“Taxi to the Dark Side” wins Oscar; HBO to air crucial torture film in September


Alex Gibney at the OscarsIn a genuinely impressive demonstration of frontline politics seeping into the frocks, gossip and backslapping of the Oscars, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” Alex Gibney’s chilling and compelling documentary about American torture, which focuses on the murder by US personnel of an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, won “best documentary” at the awards ceremony on Sunday. Accepting the award, Gibney said, “This is dedicated to two people who are no longer with us, Dilawar, the young Afghan taxi driver, and my father, a navy interrogator who urged me to make this film because of his fury about what was being done to the rule of law. Let’s hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light.”

Taxi to the Dark SideBroadcast by the BBC last October, “Taxi to the Dark Side” — which also casts an unflinching eye on torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, demolishing the US administration’s claims that human rights abuses and murders were executed by a “few bad apples” — has been showing in cinemas across the United States to widespread critical acclaim in the ten months since its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, but its US network premiere was recently derailed by the Discovery Channel. Earlier this month, Alex Gibney said that he had agreed to sell the TV rights to the Discovery Channel because executives convinced him they would “give the film a prominent broadcast,” but shortly after the company withdrew its endorsement. As Think Progress explained, “with plans to take the company public, executives were afraid the film’s controversial content might damage Discovery’s public offering.”

Gibney was unforgiving. In a press release, he stated, “Having directed ‘Enron[: The Smartest Guys in the Room],’ very little about this kind of corporate behavior shocks me, but I am surprised that a network that touts itself as a supporter of documentaries would be so shamelessly craven. This is a film that, in an election year, is of critical interest to the viewing public. What Discovery is doing is tantamount to political censorship.”

As Think Progress noted, “It’s ironic that Taxi’s content is too ‘controversial,’ considering it depicts real acts perpetrated by the current Bush administration.” In an interview with the Center for American Progress, Gibney noted that Americans were excited about dramatizations of torture, as featured in shows like Fox’s “24,” but were uncomfortable “with the reality of torture”:

We know that “24″ is a very popular show, and, you know, week after week after week, Jack Bauer would brutally torture people. In fact, we have a couple of clips from “24″ in the film “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Some people seem to get off on that. It’s kind of natural, I suppose, feeling of revenge and retribution for what happened to us on 9/11. Jack Bauer in our names can go and really brutalize the enemies of America.

But I think it is true that some Americans are uncomfortable with the reality of torture, or perhaps, it’d be fair to say, too comfortable with torture without really understanding what it means. I think everyone was horrified by the pictures at Abu Ghraib. But there is for some people, I think, a willingness to say, look, let them do what has to be done, so long as it protects us. But as Alberto Mora, former General Counsel for the Navy says in the film, we fight not only to defend our lives, we fight to defend our principles. So it remains to be seen.

I do think that mood is changing, and I do think there are a lot of people who are just furious at what’s been done in our name, and also when they realize how deeply ineffective it is. That’s one thing that people don’t really get. Torture, even though the Bush administration never uses that word, they say “We don’t do torture,” because they define it out of existence. But what you learn about torture — and this administration has authorized torture, there’s no question about it — is torture is deeply ineffective and unreliable.

Fortunately for Alex Gibney — and for Americans who would like to learn more about what was done in their name in the US prisons in Afghanistan — HBO announced just before the Oscars that it had bought the rights to the film and would show it in September. Think Progress reported that a source had explained to them that Discovery had “agreed to the deal with HBO after intense public criticism — including from the netroots,” adding, “Discovery executives were also reportedly anxious that if Gibney received the Oscar for best documentary feature, he would make a speech denouncing the network.” It was also noted that Discovery will air the documentary on its Investigation Discovery channel, but only “in 2009 … after President Bush is out of office.”

As for Gibney, Reuters reported that “he ‘feels great’ about the prospect of HBO airing the documentary during the final stage of the presidential campaign.” “This is a vital issue for the campaign,” he explained. “Retaining the national character while we fight the war on terror is an issue every true candidate has to wrestle with.”

Andy is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, which includes a chapter detailing the torture, abuse and murders at Bagram. The book is published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

One Response

  1. Reel Suave says...

    Taxi to the dark side

    What comes across powerfully is the erosion of the ethical high ground claimed by the US and the blurring of the lines between good and evil.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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