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From the director of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side is a gripping investigation into the reckless abuse of power by the Bush Administration.
By probing the homicide of an innocent taxi driver at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, the film exposes a worldwide policy of detention and interrogation that condones torture and the abrogation of human rights. This disturbing and often brutal film is the most incisive examination to date of the Bush Administration’s willingness, in its prosecution of the “war on terror,” to undermine the essence of the rule of law. The film asks and answers a key question: what happens when a few men expand the wartime powers of the executive to undermine the very principles on which the United States was founded.
Incorporating rare and never-before-seen images from inside the Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons, and interviews with former government officials such as John Yoo, Alberto Mora and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, interrogators, prison guards, New York Times reporters Tim Golden and Carlotta Gall (who wrote the first stories about the homicides in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan) and the families of tortured prisoners, the film dissects the progression of the Administration’s policy on torture from the secret role of key administration figures, such as Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales and others to the soldiers in the field.
In the face of thousands of prisoners passing through the system, an astonishing number of admitted homicides, and a hastily drafted law – the Military Commissions Act – that retroactively grants immunity to government officials for crimes against humanity while denying the fundamental right of habeas corpus to others, forces us to ask why, in the face of so much evidence of the ineffectiveness of cruelty as a means of obtaining information, we sought to insist on its use? Have we, by pursuing such ruthless means, lost the moral high ground in the war on terror and made ourselves less safe? Even more important, have we compromised our own sense of humanity, our democratic values and our effectiveness as a world leader?
Running time: 106 minutes
Rating: “R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity”
Offical web site: http://www.taxitothedarkside.com/
The MPAA unleashed a storm of controversy due to it’s refusal to allow the use a a movie poster showing a hooded detainee being lead off into the distance by two soldiers. They described it as being “not suitable for all audiences.”
A spokesman for the MPAA said: “We treat all films the same. Ads will be seen by all audiences, including children. If the advertising is not suitable for all audiences it will not be approved by the advertising administration.” But with the following posters having been approved for all audiences…
It leads me to believe that the actual reason might be more political. Take a look at the following movies posters which were rejected, compare the posters below with the posters above. Which do you think should have been rejected?
The only reason seems to be is, that the movies they are for are critical of the Bush Administration.
About the Production
Taxi to the Dark Side, The latest prize-winning documentary from Oscar-nominee Alex Gibney, confirms his standing as one of the foremost non-fiction filmmakers working today. A stunning inquiry into the suspicious death of an Afghani taxi driver at Bagram air base in 2002, the film is a fastidiously assembled, uncommonly well-researched examination of how an innocent civilian was apprehended, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately murdered by the greatest democracy on earth. By using documents and records of the incident with candid testimony from eyewitnesses and participants, the film uncovers an inescapable link between the tragic incidents that unfolded in Bagram and the policies made at the very highest level of the United States government in Washington, D.C. Combining the cool detachment of a forensic expert with the heated indignation of a proud American who holds his country to a high standard, Gibney’s stunning film reveals how the Bush administration has systematically betrayed the very ideals it professes to uphold.
Gibney first got the idea for Taxi to the Dark Side from the men who would eventually go on to serve as the executive producers of the project. “The idea of doing a film on torture was brought to me – separately – by Don Glascoff, Sid Blumenthal, and Rob Johnson,” he says. “Once I took on the assignment, with the urging of my father, I went looking for a story that could carry the burden of the subject.” He first came upon the story of Dilawar, the Afghan cab driver who died while in custody at Bagram prison, in a New York Times article by Tim Golden and, before long, he realized that this was the central story he had been searching for.
“I think that the subject of corruption unites my films,” says Gibney. “‘Enron’ was about economic corruption, and TAXI is about the corruption of the rule of law. Both are about the corruption of character—how good people can end up doing very bad things. ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’ fits into this model as well. I also tend to make films about perps rather than victims. It is true that Dilawar – a true innocent victim – is at the heart of the story of TAXI. But the thematic subject of the film is an investigation into how a small number of Americans took our nation to the ‘dark side.’”
Having found his subject, Gibney wisely chose not to approach it journalistically but, rather, to give it the more classically cinematic structure of a whodunit. “I think of every one of my films as a kind of detective story,” he says. “Detectives – or private eyes – are truth seekers who often discover things they didn’t expect. Putting that process at the heart of the narrative gives my films a kind of momentum, I think. ‘Enron’ was a ‘heist film;’ TAXI is a murder mystery.” And, Gibney observes, once the murder is solved, as in all true murder mysteries, you understand who was responsible. “But,” he continues, “like the best murder mysteries of, say, Raymond Chandler, TAXI is not merely a whodunit. The movie is really about the mood, the atmosphere surrounding the murder, and ‘how and why’ the murder was committed.” Obviously, in TAXI, the mystery as to who killed Dilawar is important, but far more important says Gibney, “is understanding the ‘dark side’ and how this Administration took us there with the ease of a late night taxicab ride across Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.”
