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March 1, 2008.
Having previously made The Trials of Henry Kissinger
and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the
Room, documentary director Alex Gibney has become an expert on people
corrupted by and abusing their power.
A prize–winner at last spring's Tribeca Film Festival, few films resonate
like Taxi to the Dark Side, certainly enough so that it has garnered
an Oscar nom for Best Feature Documentary. But this isn't Gibney's first
stab at the Golden Statue; a couple of years ago, he was nominated for his
Enron film as well. Gibney has produced several other award–winning
productions, including Martin Scorsese's Emmy and Grammy–award winning
multi–part TV series The Blues. Gibney's upcoming release
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson features Johnny Depp,
another of this year's Oscar nominees.
Taxi's kick–off point – the story of late Afghani taxi driver Dilawar
(who was arrested for driving around some Taliban members, and then tortured
to death) and of the guards who beat him – sets in motion a contorted ride
that leads through Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the White House and Congress.
Ultimately, we see who was responsible for a run–amuck policy that sanctions
the torturing of prisoners in the War on Terror. Along the way, American
ideals and virtues get dumped alongside the road.
In Taxi to the Dark Side, the prisoners that are interrogated,
including Dilawar – the Afghan cab driver who was beaten to death
while in custody in Bagram prison – were generally innocent of any
That becomes the big problem. When you have a system where there are
coercive interrogation techniques, it's most effective at getting false
confessions. Some people think it's a joke. But I went for my vacation over
New Year's to Bangkok and Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, I went to the Khmer Rouge
As I was passing through the museum, it struck me that after I'd seen all
the faces of the people who had been ruthlessly interrogated and confessed
to horrible crimes before they were murdered, I noticed that there in the
corner was a waterboard. Waterboarding was the key method used by the Khmer
Rouge to obtain false confessions. Everybody is guilty when a waterboard is
lot of people who have been picked up in the War on Terror are innocent.
I'll tell you what I find astounding. If you do a deep history of some of
these interrogation techniques – temperature extremes, sensory deprivation,
forced standing, sleep deprivation – you'll learn that some of the
techniques were used by the Chinese against our soldiers in the Korean War
to achieve some kind of brainwashing, so our soldiers would suddenly say, “I
believe in the rectitude of the Communist cause.”
So it was those techniques that made their way into the CIA's KUBARK
Interrogation Manual and the SERE schools – the
Survival–Evasion–Resistance–Escape schools where we teach our soldiers to
resist horrible people when they get captured overseas. But all those
techniques we use were designed not to get good intelligence, but to get
people to falsely confess for propaganda purposes.
How did you feel sitting there and interviewing the guards who had killed
Initially I had trepidation, because I was kind of angry. I'd read Tim
Golden in the New York Times, and one of the things about the Dilawar case
that made me want to do the movie was that it was a five–day interrogation –
although after day three the interrogators were pretty much convinced that
he was innocent. But they tortured him for another two days until he died.
So I looked at these guy and thought, “What kind of people are you?” But
after spending a good bit of time with them and being somewhat nervous
myself about talking to them, I found myself having tremendous sympathy for
them in a way that I didn't initially suspect – so much so that in one of
the cuts of the film, we went almost too far in portraying them
sympathetically. So we put back some detail of the cruel things that they
did, so that it was clear that I wasn't saying they were victims, too.
Do you believe that if you put any bunch of soldiers to guard prisoners –
and give them no instructions – they will act exactly as these guards did?
Does this administration believe this?
I'm not sure what the higher–ups' intention was, but we know they exerted
tremendous pressure on the guards even while removing restrictions. That
should have told them something. I think they knew to some extent what they
were going to get from these men. Philip Zimbardo did the Stanford prison
experiment, and the volunteers who became guards did act rudely and the
volunteers who were prisoners became very defensive. But I think people have
the will to resist that stuff.
these were untrained guys.
