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CAUSE CELEBRE TINA DAUNT

'Taxi's' difficult route to an Oscar

February 29, 2008|TINA DAUNT

When your cause involves something nobody wants to see, it's a problem -- particularly in Hollywood.

The industry, after all, always has been about moving pictures. But what do you do when those images make people squirm right out of their seats?

That's the problem documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney and other Hollywood activists, concerned about the Bush administration's use of torture in its war on terror, have had to confront from the start.

When Gibney's powerfully shocking and profoundly unsettling documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side" won the Academy Award on Sunday, it was the culmination of an effort on his part and that of supportive organizations such as the ACLU and Amnesty International to mobilize people against what they regard as the unthinkably inhumane treatment of detainees in America's foreign prison camps.

"Truth is, I think my dear wife, Anne, was kind of hoping I would make a romantic comedy," Gibney, a longtime maker of serious documentaries, told the Oscar audience. "But honestly, after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, 'extraordinary rendition,' that simply wasn't possible."

He knew getting such a film before the public would be difficult, but he never realized just how hard it would be. The path from conception to screen was nothing short of difficult.

Gibney started work on "Taxi to the Dark Side" more than two years ago (with financing from a group of attorneys and others outraged by the policy on torture). For him, it was only way to take the subject from the abstract (with pundits these days throwing around terms like "torture light," as if they were ordering some new coffee drink) to the real.

"I had been a little bit surprised how little outrage there had been on this issue, " he said this week in a telephone interview from New York. "In part I attribute that to the fact that there is a tendency to say, in order to protect us, our government has to do bad things. Just don't tell us about it.

"People don't really understand what a big deal it is. It's not just about torture and illegal detention; it's about throwing overboard certain fundamental values we have as a nation."

Gibney struggled at first to get access to prisoners and soldiers inside the foreign lockups. Eventually he broke through (he is, after all, the director who documented corporate corruption in the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room").

Ultimately, Gibney was able to produce a film more grisly than any twisted horror flick. Loosely centered on the suspicious U.S. prison death of an Afghan taxi driver in December 2002, Gibney packed the film with facts, interviews, graphic photographs and startling video footage from inside Bagram (at a former Soviet air base turned U.S. interrogation site for terrorist suspects in Afghanistan), Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

He captures not only the appalling physical acts of torture (even describing how a prisoner cried for his parents) but the psychological ones.

"It was difficult to deal with those images day in and day out," Gibney said. "It's tough to deal with our own national complicity, and I'm including myself in that. It was like I was looking into a national mirror, and it didn't look so good. . . . Torture is not a strength. It's a sign of weakness."

The film is not easy to watch. And as a result, it hasn't been easy to sell in Hollywood.

After a small industry screening in the fall, one A-list actor told Gibney that he needed to talk about why it is sometimes necessary to hold prisoners in such conditions. "He said, 'You need to show the other side of torture.' "

Another producer told Gibney that the documentary was too "unrelenting." Studio heads were also standoffish. "It wasn't the sort of film they felt they could show their friends," he said.

Eventually the film was distributed by a consortium of U.S. and foreign production companies, including THINKFilm from the U.S. The movie rolled out in a limited number of theaters in December and, as expected, had a small box-office return. Gibney, however, found support from a loyal ally: fellow documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

Moore told Gibney that he believed "Taxi to the Dark Side" would beat his "Sicko" for the Oscar. He was right.

With the Oscar in hand, Gibney has been able to re-release the film and to persuade HBO to air it in September, which will mark the first time a television audience has had to confront the reality of torture with this sort of clarity.

In the meantime, Gibney plans to continue other limited screenings, including showing the film to lawmakers in Washington. He is getting support from both Amnesty and the ACLU, which in January started organizing celebrities to wear orange ribbons to show their support for closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Before the Oscar show began, Oscar-nominated actress Julie Christie and writer-director Paul Haggis were wearing the orange ribbons and discussing torture on the red carpet. Now the question is: Can these Hollywood activists take the torture debate from the red carpet to the blue and red states?

--

tina.daunt@latimes.com

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