Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007): USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at the Santa Barbara Human Rights Festival

Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney (executive producer of previous Iraq War documentary, No End In Sight) tries to piece together the events and individuals involved in the abuse of prisoners by US troops during the ‘War on Terror’, from Bagram in Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Whilst it deals with a variety of cases, from the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs to the allegations made by British citizen Moazzam Begg, it focuses on the case of Dilawar, a young Afghan taxi driver who died five days after entering Bagram prison. It is a sobering, but well executed, tale.

Dilawar’s death certificate, written in English and delivered to a family who spoke not a word of the language, indicated that his death was considered a homicide. This comes as no great surprise when it is revealed by a doctor that he had been beaten about the legs so badly that, had he survived, they would have had to have been amputated. This tiny man (a little over 120 pounds in weight) was hung from the ceiling, deprived of sleep, beaten about the legs and then left, still hanging, where he died. The people who did this must have been monsters. They must have been slathering bigots, sadists and psychopaths. If we saw them on the street, we would know them immediately. They would be the people your mother warned you about. I mean, they would have to be, wouldn’t they?

This film’s greatest strength is the series of interviews with just those people. The men who delivered the knee strikes that ushered Dilawar out of this world are given a chance to tell their side of the story. Their accounts point not to a group of ‘bad apples’ spoiling a good, old fashioned, wholesome, ‘made-in-America-with-mom’s-apple-pie’ war, but a to corruption which began at the very top of the chain of command and seeped its way down to the rank-and-file, for whom disobeying orders goes against all that they have been taught. We hear an assistant to the Attorney General tell of loopholes that he teased out to provide space for torture and a side-stepping of the Geneva Conventions. We are told of the pathetically brief training periods that the men and women on the ground received before being let loose on prisoners. We hear military personnel tell how life for the uncharged in Guantanamo is made quite pleasant by the weekly Pepsi and pizza night and a half basketball court! And we hear, from the mouths of those who were directly responsible for the death of Dilwar, how orders that they were given were never backed up by writing which would have illustrated the route they took through the chain of command, and how requests for guidelines and training were never acknowledged. We hear of their regrets and how they were cut off and hung out to dry. Did they make mistakes? Terrible, awful mistakes? Absolutely. Should the buck have stopped with them? This film suggests otherwise. Are they humans and not monsters? Yes, they are tragically, undeniably human.

The film loses some of its credibility when it turns to Moazzam Begg. The director does nothing to present his testimony in the light of information known about Begg. None of the previous allegations about him are raised, nor his own admissions about visiting militant training camps. Although Begg is an eloquent speaker (he now tours, supporting his book on his time in Guantanamo) his presence in the film delivers little that other speakers do not and the ignorance of his past threatens to undermine its credibility.

With that one caveat, this film is highly, highly recommended. The episodic structure and continuous stream of allegations and evidence keep the film moving at a breakneck pace. Watch, learn, and make your own mind up as to whether the fourth branch, the journalistic branch, of the US government is the only one working at all.

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