Taxi to the Dark Side

I had a chance last night to see a small sneak preview of an unreleased documentary called “Taxi to the Dark Side” by filmmaker Alex Gibney (who was nominated for an Emmy Oscar for his last film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), which examines, basically, how we got from there to here — how we became a nation whose government openly renounced the Geneva Conventions and officially sanctioned the use of torture.

I have to be honest, it’s not the easiest thing to sit through. The film, which primarily focuses on abuses at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, contains footage of the Bagram base that’s never been seen anywhere else, as well as the shockingly familiar still images from Abu Ghraib, uncensored and high res. The filmmaker, who attended last night’s screening at Yale, described it beforehand as a sort of murder mystery, using as its springboard the story of Dilawar, the young taxi driver who was apprehended by Afghan militia and turned over to the U.S. military at Bagram, where he was, in fact, eventually murdered. And that’s not hyperbole — the official coroner’s report lists the cause of death as “homicide.” (The film notes that out of more than 100 deaths in U.S. custody, 37 have been officially declared homicides by the U.S. military itself. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that only seven percent of Guantanamo detainees were were actually apprehend by the U.S. military — the rest have been turned over by Afghan warlords, Pakistanis, bounty hunters, etc., any of whom may have had agendas having nothing to do with the American war on terror. Dilawar’s captor, for instance, turns out have been the person actually responsible for the rocket attacks of which the taxi driver was wrongly accused).

If you’ve been following all these stories over the past few years, there’s not a lot here that you probably don’t already know — but it’s still overwhelming to see the entire case laid out in such a methodical manner. In addition to the footage mentioned above, the film presents its case through interviews with guards and interrogators from Bagram, as well as former JAGs and other military officials. I’m sure they’ll do it anyway, but it’ll be hard for the usual suspects to paint this as a partisan hit piece when probably 80% of the talking heads are military and/or Republicans. Interspersed with their descriptions of the abuses are shots from the State of the Union in which Bush assures the audience, with a steely Clint Eastwood look in his eye, that the United States has illegally hunted down and murdered foreign nationals (I’m paraphrasing slightly, of course) — and gets a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle. Or when Alberto Gonzales, testifying before Congress, is asked about confessions obtained under duress, and stares into the camera for a full thirty seconds, face twitching as he tries to think of a suitable lie. (At the moment, it seems a bit obscene to me that the thing that’s ultimately going to bring Gonzales down is not his advocacy of torture, but rather the partisan firings of U.S. Attorneys.) Not to mention the footage of Dick Cheney explaining to an approving Tim Russert that the United States, like the rogue cop in a buddy flick, was going to have to throw the book away and play by its own rules for awhile.

Watching this film, I had a strange sense of being “unstuck in time,” to quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut — as though I were watching it twenty years from now, trying to understand the madness into which this country descended in the years immediately following 9/11. (The footage of Rumsfeld, in particular, was like watching contemperanous footage of MacNamara justifying Vietnam.) If there’s any justice in the world — and one doesn’t come away from this movie filled with overwhelming hope that there is — Gibney will have settled once and for all the question of whether or not these abuses were the official policy of the United States government, sanctioned at the highest level.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” premieres at the Tribeca film festival in New York City at the end of the month, and with any luck will pick up a distributor there. If you know anyone who thinks that Rush Limbaugh’s line of “Club Gitmo” t-shirts are the funniest damn thing they’ve ever seen, you’ll want to try to steer them to a showing.

(Edited for accuracy; I didn’t have a notebook with me last night. The 7% figure refers to Guantanamo detainees, not detainees in the entire overseas detention system, as previously stated.)