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NONFICTION FILM

A 'Taxi' ride not easily forgotten

Director Alex Gibney's unsparing documentary on the apparent institutionalizing of torture takes aim at the U.S. war on terror.

January 06, 2008|Sheri Linden | Special to The Times

With Page 1 headlines tracking the CIA's destruction of "severe interrogation" videotapes, "Taxi to the Dark Side" arrives in theaters as the timeliest of documentaries. But filmmaker Alex Gibney knows too that his unflinching look at the Bush administration's global war on terror might not be the easiest of sells with war-weary audiences.

"This is a difficult film to come to," Gibney said recently from New York, where he was putting the finishing touches on his next documentary, "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20. Gonzo irreverence was no doubt a cleansing tonic after the year and a half he spent immersed in the subject of torture.

"You look at those images day in and day out, and you grapple with that material all the time, and it does twist your psyche," the writer-director said.

The images to which he referred are deeply disturbing photographs and video footage from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Most of the material has not been widely seen or has been seen only in redacted form, and some of it has never before been shown publicly.

"There was a lot of much more graphic imagery that we didn't use," Gibney said. "We tried to find a balance. We did feel that at some point you had to show photographs of the horror or you didn't properly appreciate where it would go. . . . One of the key themes of the film is the momentum of torture and where it takes you."

Chronicling the 2002 death at Bagram of an Afghan detainee identified only as Dilawar, Gibney's film traces a chain of command that connects Bagram to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and seeks to topple the bad-apple theory advanced by the executive branch -- the idea that instances of torture and abuse were aberrations, not the natural outcome of official and unofficial policy.

Dilawar was a 22-year-old farmer and cabdriver who died after five days of interrogation for his alleged involvement in a rocket attack on an American base -- an allegation that it turned out most of his interrogators did not believe. The second prisoner in a week to die at Bagram, he was so badly beaten that his legs were "pulpified" and would have had to be amputated had he lived.

Dilawar's brother and the New York Times reporters who uncovered his homicide, as it was officially ruled, are among the interviewees in Gibney's film, which was scheduled to screen Friday at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and is due to open in Los Angeles on Jan. 18.

Contributing to the chilling narrative are the statements of guards, interrogators, a former detainee, legal and military experts, legislators and former members of the Bush administration.

Gibney, who directed "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and whose credits as a producer include "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" and "No End in Sight," has considerable experience getting insiders to open up. Not only did former Navy General Counsel Alberto Amora and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, overcome initial trepidations about sitting down before Gibney's camera, but they frequently speak at screenings of "Taxi to the Dark Side."

"This transcends shallow issues of left and right," Gibney said. "It's not really about the Democrats versus the Republicans; it's about how a small group of panicky, weak people undermined our national principles for reasons that I still don't think we understand."

A different dynamic prevailed when it came to interviewing soldiers who witnessed or participated in acts of torture. For these men -- many of whom, Gibney said, felt scapegoated by the military -- it was a matter of bearing witness to an ongoing psychological process.

"While they're being candid in some ways, I think there's a lot there that they haven't yet reckoned with," Gibney said. "They're slowly starting to, and it's that tension that makes it both painful to watch and also interesting, because you can sense that there's more that they want to say."

The politics of torture

Gibney hopes filmgoers will overcome any fatigue with so-called Iraq films and take a chance on his, whose true subject is not a specific military conflict but the ways in which the rule of law has been corrupted and how that affects the American character.

"What's disturbing to me is that more people aren't really upset, really furious," Gibney said. "This administration seems to have encouraged torture, whether it be unconsciously or consciously, because they get back intelligence that they want to hear. And that buttresses their political position in a way that only Orwell could have anticipated."

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