For The Taxi to the Dark Side I believe I have to go to W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939." This has often been quoted since the events in middle September 2001 that none will forget. The problem is that the event will always be remembered, but an old saw put in a succinct way will be, and to our detriment be forgotten (again and again): "I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
The Taxi to the Dark Side is the Oscar winning documentary by Alex Gibney that explores the genesis and extension of torture from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, and finally to some level of justice for some involved.
The story is bookended by the 5 lethal day detention of an Afghani young man, Dilawar, from a village who used his new car as a taxi. He was taken into custody and murdered (his death was ruled a homicide by the US military). Between the bookends, Mr. Gibney explores the way that techniques grown from the anger in Afghanistan became essentially established as militarily acceptable, even written, standards of interrogation.
I think anyone reading this review will already be familiar with the events uncovered in 2004, briefly glossed over a bit after and then was defended as proper policy around the mid-term election in 2006. What makes this story different from the ones before is the access the filmmakers had to those either in some level of power or decision and the men and women trying to gain some level of legal communication with those imprisoned. This is the reason to watch this film. There is so much noise and rhetoric, so many prurient pictures and accounts in other documentaries that they all mesh together and disappear. How many times can we hear about Lindy England and ultimately care? Mr. Gibney was able to talk with John Yoo who was the man principally responsible for concluding in early 2002 that what would ordinarily be defined as torture was something that the administration could fudge.
The Taxi to the Dark Side is important because it is a legal look into the process behind early activities at Bagram AFB in Afghanistan to the debate over the legality of water-boarding about 4 years later. This is the documentary that cuts through the prurience and spectacle; this is the mature documentary that will survive a decade from now. This is why something as difficult and harsh as the way some in the US military have treated those in custody is important to see. The question arises: is this balanced? The answer is very complex and left to the viewer. This viewer says that, to the extent possible, Mr. Gibney does his very best to do so. The problem becomes how you define balance against something that to the layperson appears to be torture. Do we need to see the Marquis de Sade's good side before we can decide that what he espoused is intolerable?
This documentary does what others have investigated. The famous "A few bad apples" remark from many in the Pentagon is put under a magnifying glass. The documentary mentions something called "force shift." Essentially this is how one marginally bad thing can lead to more heinous things and even worse beyond that. The Taxi to the Dark Side does its best to show the men in direct contact with prisoners, guilty of some level of mistreatment of prisoners, as guilty but also as the scapegoats. No one higher than an enlisted man was ever found guilty and the highest ranking person charged was a captain exonerated basically because he couldn't have really known what was happening, at least according to those in his hearing. I am giving nothing away. In a documentary like this, the viewer goes in knowing more than just the basics; this just fills in gaps and raises both questions and gives evidence that we may not have considered before.
The most important part of the film is the story of Moazzam Begg. He is British and was in Pakistan at the wrong time. I will leave it at that.
My complaint about the film is the structure. I have no problems with Mr. Gibney choosing the taxi driver as his subject. Choosing an innocent man is of course a great way to create a metaphor for the disgusting events between the bookends. The problem I have is that is exactly what Dilawar was: a quick metaphor to jump into very hostile waters. We are given more than basic details of the young man's life, but not much more than that. In this one sense the documentary fails because it leaves truly unexamined the life of this man rather than focusing nearly entirely on his shameful death.
And to close my own bookend. The cultures the US has invaded have a code of conduct that requires action of some sort because of the evil done to them. Now that the arguably rogue administration is about to depart, are they and the rest us ready for the evil in return? Evil done to us done to them done to us. I am a never-believer, but it seems that someone with a sense of true justice will have to find a way to stop this global notion of "force shift."
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The film's impact is powerful and complex. We come to see the very soldiers who broke Dilawar's ...