Like a latter-day Sam Spade, Gibney hunted down dozens of potential witnesses in order to figure out all of the “who’s,” “how’s,” and “why’s” of the Dilawar case. “For films like this,” he stresses, “it is critical to get ‘inside’ the story. You don’t want experts; you want participants. I went in search of anyone who was at Bagram during the time Dilawar was imprisoned there –prisoners, guards, and interrogators. I also went in search of lawyers for detainees, the architects of the Administration policy, dissidents in the Administration, military officers, etc. In the end we did obtain interviews with some interrogators who questioned Dilawar, and some MPs who were directly responsible for his homicide. This was particularly difficult, but I think our quest was aided by the fact that these men really wanted to talk about what had happened, and they were bitter that they were being prosecuted when the men and women who ordered them to commit crimes were barely even investigated, much less prosecuted.”
While some of these people surprised Gibney with their willingness to talk, others whose testimony might have been very helpful to the “case” would not. “Carolyn Wood has consistently refused to be interviewed by anyone,” he says. “She’s not a high-ranking officer, but her testimony would reveal much about the way the Bush Administration conducted its interrogation and detention policies.” He continues, “I also tried to talk to other Administration officials who declined to be interviewed. The more that is revealed about this story, the more it makes sense why most Administration officials didn’t want to speak: they are concerned that they may be prosecuted for what they have done. A few dissident voices – like Jack Goldsmith, who declined to talk to me – have come forward more recently. One of the things that struck me was that many of the fiercest critics of the Administration (including those like Alberto Mora and Lawrence Wilkerson, who did speak to me) were conservative republicans. This story was not about left and right,” Gibney learned, “it was about right and wrong.”
In addition to interviews, Gibney unearthed photographs, videotapes and documents – particularly from the mysterious Bagram prison – that have never been seen before. And the videotape of the senior JAG officer in Afghanistan acknowledging a defacto policy of knee strikes that, according to the Army coroner, “pulpified” Dilawar’s legs, is a cathode ray vision of the banality of evil.
When a director plays detective in this fashion, there will not only be discoveries, digressions, and disappointments, there will also be difficulties. “The problem with this approach in a documentary,” observes Gibney, “is that the story has to be rewritten constantly in the cutting room. I find that the best documentaries end up being structured like good fiction films. But, this is very hard to do in practice, because the ‘script’ of a documentary is written during and after shooting.” Gibney also finds that the story he is trying to tell is often at odds with his key thematic concerns. “I always want to include key ideas,” he notes, “and am frustrated when they seem to get in the way of the story. So, there’s a tension in the cutting room. At some point, on every film, the evolving story seems to raise its head and demands to be given its due. When I don’t listen to that insistent voice, I usually do so at my peril.”
Gibney’s persistence in finding the perfect form for his material, and his desire to match the structure and narrative drive of a fiction feature to non-fiction material, makes Taxi to the Dark Side stand apart from other documentaries covering similar subject matter. It is interesting to note that, though Gibney served as executive producer on Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” providing guidance on key production and story issues, TAXI has a look that is very different from that and all of the so-called ‘Iraq films.’ Gibney cites as his unexpected chief stylistic influences a number of filmmakers who worked in dramatic films. “I love Sergio Leone,” he says, adding that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is a favorite film – for stylistic reasons – and that “the title sequence in TAXI – with its middle eastern ‘western’ look – is my doc nod to Sergio.” Other favorites are Luis Bunuel, Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Kurosawa (“High and Low” makes me think of “Enron,” he notes), and Jacques Tourneur’s intricately strucured noir thriller, “Out of the Past.” Even his non-fiction preferences are as notable for their groundbreaking form as for their significant subject matter: The Maysles’ “Gimme Shelter,” Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity,” and Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” (“Anyone who thinks narration doesn’t belong in docs,” he says, “should watch ‘Night and Fog!”).
Many politically-urgent documentaries are being made these days, but Alex Gibney is one of few practitioners of the genre who values timelessness as much as timeliness. He notes that “TAXI is not an ‘Iraq film.’ It’s not really about the war in Iraq, though we do include some materials and stories about it. Rather, the film is about GWOT, the acronym the Bush Administration uses to describe its ‘Global War on Terror.’ But, in a more fundamental sense, it’s not really about that either; it’s really about the American character and whether we have become something rather different from what we imagine ourselves to be.”