Totally untrained kids, who were put into a situation and told that the
gloves were off and they could do what they needed to do to get results.
They don't speak the language, they don't have any cultural training, they
don't have any understanding about the difference between a Pashto and Farsi
speaker. And they're told to produce and are criticized if they seem too
Did any of the soldiers you spoke to explain what they were fighting for
in Iraq – or Afghanistan, for that matter?
Many were gung–ho after 9/11 and wanted to kick some ass. Today a lot of
them are deeply–scarred people because they were asked to do things they
don't feel so good about. I talked to people who were disillusioned. I'm
sure there are some who aren't, but most I talked to were. Almost all of
them felt let down by the civilian administration. There were a lot of
Marines and other soldiers who felt they always were being misdirected by
the civilian administration.
What was the challenge in bringing together the many elements of your
It was a real challenge. It was very hard. After making Enron, I
thought, “Not again!” I didn't know I'd come across another story that is so
complex and intricate that it's going to give me nightmares every night
trying to find a structure. To some extent, that was one of the reasons I
chose the Dilawar story. I chose that story for a number of reasons, but one
of them was that I could follow the ripples of his murder out of Bagram, as
his interrogators move on to Abu Ghraib and the passengers in his cab are
sent to Guantanamo.
The way they were sent to Guantanamo is the perfect example for how many
people were sent there, we've now learned. They weren't the worst of the
worst. They were people sent there for bounty or, in the case of Dilawar's
passengers, to cover up the fact that we murdered an innocent man. We sent
them over and people are supposed to think they were all part of a cabal.
These peanut farmers spent 18 months in Guantanamo.
As we were weaving this structure and trying to keep the Dilawar story
going, there were key aspects of the larger issues that had to be reckoned
with, like the whole "ticking time bomb" scenario and the differences
between Torture Lite and the brutal torture that was inflicted on Dilawar.
Even liberal–minded people I know get seduced by that ticking–time–bomb
scenario in a way that I find appalling. All of these issues come up in the
movie, so it took a long, long time to get the structure right.
Finally, on a dramatic level, we didn't really get it right until the end.
We'd somehow done an update on the guards' stories far too early in the
film, and when viewers saw that they felt they were done with the movie. So
we took their stories and put them close to the end, to just before Bush
effectively pardons himself. That seemed to be kind of a resolution, where
we could tie up all the threads and the emotional Dilawar story, where we
return to his family, comes full circle. It was very hard to get that
narrative right, but I think we got it.
the beginning I wanted to tell the Dilawar story and the story of the
guards. My editor, Sloane Klevin, and I had some conflict on this. Early on,
I went to Guantanamo. That was an interesting trip. We filmed it in a
different way than most crews who have been allowed to film down there. I
took it to be a dog and pony show so that's how we filmed it. That was a lot
of colorful and lively footage. Meanwhile we had the testimony of only one
or two of the Bagram guards. So our tension early on was about whether we'd
keep the structure.
There was a huge Guantanamo section that we later broke up into two Guantamo
sections, and made that work with the Dilawar narrative. One decision proved
valuable. The film was mostly shot by two people: Greg Andracke and Maryse
Alberti, who also shot "Enron." We tried to figure out a visual scheme for
this film, knowing that we'd shoot hither and yon and she wouldn't always be
I made the decision that all the Bagram people would be shot in the same
way. So we painted a backdrop that I carried with me everywhere, whether it
was to Birmingham, England, Columbus, Ohio, Washington, D.C. And every time
we filmed someone who had been to Bagram we filmed him against that
background and lit him in the same way. It gets complicated knowing who all
the people are, but if you see them in front of that background, you know
instantly they were in that prison. Also it was a visual scheme that kind of
represented the prison and gave it a visual coherence and structure that
helps the film's narrative.
You're a film noir fan, so did you borrow from that for those darkly lit
Well, yeah, there's the light and dark, good and evil, but I didn't want to
overplay it. There's something about it being a dark prison and being lit
straight down the middle that I thought was effective.
