Taxi to the Dark Side won the Best Documentary award last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. An eye-opening look at US detainee policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, it’s a stunning film, and one that deserves to find a wide audience.
Two years ago at the Tribeca festival, I saw another overwhelming documentary, Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, a film examining the so-called “war on terror” that quite literally altered my consciousness. While Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), is not an imaginative leap like Curtis’s masterpiece, it nonetheless provides quite a jolt.
Far from being a lefty cry of hysteria, it deliberately and devastatingly lays out its case through interviews with and news footage about a wide range of subjects, from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to soldiers imprisoned for abusing detainees, and to lawyers of Guantanamo inmates. If like myself you feel that Guantanamo is one of the worst blots ever to stain the democratic ideals of our country, you may find your eyes welling with angry tears by the end of the film. Even if you disagree with me about the significance of Guantanamo, you owe it to yourself to see this movie, and then ask yourself whether you have been asking the right questions up to now.
The film’s title comes from one particular case, that of a meek Afghan taxi driver falsely accused by the Northern Alliance and imprisoned by the US at Bagram. He died in custody after his legs were "pulpified" in repeated, horrifying beatings. Dick Cheney’s solemn insistence from a post-9/11 Meet the Press interview that the US must now begin using tactics of “the dark side” (i.e. torture) in order to vanquish terrorism provides the rest of the title.
The material in the film leads inescapably to some disturbing conclusions:
- Most (over 90%) of detainees are in custody because they were captured by other Afghans or Iraqis for reward money or other compensation. Particularly in Afghanistan, the source of many of the original Guantanamo detainees, very few were captured by US personnel – and many if not most are not terrorists at all. (Although as one Guantanamo guard is quoted saying to a prisoner being released at the insistence of the British government: “If you weren’t a terrorist when you got here, you’d have reason to be now.”)
- The mistreatment that came to light at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (the unedited versions of those infamous photos are included in the film) has been widespread, and is based on instructions and encouragement from the very top of the command (Rumsfeld, Cheney, top generals), but MPs and other lower-ranking soldiers have been shamefully scapegoated, and they are the ones serving time in a few high-profile cases. The interview footage with some of these soldiers is both electrifying and chilling.
- Once an individual is in custody, it is very hard to get him out, despite evidence of innocence, or lack of evidence of guilt. The system is designed to be open-ended, even permanent.
- The US government has no intention of trying most detainees, and no interest in admitting that most of them are innocent. The description of Kafkaesque hearings, at which the “secret evidence” allegedly incriminating the detainees is not revealed to them or to their lawyers, is likely to disturb anyone who cares about freedom and democracy (as opposed to simply mouthing the words).
- 9/11 is seen as justifying any and all of this. It’s a dangerous world, and if innocent people get swept up in security measures, it’s worth it to catch a few terrorists… even if the non-terrorists are subjected to long detention without charges or trials, and to mistreatment that most thinking, feeling persons would agree amounts to torture. (And even if it’s debatable how many actual terrorists have been arrested.)
For a film that depends heavily on talking heads, Taxi to the Dark Side has great visual grace and assurance. The shots of the Afghan countryside near the beginning and end are breathtakingly beautiful and unexpectedly tranquil. These shots give the story of Dilawar, the unfortunate taxi driver who was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” an added poignance. And as he did in his Enron film, Gibney edits the material for maximum clarity and impact.