ALEX GIBNEY'S TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE.
With his recent films (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which he directed, No End in Sight, which he executive produced, and now his new Taxi to the Dark Side), Alex Gibney is filling a void in our American media landscape. His visually stylish, improbably witty and sadly informative films take the disparate shards of recent news cycles and connect the dots, creating grand politico-historical narratives from what the powers that be would like to characterize as “isolated incidents” and “one-time events.” With the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney led us through complicated financial deals to teach us the true criminality of one of America‘s largest corporations. With his latest, Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney guides us through a different kind of lawlessness — the systematic attempt by the Bush administration to sidestep the Geneva Conventions and promote the use of torture by our military in its war against terror. On its surface, the film is something of a procedural as it investigates the death of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar beaten by American soldiers at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Like a crime that is at the kernel of a Dashiell Hammett story, the killing of this man echoes far and wide, from the dark halls of Abu Ghraib in Iraq to the sun-beaten holding pens in Cuba‘s Guantanamo Bay. Ultimately though, Gibney‘s narrative lands in Washington, D.C., where he shows us how our laws are being dodged, massaged and evaded in what is a fundamental reimagining of our American character. Taxi to the Dark Side will be released in January by THINKfilm.
ALEX GIBNEY. PHOTO BY: THINKFILM
One of my pet peeves about interviews with documentary makers, including many we‘ve run in Filmmaker, is this: very often they read like recaps of the films‘ subject matters instead of being discussions of the films themselves. So I wanted to start by asking you as a filmmaker to talk about some of the things you were interested in exploring creatively in Taxi to the Dark Side. After Enron, where were you interested in taking yourself as a filmmaker, particularly with regards to your visual storytelling language? Enron was about corruption, and from the start I wanted this film to be about corruption too — the corruption of the American character, the corruption of the rule of law — and I wanted to convey that [visually]. In Enron, my d.p. and I thought a lot about a visual scheme for the interviews. We were always [going to be shooting] reflective surfaces. But to make a film about [torture] was always going to be hard. We had to dive in, find our way, and then slowly put together some kind of visual plan. We didn‘t know exactly what we were going to find along the way — what photographs, what images. And when I found the Dilawar story that, for my purposes, was important, because it weaves through the whole system, from Afghanistan through Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo. And only then did I begin to think of the film‘s imagery. For the Bagram [sequences in this film], we had precious few images [to work with], and you have a very complicated series of relationships there with the military intelligence, the military police and the prisoners. I wanted [viewers] to feel like they were in Bagram, so we came up with a plan of how to shoot the interviews. The Bagram [subjects] would be shot in a completely different way than all of the other interviews. We made a backdrop, a canvas painted with dark browns and grays, and carried it with us wherever we went, whether it was London, Ohio, Washington, whatever. We shot all the people who were at Bagram against that background. So every time you see one of those interviews shot against that backdrop, you get a visceral feeling. All of the people who were shot against it become united in some way. Even if you can‘t follow who is the M.P., who is the M.I. and who is the prisoner, you know they‘re from Bagram. Also, the [Bagram interviews] are lit very harshly with one side of the face in light and one side in darkness. They have kind of a prison feeling.
You‘ve talked about Sergio Leone as being an influence on this film. When we went out near Bagram and shot this taxi moving through the horizon, that was my homage to him. As a documentary, [this film] is kind of epic. You‘re moving from place to place to place with this haunting political dimension in the background. It‘s like the concentration camp scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or [Leone‘s] Marxist backdrop of what was going on in the West. And then we spent some time in Washington and that‘s where we shot those shots of this mysterious taxi moving through D.C. at the end. That just seemed right, to somehow connect the taxi in Afghanistan with the taxi in Washington.