Once you had the footage, how long did the editing take?
The fact is, the shooting and editing happened simultaneously. We didn't go
out and collect and say, we had enough now. There was some sense of urgency
with the story because it seemed so timely. Nevertheless, the investors and
my father, who died while I was making the film, kept saying “hurry up.”
As we were going, we were finding new material and getting new and
interesting people to come forward to talk. Then that footage would have to
be integrated into the narrative. It was the same thing that happened with
Enron. The woman who was very close to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling
didn't agree to be interviewed until very late, and we had to completely
change the structure to accommodate her. It always happens. In this film,
the trip to Afghanistan didn't happen till very late, partially for safety
The first time we were set to go, my cameraman chickened out because there
were riots in Kabal and people were being killed. Some of the photos of
Bagram, which had never been seen publicly by anyone, came in very late in
the game. That suddenly gave us a visual representation of Bagram, which was
so important. I can't tell you where I got them, but we kept following
different people and asking, and finally somebody came forward and said,
“Here they are.”
We knew something was there because some of those photographs had surfaced.
But we hadn't gotten the autopsy photos of Dilawar or photos of the
isolation cells or holding pens, the so–called air–locks. Getting themt was
big. And from the same source, we got the videotape of the JAG officer
confirming that these things were de facto policies.
When did you know the film was done?
Oh, I don't know. What do they say, “Films don't get finished. They get
abandoned.” We were racing to finish it to get it released and it was too
long, too long, always too long. I think once we moved the soldiers to the
end, we thought that it felt right. We did some final trimming and we were
Your father's experiences as a Naval interrogator during WWII influenced
you to make this movie.
That was big. He was the person who really pushed me to do it. There were
other people who came forward and said, “Look, we're angry about the
subject. If we raise the money, will you do it?” I was thinking about it
and it was a tough call. But I was talking to him and he was very upset
about the issue of the harsh torture being used in the war on terrorism and
really encouraged me to make the movie. It had been a very formative
experience for him.
Back then, his eyesight was too bad, so he couldn't go into the Marines. He
was sent to the Navy's language school and learned Japanese, and then he was
sent out to the Pacific theater to interrogate Japanese prisoners, first at
Pearl Harbor and then in Okinawa. So he was interrogating them much like the
people at Abu Ghraib, right in the heat of one of the bloodiest battles of
the war. Looking back, it never occurred to him to even think about using
some of the techniques that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were all blithely
thinking about using this time.
There already had been reports of Japanese atrocities toward American and
British prisoners, but he felt that as an American he represented a higher
ideal. I'm not suggesting that being an interrogator is all about being
nice. But once you take them out of the war–time paradigm, the prisoners are
gone, so now instead of the interrogator and prisoner relating to each other
as enemies they can relate to each other as human beings.
Out of that human relationship comes a certain trust, and then the
disclosure of information. Most skilled interrogators like my father and
Jack Cloonan, the former FBI agent in the movie, feel they get that even
when dealing with tough, ruthless prisoners. He was really pissed off when
he discovered some of this stuff happening today. So the film became very
important to me.
How much of the movie did your father see before he died?
I don't think he saw any cuts of the film. He only heard me talk to him
about how the movie was going.
Why did you decide to put the footage of him expressing his opinion on
the use of torture today in the final credits rather than in the film
It was a decision made when the structure was already in place. Even so, I
was a bit nervous about using the footage. I loved it, but I didn't want
anybody to feel I was forcing this footage of someone who had recently died
into the film. I said I couldn't be objective about it, so I had my
colleagues in the editing room look at it and tell me if it made sense and
worked. If I'd do it over again, perhaps I'd have structured it differently,
but at that time it seemed right to give him the last word in the
dedication, where he appears and actually speaks.
You did a good job as narrator. Was there any trepidation about doing it?
