Taxi to the Dark Side

There continues to be an ad nauseam array of indictments against post-9/11 United States governments, yet few have gone as deeply as Alex Gibney’s non-fictional foray into America’s uncontrollable judicial modus operandi in the War on Terror.

Similar to his expose on American fiscal management run amuck in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney tracks down participants and observers to weigh in on the many avenues innocent people are incarcerated and tortured to death in U.S. military prisons across the globe.

Steering the story around a taxi driver named Dilawar—who despite being recognized as innocent by American military intelligence was still tortured to death while in captivity—Taxi to the Dark Side paves a highway to hell between Afghanistan and Washington, DC, with many pitiful stops along the way.

Gibney’s other credits include the The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Who Killed the Electric Car?, No End in Sight, Mr. Untouchable, and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

ESTHER: You look at this documentary and you wonder what is the Bush administration’s motive for this line of action.

Gibney: I agree, that is the question that haunts the whole film. What really haunts the film is they continue to pursue these things so aggressively and intently. It’s not like someone said angrily one day, "Take the gloves off, fuck it." All these people in the U.S. Department of Justice came up with all these archaic readings of laws to allow them to be able to do this without being prosecuted for war crimes.

Maybe unconsciously there’s also a political motivation. That’s always the thing that scared me. In the beginning of the film I didn’t believe it, but by the end of the film I did. People tell you what want to hear when they’re being tortured. If you’re convinced you’re right and that everything you’re doing is right then sooner or later you want to get the intelligence that confirms your views, confirms your political position.

That’s the really terrifying part because the FBI were getting information, but it happened to be the information the Bush administration didn’t want to hear. So they have the CIA take over. They wrap him [a prisoner] in duct tape, put him in a small box and ship him off to Cairo. It’s a weird mixture of all these things, but it leads to what George Orwell was scared about: torture is ultimately a political act in which you get people to tell you that you’re right.

The unspoken specter is the possibility of charges before the World Court. How will the World Court, which the Bush administration rejects, fit into this in the future?

I’ve been down this road with [alleged war criminal Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger and the problem is can the World Court enforce its will on the world’s most powerful nation? The answer is probably "no." In this case, what’s more useful are federal statutes. In my view, these people have also broken U.S. law, not just international law.

Yet they wrote into the Military Commissions Act that they are immune from prosecution.

Whether or not that will be upheld remains to be seen. Indeed it’s an absolute fact that when they started considering these more coercive interrogation policies they were obsessed with trying to find footnotes in the law that would allow them to elude prosecution for war crimes. They thought about this right up front. That’s one of the reasons why John Yoo [from the Office of Legal Counsel 2001-2003] is featured in the film, despite the fact that he says he was just a lawyer advising his clients. I think he was a lawyer who was conspiring to commit crimes.

What political intentions do you have with this documentary?

That’s always a tricky question for me because in a way I don’t like to make films that are cinematic vending machines. You put in your quarter and out goes a guaranteed result. These issues tend to be more complicated than that. But I don’t want this film to lead people to despair either. There’s got to be something we can do. Some of those things would be to shut down Guantanamo Bay and begin to initiate criminal investigations to hold people to account for what they’ve done. The only way we’re going to be able to move forward by having some justice, which means holding some people to account. One other direct thing would be to repeal the Military Commissions Act.

You used the phrase "cinematic vending machines." Never have there been so many documentaries about a war in action and Administration in action. Why are we seeing so many of these documentaries?

We are at a point where, for the documentarian, the camera is close to being a pencil. It’s so cheap to make them. There was that interesting film, The War Tapes, where [Deborah Scranton] gave cameras to members of the New Hampshire National Guard. They came back with an extraordinary record of their time in Iraq. By and large the TV news media does not do a very good job. People always ask me, "[Are] the media doing a bad job?" No, as you see in my film, there are some print reporters who did a pretty good job at ferreting out this stuff. Sometimes their editors didn’t do a good job. An interesting side story is that when New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, who’s in the film, first wrote her piece about Dilawar’s death at Bagram, and her editor sat on it for a long time, she was furious. She didn’t really understand. She thought it was an emotional reaction to 9/11. The New York Times didn’t want to release news that would look like we were criticizing our troops at a time when everybody wanted revenge and to rally around the flag.

Your analogy about the camera and the pencil reminds me of how, previously, being a writer was the one occupation where one could change minds on a mass scale. Can the documentarian take back the writer’s peaceful method of communication for change?

I would hope so. The role of the artist is complicated. I see myself more as a filmmaker rather than a journalist. I think Stalin called the writer, "The engineer of human souls." It was the idea that you could directly manipulate the human soul if you were a clever propagandist. I’m not sure I entirely believe that. I’ve had some people say they’ve changed their minds as a result of seeing my documentary. More important, it makes people think. That’s what documentaries do. The more dispassionate reasoned analysis is not something film is particularly good at. It’s a kind of a searing experience that makes you reckon with things in a way you might not otherwise do.

How do families who have members abroad in war zones respond to Taxi to the Dark Side?

A lot of the main characters are soldiers. At least the feedback I get from them and their families is "Go get ‘em." On this subject they feel abused that people in power ordered them or, with a wink and a nod, nudged them into committing crimes and then when they were caught, prosecuted them for it. They hung them out to dry. There are a lot of people in the military who feel this Administration, in particular, has undermined the values. You don’t always think of military values—the proud values of the military in terms of how you fight a war with honor. In some fundamental way I would flip it on its head and say it’s the torture policy that’s making us less safe, not our discussion of it.


John Esther is a film and cultural critic. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Cineaste. Taxi to the Dark Side is now available on DVD.