Tell me about the decision to stage a recreation of the Mohammed al Qahtani interrogation. Incorporating this type of footage is something new for you. I thought a lot about it because it raises all sorts of problematic questions. I don‘t like that word, though — “recreation.” An “imagination” is almost better. Why recreate something like that? Time magazine had published excerpts from the interrogation logs of Mohammed al Qahtani, but we got the full 65-page log. Reading it was just a jaw-dropper, not only to understand how vicious they had been to Mohammed al Qahtani, but also to understand how unhinged the interrogators had become. When they weren‘t getting the results they wanted, they went to some bizarre places. So it became an important sequence [in the film] about the corruption of the human spirit. It [demonstrates] how torture comes at us and distorts us and infects us in ways we don‘t expect or understand. It‘s almost like 28 Weeks Later — it‘s like the torture virus. So there seemed to be a rationale for doing a kind of part-reality, part-fiction sequence where we would shoot actors but intersperse it with material from hearings and also text from the actual interrogation logs because you can‘t really see or understand how weird it is until you visualize it, and then it becomes very visceral. Like it says in the log, “Soldier inflates surgical glove and whispers in detainee‘s ear that it‘s a ‘sissy slap glove‘ while he rubs it along the side of his face.” What is that about?! And when you see it, this blown-up glove and this woman‘s lips saying, “Your mother is a whore,” and these people are bringing him a cupcake and a candle and are singing God Bless America, it‘s deranged! So I felt very strongly that we needed to [recreate this footage] but to do it in a way so we weren‘t trying to pretend we had found the real footage of Mohammed al Qahtani. It was a moral decision. Sometimes documentary films, or what I would call authored nonfiction, can do things that everyday journalists, either TV or print, can‘t do. You can be more angled on the material and you can express more of an opinion even as you‘re trying to stay within the reality. By [filming] the Mohammed al Qahtani sequence that way it allowed me to fight back an administration that won‘t release [the tapes]. You know, there are certain tapes that we wanted to get our hands on and we won‘t get, probably, for years. The Department of Defense holds it back and it‘s as though they‘re laughing and saying, “You don‘t have the material so you can‘t show it and the horror can‘t be exposed.” Well I don‘t have to play by those rules. I can show it within rules that I think everybody understands. I‘m not trying to fool anybody, but I am trying to create a visceral sense of what it‘s like for people who have power over an individual who is defenseless. He may be a horrible guy, but you can see how horrible it is what they do to him, and what it does to us. So it‘s like that ability to be a filmmaker gives you an advantage in terms of being able to speak truth to power. When people lie, and you‘re doing nothing but reporting those lies, then you‘re falling into their trap. You‘re losing. Werner Herzog talks about an accountant‘s truth versus an ecstatic truth. I‘m not so pretentious as to think that my films are an ecstatic truth, but I like that conceit, the idea that you are looking for something that represents what you see as the truth in all its many facets. And that‘s not necessarily just juxtaposing one lie with another lie as if that‘s balanced.
Taxi to the Dark Side was financed by a man from outside the film business who said to you he would finance a film about torture. Was it unusual for you to have been approached like that? Or are you at the stage of your career where the films come to you as opposed to you having to self-generate them? It wouldn‘t surprise you to learn that anybody doing anything related to economics comes to me. “Oh, the Enron guy, let‘s get him.” But other people, those doing political stuff, come too. In this case he was a guy who was on a panel with me, a high net-worth attorney. He said, “If I help raise the money, will you do the film?” He had seen Enron and liked it, and he was looking to me to be able to do something that was not mainstream in a news sense and that would have enough popular appeal so it would actually get seen.
And what was your continuing relationship with him? He brought you the topic and the financing, but you wouldn‘t characterize yourself as “a director for hire.” No, not in that sense. It was in the contract that I had total creative freedom, and he was great about honoring that. And it wasn‘t like he said, “I want you to tackle this subject and this subject and this subject.” It was more like, “Here‘s the broad topic area, go and find the story.”
How long a process was it from the time that he brought you that concept until you finished the film? It took about a year and a half.
And how long before you found the Dilawar story? I found that fairly early. I just dug in and started doing all sorts of reading. I also decided too that while I wanted Abu Ghraib to be a touchstone, I didn‘t want to do [a film] about Abu Ghraib. I knew Errol Morris was doing something about Abu Ghraib, but, in addition, it seemed like there was also a tremendous amount of effort by the administration to say that [the torture controversy is] all about Abu Ghraib. “Animal House on the night shift.” “It only happened once with just a bunch of bad guys, a few bad apples.” Part of the film was to try to show something bigger than that.
