on March 4, 2009
Finally! -- a documentary that makes no excuses for the behavior of U.S. military personnel in torturing people and which puts the so-called "war on terrorism" into a much clearer perspective for viewers worldwide.
As the title of this documentary implies, this is a dark (and often depressing) film. The torture-induced homicide of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver, by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan serves as the focus of the movie, which then goes on to explore the U.S. torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The common thread of torture as an officially permitted policy of the former Bush administration links these three internationally condemned prisons, and through the film's narrative, director Alex Gibney does a good job of holding both lower-ranking and higher-ranking U.S. military people accountable.
This point was a major weakeness of another movie on the subject, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" by filmmaker Rory Kennedy of the politically powerful Kennedy clan. Rory Kennedy's film (correctly) puts the blame for torture on the Bush administration and U.S. military brass -- yet the director herself describes the lower-ranking U.S. soldiers involved in torture at Abu Ghraib as quote-unquote "sweet" and "likable" young persons. This kind of liberal thinking comes across as not only condescending but also downright insulting to the morals of decent people around the world.
Fortunately, director Gibney seems to have learned well from Kennedy's mistakes and has made what is, in my opinion, the best documentary on this subject so far. Apparently the elite of Hollywood thought so too, for "Taxi to the Dark Side" won an Academy Award in 2007 for best documentary feature. Very unusual, yes, but understandable when you watch this film and see how well it is edited and produced.
The movie is divided into chapter subtitles on the screen, making it easier for viewers to follow a plot that can get complicated at times. I also liked the use of graphics and music -- and especially the lack of humor that you would find in, say, a Michael Moore movie on the same subject. "Taxi to the Dark Side" stays serious from beginning to end, yet manages to inform and educate without preaching to the choir.
The part of the movie that I found most enraging was the sheer arrogance of some U.S. military personnel, as characterized in the comments by U.S. Army Sgt. Thomas Curtis, an MP at the Bagram base, in explaining why he did not step in and stop the torture of the Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, before he was killed in U.S. custody. Curtis says in the film, quote: "It was us against them. I was over there, I didn't want to appear to be going against my fellow soldiers. Is that wrong? You could sit here and say that was dead wrong. Go over there [to Afghanistan] and say that."
My response to Sgt. Curtis and any others like him would be simply this: You and your fellow soldiers were *all* wrong -- dead wrong, literally -- regardless of where that homicide took place. By not appearing to go against your fellow soldiers, you indeed saved their face and yours....but in the process, you went against the norms of all civilized people everywhere who hold higher moral values than that. Take responsibility for that, sergeant, and feel ashamed.
Beyond that, I highly commend director Alex Gibney for standing up and making a film that is not afraid to place the responsibility where it really lies: in the conscience of every U.S. citizen. A dark and depressing movie it is, but that is only because the so-called "war on terror" itself is dark. By shedding some light on the dark side, Gibney and his staff have indeed done a great service to us all.
If there was any weakness in this movie, I think it would be that the focus was on interviews with U.S. military insiders. That is fine, but I would have liked to have seen more interviews with former prisoners than just the one interview conducted with Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who was unjustly imprisoned at Afghanistan (at the same time as Dilawar, the taxi driver) and later at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But so powerful is Begg's testimony in this film that such a weakness could easily be overlooked in following the much bigger picture.
Now, with this excellent film having been made, the next logical step would be to link the recent cases of U.S. military torture of brown-skinned people overseas to the longtime, routine torture of brown-skinned people within the vast domestic prison system of the United States. Any takers out there among filmmakers to produce a documentary that directly links Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. jail system and U.S. prison-industrial complex?