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DRE #444020

Film Review

Taxi to the Dark Side

I have never seen a film before that has made me so ashamed to be an American as Taxi to the Dark Side.  Alex Gibney, who directed the brilliant documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has again created a masterpiece that won an Academy Award for best documentary film in 2007.  Using news footage and an amazing series of interviews, he tells the sad and shocking tale of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was arrested in 2002 by an Afghan unit that had developed a reputation for routinely arresting innocent people. He was turned over to the Americans, and died at Bagram Prison 5 days later from mistreatment and torture by American military policeman. Gibney lets us understand how such a thing could happen, encouraged then excused, by Bush Administrative officials at the highest levels. These procedures, including beatings, sensory deprivation, loud sounds, sleep deprivation, extreme isolation, cold, sexual humiliation, and more, are essentially war crimes, and set a precedent for the more widely publicized abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.  And Geneva Convention rules? Explained away with an interview by the now infamous John Woo, as "not relevant" or no longer binding on the US if the combatants are not conventional forces. Just so no one forgets, Woo was a deputy Attorney General and now teaches law at Boalt Hall in Berkeley. Is there no sense of shame in that law school?  In the film, in an interview shortly after 9/11, Vice President Cheney was very clear in stating that interrogations must change and US agencies must become more aggressive.  They did. The FBI, to its credit, refused to be part of this, but the CIA charged ahead, as the film shows.

Taxi begins and ends in Dilawar's rural Afghan village.  His brothers were farmers but Dilawar wanted to drive the taxi to help support his family. And ends up tortured to death by American soldiers. Some of the imagery is shocking: the photos taken by soldiers at Abu Ghraib of piles of naked prisoners, grinning soldiers (including of course, Lynndie England holding naked prisoners on dog leashes), dogs menacing terrified prisoners, Dilawar's battered body, other prisoners with terrible wounds from beatings, and much more.  Gibney interviews the military policemen, now civilians, who actually interrogated and beat Dilawar.  The pathologist examining his body said that had Dilawar lived, his legs would have had to been amputated because of the massive damage.  His interrogators are appropriately remorseful, but all say they did what they understood as correct, with little, if any, training in legal interrogation techniques or Geneva Convention rules.  One of his interrogators says that it became like sport.  It becomes clear that this was not a "case of a few bad apples", as stated by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had visited Bagram.  Rather, these brutal and dehumanizing interrogations were encouraged and rewarded, and a climate of sadism became the norm.  Very senior officers had repeatedly visited Bagram Prison, and expressed satisfaction about the intelligence obtained from the prisoners. And Captain Carolyn Wood, who headed one of the interrogation teams at Bagram, was transfered to Abu Ghraib, and later given a staff position.  Were these prisoners even guilty? Who knows? Only 7% percent of them had been arrested by US forces.  The others were seized by Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani forces, some by paying bounties. But the system assumed that if they were captured, they must be guilty.  Most will confess to anything to stop the pain of torture.  The film makes the case that harsh interrogation and torture are ineffective in obtaining accurate information.  Gibney interviews a former FBI interrogator, Jack Cloonan, who makes the point that effective interrogation begins with ingratiating yourself with the prisoner, not with the use of force or pain. The Department of Defense and the CIA however have made the assumption that since these men were arrested, they must be guilty, and hence must have useful information. But the man that the CIA felt was the 20th hijacker confessed under CIA torture to Saddam Hussein training Al Qaeda. Colin Powell used this information in his now discredited presentation to the United Nations, as it was later proven to be untrue.

Many of Dilawar's interrogators were tried and convicted, or pled guilty to assault. All were enlisted men, who give sad riveting interviews for this film. One officer was charged but exonerated.  The men were certainly guilty, but scapegoats for systematic abuses.  A recent bill signed by the President provides immunity for any future charges of war crimes against the current administration. Taxi ends, the audience can scarcely move, some in tears, understanding that our country has committed war crimes against prisoners.  Crimes encouraged and systematically directed from the highest levels.  The war, much less the terrible stories of Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons, is disturbing and deeply depressing, yet this is a film that needs to be seen by any American who is attempting to understand what has been happening in our names and believes that we have taken a terribly wrong turn, and betrayed our ideals.  Could any of us have ever imagined that prisoners would be tortured in our names?  We should all be deeply ashamed.  It is outrageous and violates our most important values.  Taxi to the Dark Side played at Opera Plaza for over two months, but closes tonight.  Fortunately it is available on DVD, and is truly an important film.  Masterful, very worth seeing and definitely unforgettable.  

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