In the press notes, I was struck by the story of your father, who recounted his experiences with Japanese prisoners during World War II. He mentions how soldiers then knew that torture is ineffective. When and why did this assessment within the military change? That‘s a good question. We don‘t know what was going on in the mind of Dick Cheney, but I think this was a man who wanted revenge. I think he was panicked to some extent, and he was also obsessed with executive power, the idea that the executive or the executive branch can do anything it wants to in its role as commander-in-chief. So suddenly, without really thinking at all about ramifications, and without wanting to go to anybody who might question them, [the Bush administration] rushes into a policy that wasn‘t very well thought-out. I think they felt they were operating in a historical vacuum, which is to say [confronting] a new kind of threat, and they had to apply a new kind of force. But there‘s a body of evidence that tells us that these kinds of techniques, in addition to being morally abhorrent and illegal, are also not very effective in terms of getting good intelligence. So you‘ve got to wonder why, and I‘m not sure I will ever answer that question to my satisfaction. I think they were panicked and angry, and that led them to this very tragic era. I also think at some point, whether it was unconscious or conscious, there was a political dimension to this too, because if you think about it, what‘s torture best at? It‘s best at getting the prisoner you‘re torturing to tell you what you want to hear. The KGB used a lot of these techniques that we‘ve been using recently in order to extract false confessions. That‘s what they wanted — false confessions. Well, what‘s better to mask either mistakes or to align intelligence with political policy than torture? To me that was the scariest thing that came out of this project for me, that somehow we drifted into territory that might be more familiar in the old Soviet Union.
It was a very striking anecdote about your father in the notes, and it made me realize how much an acceptance of torture is engrained today not just in government but in our culture as well. Many of the presidential debates contain the 24 question: “What would you do if a nuclear bomb was about to explode? Would you torture someone to stop it?” Nobody is comfortable using the “T” word because polls have probably shown that Americans don‘t like to think that we torture. But so long as you can redefine that term, then it‘s a political winner for some people. It‘s like, “We‘ll do whatever‘s necessary.” And you‘re right, it has entered the popular culture, and that‘s precisely what Osama Bin Laden wants. That was stated by him not long after 9/11. [His] goal is to provoke us to undermine our own civil liberties.
Going into this film, what were the intangibles for you in terms of where you wound up versus where you started? What did you not know you would be able to get that you needed to get to make this film? All I had was faith, and that was the same thing with Enron. We didn‘t know when we started Enron that we were going to have the audiotapes of the Enron traders. We didn‘t know that very late in the game we were going to get a high-ranking female executive to appear. So you have to go in with a sense of faith that you‘ll find something, and you keep digging and digging and digging until you get it. And that‘s the trick with documentaries — you always have to adjust your narrative to account for what you get. The only thing I would say that was different about this one was that my editor and I early on were conflicted. She was convinced that we didn‘t have enough visual material to sustain a section on Afghanistan. Guantanamo — it‘s almost like going to Enron in its heyday. Guantanamo now is run like a torture theme park. There‘s a dog and pony show for journalists. Look, here‘s a Koran and here‘s the soccer field, and you pass by McDonalds, and you can go to the souvenir shop. It‘s very colorful, it‘s Cuba, the light is good. We shot [the scene in Taxi to the Dark Side] by flipping the camera back [and looking back towards the tour guides.] But my editor didn‘t think that we had enough on Afghanistan to make it work, and I didn‘t go to Afghanistan until very late. We didn‘t know at the beginning that we were going to get the photographs of Bagram or the autopsy photos of Dilawar. That was a break that we got about two-thirds of the way through. And we weren‘t sure how many people from the prison were going to talk to us. So all those things created a lot of nervousness.
I‘ve thought of your recent films as kind of “corrective histories.” They explore recent public events and try to explain their narratives in more complete detail than one could gain from reading fragmentary daily news coverage. How do you view what you do in terms of the relationship between your films and all the other media that‘s out there about the same subjects? I see [my work] as a kind of “authored history” or “angled history.” And in that sense, you‘re right, it‘s not ripped right out of the headlines. It‘s just after the headlines, or even while the headlines are still moving. But it kind of puts it all together in a short space, like a condensed story or something. With Enron, there were a lot of news stories about it but nobody was particularly interested in doing a documentary on it. But when you see it there in a two-hour narrative, you suddenly understand the moral force of the story in a way that you don‘t otherwise get. People came out of Enron saying to me, “I understood it for the first time, I just didn‘t get it before.” That‘s important to me.