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'Taxi' Ride to the Truth : Alex Gibney Takes on Torture

By Cathleen Rountree

From Gibney's <em>Taxi from the Dark Side</em>. Courtesy of Jigsaw Productions

Editor’s Note: On September 28 at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Los Angeles, IDA will present Alex Gibney in conversation with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. Catch this blazing documentary star while you can, when he slows down just long enough for a special evening of electrifying clips and engrossing conversation. Learn more and purchase tickets

Producer/director Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Darkside, which opens in theaters in January through THINKFilm, examines the death of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base from injuries inflicted by US soldiers. In an unflinching look at the Bush administration's policy on torture, Taxi takes us from a village in Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and straight to the White House.

Access to key participants is fundamental to the film, and Gibney admits that it was the most challenging aspect to getting Taxi made. “It was very hard to get the former interrogators to tell their stories,” he says, via an e-mail conversation. “Two of my producers were good ‘persuaders.’ More than that, though, we were helped by the fact that these men felt they had been scapegoated by the process. While they acknowledged that they had done something wrong, they were angry that the people who had ordered them to commit crimes—or tacitly encouraged them to do so—had not even been investigated, much less punished. In the case of Willie Brand and Damien Corsetti, we had help from their attorneys. It was a slow process in which we also depended on word-of-mouth. One interrogator or MP would pass the word on to others.”

Having recently written and produced The Human Behavior Experiments––about the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment––for the Sundance Channel, Gibney is especially interested in the seemingly reasonable people who, under the guise and premise that they were following orders, became monsters. Did the former interrogators acknowledge that they were unwitting participants in this 21st century version of Stanford/Milgram?  

“The former interrogators and guards do feel as if they were scapegoats,” Gibney replies. “And today, they feel haunted by what they had done. But, at the same time, not all of them have a perfectly clear sense of how and why everything happened. And there are some—notably Sergeant Curtis—who remind us that they were in a war and that moral issues that seem so clear here weren’t so clear over there.

“At the same time,” Gibney continues, “I think that many of them now resent the fact that their superiors blurred the rules that they were supposed to follow. And their officers and the civilian command put them in a position that they never should have been put in. How can you expect a member of the National Guard with one day of training to conduct interrogations of high-value detainees? The solution that their superiors came up with for that lack of training was ‘coercive interrogation techniques.’”

In the Milgram Experiment, a man in a white lab coat encourages the subjects to shock others and assures them that everything will be all right. In Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as Gibney points out, “Unskilled and untrained interrogators and guards were rarely given direct commands to torture. They were told, ‘The gloves are off’; ‘It’s time to go over to the dark side,’ etc. The instructions were purposefully vague, even as the pressure to produce results was enormous. And the permission to do ‘whatever…’ was given with a ‘wink and a nod.’ In a way, that’s worse than Milgram because, in the case of the Global War on Terror, those in command were purposefully giving themselves deniability while encouraging those on the front lines to ‘take the gloves off.’”

The men Gibney interviewed understood why they were charged with crimes, but they didn’t understand why their superiors weren’t even investigated. “But I’m not sure it was just a matter of obedience, which was the subject Milgram was interested in,” he says. “The Bush administration played a more dangerous game. They encouraged soldiers to ‘embrace the dark side.’ That was like letting loose a virulent virus of cruelty that mutated and migrated as it spread from Bagram to Abu Ghraib, from the Pentagon to Guantanamo and into the black sites around the world that we still don’t really know about.”

These men also seem contrite about what roles they were forced to play—at least contrite enough to appear on camera. But where do they go from here?

 “They are wondering exactly the same thing,” Gibney says. “They need to find a way forward. Torture has a devastating impact, not only on those who are its victims, but on those who inflict it.”

Taxi to the Dark Side is one of three films, along with Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Gharib and Errol Morris' forthcoming Standard Operating Procedure, that will have been released within a year, which seems to reinforce the role that documentary filmmakers have assumed: to question and ferret out the truth where the traditional media outlets and Congress have fallen short. What is Gibney’s view on this role, particularly in the current context?

“Look, I profiled a number of reporters from the traditional media who did very good work in ferreting out the truth,” Gibney counters. “So it’s not as if all of the ‘media’ were asleep at the switch. However, I do think that documentary filmmakers sometimes have an ability to use different cinematic methods that may be more effective at combating the doublespeak of officials in power. People in power today often use the traditional media’s rules of ‘objectivity’ and phony balance to insure that lies are often given the same weight as the truth. That’s what sometimes passes as presenting ‘both sides’—as if there are ‘two sides’ to every incident: life as Crossfire.

 “But like many indie docmakers,” Gibney continues, “I have a formal freedom that can sometimes allow me to expose official depravity better than traditional news reporters. Time magazine published portions of the interrogation log of Mohammed al-Qahtani. But only by reading the entire 65-page log can you get an idea of how sadistic the interrogation was and how far—despite, or perhaps because of, Rumsfeld’s daily oversight—the interrogators went over to the dark side. In my film, by visualizing portions of that interrogation, viewers can get, in a few minutes of screen time, a visceral sense of just how unhinged and corrupt the process had become.”

Taxi includes a number of re-enactments. Given the debate about this form of documentary, how did Gibney make the decision to go that route?

“I think of a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: There are no rules in a knife fight,” he notes. “So, in documentary films, there should be no hard and fast rules. You can’t speak truth to power by playing by the rules that benefit those who lie. At the same time, I take my pact with my audience very seriously. I give viewers key clues on how to watch my films. I don’t think I tried to ‘fool’ anyone that the interrogation of al-Qahtani was documentary footage. So long as the intention of the filmmaker is clear, why is it ever ‘against the rules’ to use fiction techniques? Werner Herzog talks about the difference between ‘ecstatic truth and an accountant’s truth,’ and the way a recitation of certain facts is not as truthful as a moment of cinema—fiction or nonfiction—that conveys a more complex reality. I’m not so pretentious as to say that Taxi is any kind of ‘ecstatic truth’—except for torture junkies—but it’s ‘Gibney’s Truth’: my version of events, which is, hopefully, more riveting than a movie made by a CPA.”


Cathleen Rountree is a film journalist and author of nine books, including The Movie Lovers’ Club, about the process of creating community through finding meaning in movies. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications.