Monday, July 07, 2008

Review - Taxi to the Dark Side

The taxi belonged to a man named Dilawar, a 22 year-old Afghan citizen whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On May 5th 2002, Dilawar and his three passengers were stopped at a roadblock by guerrilla forces and arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity. The four men were taken to the Bagram military prison for interrogation, and on December 20th, Dilawar was dead. In Alex Gibney's superb documentary, the injuries Dilawar received from repeated kicks to the body and legs are exposed in sickening detail, with the damage inflicted on his "pulpified" legs being comparable to somebody who has been run over by a truck. Dilawar was actually the second prisoner to die while in American custody, with a man named Habibullah passing on just one week previously after suffering from similar abuse. "There was definitely a sense of concern because he was the second one", a soldier interviewed here admits, "You wonder, was it something we did?"

From these deaths,
Taxi to the Dark Side draws a line throughout Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, following a thorny path that leads to the top levels of the American government. Included in the film is a television appearance from Dick Cheney, in which he says the following: "We have to work sort of the dark side, if you will, spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. It’ll be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective". What Cheney is talking about here is torture as a means of procuring information: the use of water-boarding and beatings; denying suspects the right to sleep, drink or even sit for long periods; indulging in sexual humiliation of the captives; and basically breaking down these men until they are willing to talk – to say anything – in order to end their pain.

Gibney's film is angry and impassioned, as you'd expect, but it's also a remarkably clear-sighted piece of work that analyses the issues at hand in an intelligent and compelling way. Gibney has secured interviews with a number of soldiers who were directly involved in the interrogation of these men, and their frank, emotionally charged recollections paint a vivid picture of the situation they found themselves in. Damien Corsetti, a huge, imposing figure selected for the job on the basis of his intimidating presence, says his orders basically consisted of "Soldiers are dying. Get the information", and the interrogators were given increasingly vague parameters as to what they could and could not do in the pursuit of a confession. Basically, Corsetti and his colleagues were never told
not to do anything, but they were constantly reminded that the pressure was on to get results. Inevitably, people started to take their hazy mandate too far; as Sgt. Ken Davis suggests, "People were being told to rough up Iraqis that wouldn’t cooperate. We were also told that they’re nothing but dogs. Then, all of a sudden, you start looking at these people as less than human, and you start doing things to them you would never dream of. And that’s where it got scary".

Whenever stories of prisoner abuse broke – particularly when the notorious photographic evidence leaked – such behaviour was always put down to "a few bad apples", but
Taxi to the Dark Side makes short work of that argument, clearly showing how the fault lies at the top, with the Bush administration's rejection of the Geneva Convention. Bush told the world that "the United States doesn't torture", but he could only make that argument because his people has constantly attempted to redefine the term itself, questioning what, exactly, constitutes torture? The tragedy of Gibney's film is that nobody in a position of authority was made to pay for their crimes; the hammer came down instead on the young scapegoats who were simply trying to follow their unclear orders as best they could, and who lost their heads in an insane environment. Carolyn Wood, the officer overseeing the interrogations that cost Dilawar and Habibullah their lives, was rewarded with a Bronze Star and a transfer – to Abu Ghraib.

This is fascinating, shocking material, but in perhaps
Taxi to the Dark Side's most intriguing sequences, Gibney gradually moves away from specific incidents of abuse to explore the concept of torture itself. Through interviews with experienced interrogators and psychologists, it is debunked as a fatally flawed practice, in which the victim will only be prompted to tell the torturer what he wants to hear. The "ticking-bomb" scenario – the 24-style notion that torture can be justified in a race against time – is laughed off here as a pathetically flimsy defence, and torture expert Alfred McCoy offers a fascinating perspective on the psychological argument against such tactics. One example that highlights exactly why these techniques don't work is the 2003 incident in which a prisoner admitted to his interrogators that there were indeed ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, leading to Colin Powell repeating this confession in a speech to the United Nations. Later, it was revealed that this information was nonsense, something the prisoner came up with just because he thought it was what the Americans wanted to hear. Powell described it as the most embarrassing day of his life.

Alex Gibney is a fresh and exciting new voice in American cinema. His last feature, 2005's
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was a superbly constructed documentary, in which the director approached his subject with journalist rigour and a filmmaker's eye for storytelling clarity. Those same attributes are on display in Taxi to the Dark Side, and Gibney's ability to create such an alarming and gripping piece of filmmaking from his use of photos, interviews, archive footage and subtle recreations is hugely impressive. This is surely one of the best films of the year, and, for Gibney, it's clear that it's a deeply personal one too. The director's father was a naval interrogator during the Second World War, and he has the last word here, saying "It's destroyed my faith in the American government. Behind the fa├žade of wartime hatred, there was a central rule of law, and we believed in it. It was what made America different". He surely speaks for all viewers – American or otherwise – who are dismayed that such atrocities could be committed in the name of freedom. Taxi to the Dark Side is a plea for human decency.