I couldn't afford anybody else. I only did it because my dad is in the film.
At that point it became personal, so I thought it would be okay. It just
made sense. I wrote the narration slightly differently as a result. My
narration is pretty objective, but when I changed it for my voice it allowed
me to be a little bit angled. There was a certain amount of nervousness, not
only on my part but also on the part of my editor. But she was happy enough
Is there anything you regretted leaving out of the film?
I wish I'd put more of the SERE school in, but at some point the film become
unwieldy and I had to trim it. At one point the film had a certain amount of
black humor in it. We learned that a hunger–strike at Guantanamo was being
broken through the use of these mysterious restraint chairs that immobilized
prisoners so they could force–feed them. We learned that these chairs had
been discovered by an enterprising person at Guantanamo who found a website
called Restraintchair.com, and there was a sheriff
in Denison, Iowa, who was manufacturing them, to momentarily restrain people
on crack until they could be calmed down.
So I went out to visit this sheriff and his lovely wife, Pam, who was
dressed in a way that was color–coordinated with the chair and she sat in it
and they demonstrated the chair. It was in the film, but parts had to be cut
for the better good of the whole. Losing the SERE school was harder, because
that's where the administration is getting some of its harsh interrogation
techniques. They were taking techniques used for defense by trainees and
turning them into offense.
Were there people you tried to interview but couldn't?
John McCain was one. I tried very hard. I wrote him several times. To some
extent, when you're dealing with the political establishment, being an
independent documentarian is not very advantageous. If you're from CBS, NBC,
ABC, CNN, or Fox, they'll give you the interview, no problem. But if you're
an independent, that's trouble. So for whatever reason, McCain ran away from
us. I hope some day he'll see the film.
The most frightening images in the film are of Congress giving Bush
standing ovations when he says he'll treat prisoners harshly – would
I agree with you. It happens twice, and I think those are two most
frightening images in the movie and I put them in for that purpose. Because
both times, both sides of the aisle rise as one. The second time, when Bush
says that one by one by one terrorists will learn the meaning of American
justice, you even see John Kerry applauding a little. Congress utterly
abdicated its responsibility. If you go back to Cheney's minority report on
Iran–Contra, he says he always believed strongly in executive power. He made
no secret about it. We have all the power; therefore we now have the
opportunity to exert our values on the world.
What do you think about our new attorney general, Michael Mukasey, and
his new independent investigation about the destruction of CIA video tapes
that recorded the torture of prisoners.
I don't know what to think. He could have appointed a special prosecutor,
but he didn't do it. So it's too early to tell. The jury is really out on
Mukasey. Speaking about Congress, I'm so disappointed in two Democratic
senators, Dianne Feinstein and Charlie Schumer, for just rolling over and
allowing for his confirmation. When a guy won't say that waterboarding is
illegal, it's shocking.
What do you think will happen in the future in regard to America and the
use of torture in the war on terror?
My view is that we can't go forward unless we reckon with the past. In other
words, we need to hold some people to account or we can't really go forward
and hold our heads high. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, John Yoo, David Addington,
and others. I'm not saying they're guilty, but let's have a prosecutor look
at it and decide. In some shape and store, we have to roll back some of the
crazy laws we have enacted, but we need to deal with the past before moving
That's the one thing that scares me a little about Barack Obama. While I
really applaud his ideas on inclusion and that he's willing to be critical
but at the same time unify everybody, you also don't want to sweep crimes
under the rug – because they have a peculiar way of coming back to haunt
You said that you don't say they're guilty, but doesn't your film say
I mean guilty in a legal sense [but], I'm not a judge and jury. I can try
them in the court of public opinion, and as far as I'm concerned they're
Back in the Nixon days your phone would be tapped and you'd be in some
secret government file.
I'm sure my phone is tapped. I'm not kidding. George McGovern called for the
impeachment of Bush and Chaney and said, “Next to these guys, Nixon was
us Let us
know what you
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