Iraq War doc spotlights prison abuse

Taxi to the Dark Side

on January 10, 2008 by Mark Keizer

The taxi in the title of Alex Gibney’s (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) latest illumination and deconstruction of abusive American power has two meanings: The first refers to the hack driven by “a good, honest” and totally innocent Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, who was killed by U.S. military personnel while in U.S. custody at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2002.

The second meaning, which extrapolates from the first, refers to how Dilawar’s odious treatment is symptomatic of our current military course, a road that is at best unsavory and at worst a reflection of the morally compromised country we are on the brink of becoming. Although Gibney’s anger seeps through, he still manages to dispassionately assemble MPs who participated in Dilawar’s murder and experts from both sides of the aisle who testify how Dilawar’s treatment was the inevitable byproduct of poorly trained soldiers and neo-con government officials who put too much stock in the quantity and quality of intelligence gained from torture.

As Gibney demonstrates, sometimes the slope is slippery, but sometimes you’re pushed. In the case of Bagram and Abu Ghraib, soldiers were given no training in intelligence gathering and, as Arizona Senator John McCain says in the film, “a confusing and constantly changing array of standards.” Yet key administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales created policies that guaranteed a lawless atmosphere within the two prison facilities. The hand-wringers at the top of the U.S. government condoned the use of torture, bent over backwards to figure out how much torture they could authorize and circumvented Geneva Convention laws prohibiting such treatment—all while avoiding culpability.

In the case of Dilawar, arrested for allegedly participating in a rocket attack, tactics included 20-hour interrogations, being forced to wear lingerie and endure enemas and incessant loud music, not being allowed to urinate and being touched by female MPs. Within five days, he was dead, his legs beaten so badly they were “pulpified.” And, like all abuses of power, no one in authority gave a whit until the press started snooping around, and Gibney sits down with New York Times journalists Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden, who broke and investigated the story.

Perhaps to purge their guilty consciences or set the record straight, a number of prison personnel, including some who directly contributed to Dilawar’s death, submit to Gibney’s cameras. Many, like PFC Willie Brand (who was court-martialed in the Dilawar case), come across as either too docile or too intelligent to treat prisoners with the gruesome debasement captured in photos almost too uncomfortable to look at. But Gibney leaves little doubt that the need for information forced every level of command to pressure the level below, until the ill-trained guards at Bagram and Abu Ghraib were operating in a “fog of ambiguity” that allowed for such heinous acts.

Gibney’s use of Dilawar as a prism and his ability to secure (and present without judgment) eyewitnesses participants are where the doc achieves maximum impact. However, the film is broken down into sections, some of which unduly fuzz the narrative, as well as delve into subjects covered in other documentaries. But, like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side represents an encouraging maturation of the anti-Iraq War documentary mini-genre. Here, anger is the result of unimpeachable research somberly reported, not the gadfly humor and smug sense of “gotcha!” that marks the modern-day snarkumentary.

As Gibney’s upsetting chronicle makes clear, American lives aren’t all that’s at stake in the Global War on Terror. The very concepts of American identity and pride are being threatened sub-rosa in the offices of the Pentagon and the blood-stained hallways of Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons. Maybe we should take solace in the notion that as long as documentaries like Gibney’s are allowed to be produced and screened, we’ll never be too far away from a time when such films weren’t even necessary.

Distributor: ThinkFilm
Director/Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Producers: Alex Gibney, Eva Orner and Susannah Shipman
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: January 11, 2008 NY, January

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