Acknowledging that for Taxi to the Dark Side to be of lasting quality, it must speak to audiences both now and decades from now, Gibney concludes, “In the here and now, I want viewers to get mad and make our leaders accountable for the damage they have done. Over the long haul, I hope TAXI will stand as cautionary tale of how people and their society can be corrupted by fear and rage. While I hope it will be seen as utterly irrelevant twenty years from now, I don’t think it will be.”
Here are some of the interviewees:
PFC. Willie Brand
Willie Brand was a MP Guard at Bagram Air Force Base, a detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan. Brand faced court martial for his role in the deaths of detainees Dilawar and Habibullah at Bagram. In his trial, Brand and his attorney spoke out about what they considered a lack of necessary training and clear rules for MP’s. Brand was convicted by a military jury of assault, maltreatment, maiming and making a false official statement. He was given a reduction in rank and pay to private.
Special Agent Jack Cloonan, Ret.
An FBI special agent from 1977 to 2002, Cloonan started working Al Qaeda cases in the mid-1990s. Cloonan, an advocate of the FBI’s humane methods of interrogation, cultivated former Al Qaeda operatives Jamal al-Fadl and Ali Mohammed as cooperative sources in the years before 9/11. Cloonan also interrogated Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who ran an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and who was one of the highest-ranking Al Qaeda operatives captured in the first months of the war in Afghanistan.
Now in the private sector, Cloonan is President of Clayton Consultants. Since retiring from the FBI, Cloonan has also served as a counter-terrorism consultant and commentator for ABC News.
SPC. Damien Corsetti
Corsetti, a Military Intelligence soldier in Bagram and Abu Ghraib, was given the nickname “Monster,” and “King of Torture” by soldiers in his unit, and was allegedly called upon by other interrogators to frighten prisoners using the interrogation technique known as “Fear up, harsh.” Other detainees, such as Moazzam Begg, describe Corsetti as a sympathetic interrogator who never engaged in abuse, and was helpful in enduring detention. As part of the Army’s investigation into prisoner abuse at Bagram, Corsetti was charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person. Corsetti was later found not guilty of all charges.
Carlotta Gall is a New York Times correspondent based in Kabul, assigned to cover Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. She has been covering the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgency from the start, and led a journalistic investigation into the cause and culpability of the death of the 22-year-old Afghan detainee Dilawar.
Tim Golden is an investigative reporter for the New York Times and a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Prior to joining the Times’ staff he worked for the Miami Herald and United Press International. He was a member of the Times team that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for articles about drug corruption in Mexico. While working at the Miami Herald, he shared a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for stories on the Iran-Contra affair. Golden, along with Carlotta Gall, reported on the prisoner abuse of Dilawar and other detainees in Bagram, Afghanistan.
Scott Horton a New York based attorney working international law, human rights law and the law of armed conflict, Horton lectures at Columbia Law School, and is a life-long human rights advocate. He is a co-founder of the American University in Central Asia, and has been involved in some of the most significant foreign investment projects in the Central Eurasian region. Scott recently led a number of studies of abuse issues associated with the conduct of the war on
SPC. Tony Lagouranis
Spc. Lagouranis was a U.S. Army interrogator from 2001 to 2005, and served a tour of duty in Iraq from January 2004 to January 2005. He was first stationed at Abu Ghraib; in that spring he joined a special intelligence gathering task force that moved among detention facilities around the country. There, he learned first hand about the “culture of abuse” permeating interrogations throughout Iraq. Lagouranis is one of a number of Iraq War veterans who have provided first hand accounts of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military. Other U. S. military personnel have described torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners while shielding their identities. His book, “Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq” will be published in June 2007.
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI)
Carl Levin is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he was an early and consistent advocate of efforts to prepare the American military to combat terrorism and other emerging threats of the post-Cold War world. The National Guard Association of the United States presented Senator Levin with its 2004 Harry S. Truman Award for distinguished service in support of national defense. The award cited Levin’s “long-standing, diligent and impassioned commitment on the readiness, morale and welfare of our military forces, their families and the modernization of our armed forces.” To ensure accountability in the intelligence community, Senator Levin has continued to press the Bush administration to clarify which intelligence entity is responsible for specific intelligence objectives.
In December 2002, Alberto J. Mora, then general counsel of the United States Navy, was alerted by Navy investigators to reports that detainees held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay were being subjected to cruel and unlawful interrogation practices. Mora, whose civilian position accorded him a rank equal to that of a four-star general, soon came to learn that the cruel and abusive practices of United States military interrogators at Guantanamo were the result of significant policy shifts at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Over the next three years, Mora waged a campaign inside the Bush Administration to prevent military and civilian leaders from codifying any policy that might implicitly or explicitly sanction the mistreatment of Guantanamo detainees as part of the war on terror. For his moral courage and his commitment to upholding American values, Alberto Mora was honored with the 2006 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Wilner, once a schoolmate of Al Gore’s at Washington’s prestigious St. Albans School and a fraternity brother of George W. Bush’s at Yale, is now a managing partner at Shearman & Sterling, LLP. He heads their International Trade and Global Relations Practice. Wilner has represented the human rights cases of a several Kuwaiti citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since May 2002.
