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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Countdown to Oscar: Taxi To The Dark Side

* * * 1/2
Best Documentary Feature, 2007

Director: Alex Gibney

Taxi To The Dark Side is a really horrifying movie and I mean that in the best possible way. It takes an ugly and unpopular subject – the treatment of detainees by US military – and makes no attempt to sugarcoat it, nor does it allow its exploration to sensationalize the issue. While it is not without its flaws, it does manage to be critical of the right people, recognizing that you can’t stop the search at the Lynndie Englands involved, but have to keep going higher and, indeed, all the way to the top.

The taxi in question belonged to an Afghan named Dilawar, who accepted a fare and essentially found his life at an end. By virtue of little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color, Dilawar and his passengers find themselves turned over to US forces, suspected of having been involved in a rocket attack. They are detained and, as the film makes clear time and again, tortured until Dilawar dies and his passengers are transferred to Guantanamo and then eventually released. The film takes a close look at the “interrogation” practices employed at Abu Ghraib, effectively reducing it from a detention centre to a house of horrors. It also, importantly, talks to some of the soldiers who were involved in and punished for their roles in the situation.

Director Alex Gibney isn’t in the business of debating right and wrong here. There’s never any question from the film’s point-of-view that what happened was not only wrong, but also incredibly counterproductive: torture doesn’t deter terrorism, it inspires it. What the film is questioning is who ought to be punished for it. There were many soldiers who were directly involved who found themselves tried and punished for their involvement – all of them of lower rank. The film doesn’t argue against the need to punish these particular people, but it does take pains to point out that in the grander scheme, they’re the symptom and not the disease. A military cannot function when the lower ranks take initiative and act at their own behest; there’s a hierarchy and a chain of command and unless you target the root of those commands which led to the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, you’re never going to solve the problem.

That is, of course, easier said than done and the film points out that the Bush administration enacted legislation to ensure that no one in power (ie no one who matters) could be held accountable for what happened in military detention facilities on foreign soil. The primary target of the film’s ire is Donald Rumsfeld, though Dick Cheney and George Bush don’t come out smelling like roses either. Although I think this is a good film which makes many good points, I think one of its weaknesses is that it's very closed in the sense that I don't know that it would speak to someone who didn't already agree with its point before seeing it. The tone of the film is too combative to sway someone on the other side and perhaps even those on the fence. It's basically designed to preach to the choir.

While I found the film powerful overall, it is flawed. It jumps around a lot between Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram and it can be difficult at times to maintain your bearings as a viewer and keep the various threads of the narrative clear. It can also be quite difficult to watch, as it makes frequent use of the worst of the Abu Ghraib photos. It is, however, a film worth seeing.

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