's willingness to indulge in what Cheney called the "dark side."

"If you understand the Bush/Cheney campaign on the issue -- that is to say 'Let us be tough, let us take the gloves off' -- it's persuasive on the face of it, which is, 'These motherfuckers killed 3,000 of us, we've got to hit back,' " Gibney says by phone from his office in New York City. "It's emotionally resonant, right? But if you study the issue, if you really understand what's going on, you realize what a horrible mistake that is. It not only doesn't make us safer, but it makes us less safe. It doesn't get good intelligence, it gets bad intelligence. And it corrupts our character."

Gibney's film tackles a complex set of issues by using a simple, humanizing figure as its narrative line: Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was wrongfully detained in 2002 and who died soon after while in American custody at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Dilawar was never charged with a crime nor connected to any terrorist activity, yet he was subjected to heinous treatment that included sleep deprivation and being kneed to the point that the tissue in his legs had become "pulpified."

"I was compelled by the idea that, after the third day of a five-day interrogation, his interrogators concluded that he was innocent, yet for the next two days they brutalized him anyway," Gibney says. "It was a clue to me that there was a kind of momentum to torture that once you started you couldn't stop. You became desensitized. You just keep pushing and pushing and pushing."

Taxi to the Dark Side features interviews with several of Dilawar's interrogators, some of whom were court-martialed in connection with his death. The soldiers believe they were made scapegoats by their superiors, intentionally given vague orders so that the chain of command would stop with them.

This "fog of ambiguity," as it's called in the film, also resulted in Abu Ghraib, which allowed the Bush administration to work in the shadows without fear of accountability.

"The Bush administration has done a terrific job from its point of view of marginalizing this issue and also kind of talking it out of existence," Gibney says. "They created the 'bad apples' theory. So when people really got upset, when they saw those images coming out of Abu Ghraib, it was, 'Oh my God. That's terrible.' There was an uproar.

"But then the Bush administration has three or four investigations all looking down and they conclude that there were a few bad apples at Abu Ghraib. In fact, I hope Taxi illustrates that Abu Ghraib was just part of a much larger system and apparatus."

He illustrates just that by using many never-before-seen images from inside Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and via interviews with everyone from the aforementioned soldiers to various government officials to New York Times reporter Tim Golden, whose stories about the Bagram scandal alerted Gibney to Dilawar's tragic story.

"I think people need to be held accountable," Gibney says. "I understand politically it's going to be difficult to hold people accountable, but if you don't you send a terrible message to the rest of the world, which is that we're sweeping these crimes under the rug."

Detailed, deeply affecting and often hard to watch, Taxi to the Dark Side has a point of view, but don't mistake it for a one-sided polemic. Gibney believes his use of various cinematic techniques to re-create Dilawar's and other prisoners' brutal treatment is justified -- especially in a climate where the public is being denied the facts.

"In the old days there used to be strict rules: no music, that's leading the viewer," Gibney says of the old-school documentary approach. "There were all sorts of rules like that. I find that spurious. I think you make a pact with the viewer and you take that viewer into a world and to some extent you re-create things that you can't otherwise show or you may use music to augment a mood. You're not unlike a feature filmmaker taking people to another place to create a sense of outrage.

"But at the same time credibility is tremendously important to me. I want people to feel like film after film after film they come to my work and they feel like they can believe me, that I'm not trying to pull one over on them or twist the truth." ©


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