Taxi to the Dark Side is an Oscar-winning documentary written and directed by Alex Gibney, who in 2005 attracted considerable attention for his film, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. But Gibney’s Taxi is far superior to his Enron, a film that had extraordinarily revealing documentary footage but was nevertheless bogged down with a confused narrative and focus. Gibney's use of a more controlled tone works wonders in Taxi to the Dark Side, in which he lets the outrageous evidence presented speak for itself.
The overarching narrative covers the tale of a young Afghani taxi driver, Dilawar, who was imprisoned in Bagram Air Force base in 2002 and eventually tortured to death there by US military personnel. He was never charged with a crime, and the evidence seems to indicate that he was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. There is a danger here of adopting a shrill tone of outrage over events like this. The public has already seen disturbing images from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib plastered all over the media and is likely to turn away in fatigue with the reaction, “yes, we know that some bad things have been done, but this is war.” Gibney follows a more subtle course.
Early on we see interview clips from military interrogation personnel who were at Bagram and who calmly describe the procedures that were in force there. These men appear to be reasonaly articulate and express awareness that the conditions imposed on many of the prisoners were unbearable. It is only later on, after we have gotten to know these people as basically normal human beings, that we learn that these same people have been charged with acts contributing to Dilawar’s death. The case is slowly developed that what happened to Dilawar was not the result of “a few bad apples”, but was an inevitable consequence of something far more sinister.
The “dark side” in the title is a reference to Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks after the 9/11 terror attacks concerning what course of action must now be followed.
“We have to work the dark side, if you will. . . . We’re going to spend time in the shadows. 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 ... It’ll be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”The film shows how torture was introduced at Bagram and endorsed at the highest levels, before being transmitted to Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (aka GTMO), a more explicit and scientific programme was introduced to see what the US military could gain from the use of torture. Gibney covers all of this in detail, and presents a number of disturbing pictures concerning the “stressing” of prisoners that the public is unlikely to have seen. All of this is presented by Gibney in an almost infuriatingly reasonable and progressive manner. The facts and images pile up gradually, leaving us amazed at the depths to which the United States government has fallen. The damning material explicitly describing torture techniques in force at US incarceration sites is intermixed with newsreel and interview footage of Donald Rumsfeld, various military interrogators, and other military and political figures. Notable is the interview footage with John Yoo, a former assistant to the US Attorney General, who believes in and has written legal memos supporting the US President’s right to order the torture of prisoners and to violate the Third Geneva Convention (which is supposed to guarantee humane treatment of prisoners of war). Watching Yoo's staggering remarks is depressing, but the disturbing attitude they reveal and the extent to which they humiliate the US on the world stage is something that must be faced.
Gibney also has a brief but useful coverage of the bogus “ticking bomb scenario” argument that is often used to justify torture. Apparently this situation is routinely presented on Fox Television’s Emmy-award-winning serial, 24 (a show that I never watch), wherein torture is invariably found to save the day. Perhaps that show has contributed to the American public’s blithe acceptance of torture.
A few damning facts are presented without much comment. The US has imprisoned over 83,000 people since the GWOT (Global War on Terror) began, and none of them have been brought to trial. Only 7% of those imprisoned in Afghanistan and Iraq were captured by US military personnel. The remaining 93% have been captured by armed Afghani and Iraqi groups who turn their prisoners over for bounty payments from the US government, without any vetting of the “charges” or possibility of those captured to have a public hearing. More information on this subject can be found in the recent NY Times review of Jane Mayer's book, The Dark Side and the article, "Official American Sadism" (Anthony Lewis, New York Review of Books). But however much one might read about this subject, it will not match the personal sense of involvement that comes from the film experience.
How hopeless is the situation now? One positive first step to take would be to have everyone you know see this film.