Yoo joined the Boalt Hall faculty at Berkeley in 1993, then clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court. He served as general counsel of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee from 1995-96. From 2001 to 2003, he served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he helped author a series of memos that have come to be known informally as “The Torture Memos.”
Professor Yoo has received the Paul M. Bator Award for excellence in legal scholarship and teaching from the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy. He has testified before the judiciary committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and has advised the State of California on constitutional issues.
Director Alex Gibney’s Statement
Only six weeks before he died last year, my father, a journalist and author named Frank Gibney, asked me to get my video camera. He wanted me to unhook him from the oxygen machine so that he could speak to me about the film that I was trying to make about torture and the war on terror. My father had been a Naval interrogator in World War II. He questioned Japanese prisoners on Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles of the war and had risked his life trying to persuade some of those soldiers to leave the caves from which they were launching futile last-ditch suicide missions. (Years later, bathed in the rippling neon lights of downtown Tokyo, he would introduce me to some of those former prisoners over bottles of sake in a neighborhood sushi bar.)
But on this day in Santa Barbara, overlooking the ocean on which he had sailed into battle 60 years earlier, my father was very angry at the ongoing revelations of how, in the so-called “Global War on Terror (GWOT)” American soldiers had tortured prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo and in various secret sites around the world. His fury was directed at some of the top officials in the Bush Administration – George W. Bush himself, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld (whom he knew slightly) and Alberto Gonzales – who had invented and rationalized a new policy of “coercive interrogation techniques” as the only way to combat a unique, new terrorist threat from enemies brutal enough to turn commercial airliners into suicide planes.
But my father had been there before. In the waning days of the Pacific War, the Japanese had shown us the “kamikaze” – literally “wind of God” – a wave of pilots who, like the Islamic terrorists many years later, turned their airplanes into suicide bombs. Yet, in interrogating these supposedly fanatical Japanese prisoners, my father and his fellow interrogators – all of whom had extensive language training, unlike most of the interrogators in the GWOT – discovered that most of the prisoners were not so different from their interrogators. They had wives, children and dreams of a better future for themselves and their families. More important to the military mission, they were rather free with information and provided important intelligence once they had established a rapport with their interrogators. It never occurred to my father to ask for permission to employ some of the brutal techniques that the Japanese had used against our soldiers.
“Why,” I asked. “Well,” he said, “because we didn’t need to and because we thought our principles gave us a strength that our enemy didn’t have.” He was furious at the Bush Administration because he felt that, in condoning techniques like water-boarding that had once been employed by the Spanish Inquisition, they had sacrificed the very principles we were supposed to be defending. The rule of law, he told me, is what we thought we were fighting for. “It’s what made us different,” he said. He despaired that, to wage a war on terror, we were taking on the values of the terrorists. “It’s got to stop,” he said.
This film is dedicated to my father – his righteous anger and his sense of possibility. Through him, I discovered that the issue of “torture” is not really about interrogation techniques. It is about a pandemic of corruption that ensues when the rule of law is weakened. He taught me that torture is like a virulent virus – spreading, mutating, building resistance to attempts to stop it – that infects everything in its path. It haunts the psyche of the soldier who administers it; it corrupts the officials who look the other way; it discredits the information obtained from it; it weakens the evidence in a search for justice, and it strengthens a despotic strain that takes hold in men and women who run hot with a peculiar patriotic fever: believing that, because they are “pure of heart,” they are entitled to be above the law.
– Alex Gibney, filmmaker
Ten years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that Common Article 3 of the Third Geneva Convention applied to the War on Terrorism, with the unstated implication that any interrogation techniques that violated Common Article 3 constituted War Crimes.
The text of Common Article Three: “…the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever…”
End of timeline.
Editor’s Note: Much of the information contained in this article is taken from the press packet distributed by Think Films and their publicity team.
Bill Larson is is politically and socially active in the community. Bill is a member of the Friends of Dunbar Cave.
You can reach him via telephone at 931-249-0043 or via the email address below.
SectionsArts and Leisure
TopicsAlex Gibney, Bush administration, Culture, Don Rumsfeld, Geneva Convention, Iraq, John Yoo, Movie Preview, MPAA, Taxi to the Dark Side, Terrorism, Torture
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