May 22, 2009

The Documentary and the War on Terror: Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:32 pm
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An 800 word feature on any documentary-related topic for my Film Journalism course, this seemed as relevant as anything else.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration reiterated its commitment to fighting the war on terror. The previous seven and a half years have seen regime changes in two middle-Eastern countries but how effective has the war on terror been? Are both the region and the West any safer? The Bush administration has been the most domestically and internationally divisive in recent memory. Such polarised opinion ought to have inspired Hollywood but it’s been much more cautious than you’d imagine. Whether it’s political or financial issues, a reluctance to “rock the boat”, to ask difficult questions, but only a handful of features have emerged; ‘The Kingdom’, ‘In the Valley of Elah’ and ‘Lions for Lambs’ amongst them. All have met tepid critical and commercial responses. The documentary has assumed the mantle Hollywood ought to have taken and there’s been an explosion of documentaries in recent years that have examined the moral issues surrounding American involvement in the Middle East and investigated some of the more disturbing behaviour that’s taken place.

The Academy Award winning ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ might not be the first documentary that has looked into events in the Middle East since the advent of the War on Terror; it’s pre-dated by the likes of Martin Kunert’s ‘Voices of Iraq’ and Michael Tucker’s ‘Gunner Palace’, but it is one of the most significant and potent films in this cycle. A world away from the polemic film-making of Michael Moore, whose presence in his films is as much the story as the genuine story and where facts are happily distorted to restate Moore’s objectives, Gibney’s film is both authoritative and finely balanced. This is not ‘preaching to the converted’ documentary film making aimed at the American liberals who’ve opposed the invasion of Iraq from day one. This documentary, just like those mentioned above, is about revealing the truth. We read every day about the latest atrocity in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet from our comfortable distance, it never really hits home. ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ pulls no punches with its willingness to tell all and to shock.

Unlike Moore, Morgan Spurlock and other documentary film makers who’ve pursued a clear agenda in their work, which has been dubbed docu-ganda by its critics, most of the documentaries about Iraq are dedicated to objectivity, of telling the facts straight and leaving the viewer to make up his/her mind. These are informative documentaries, to give us the information that the mainstream press doesn’t report. Gibney uses captions with facts; many of which startle. For instance, only 7% of prisoners were captured by coalition forces. The rest were handed over by warlords and mercenaries, handsomely remunerated for their work. It’s what gives these documentaries the credibility that docu-ganda film makers lack; this is old-school investigative film making.

Gibney begins with a small incident, the kind of incident that occurs almost everyday – the death of an innocent Afghan detainee. He interviews American soldiers implicated in his death, who accept what they’ve done with great remorse but who’ve since been abandoned by the military, who’ve described them as a few bad apples whilst believing that the wider policy of the War on Terror works. Around this incident, he looks at the policy, from the implicit promotion of torture by both politicians and the upper reaches of the military, the rejection of domestic and international law by the Bush administration and the general ineffectiveness of the policy in eradicating terrorism. What emerges from the documentary should even shock the most die-hard Republican.

Ask anyone what they envisage about the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan and it’ll be those iconic photographs at Abu Ghraib. A chilling fact that emerges from Gibney’s documentary is that the soldier who oversaw this mistreatment actually now is involved in interrogation treatment for the entire US military. It’s just one instance of how the lessons that need to be learned from the mistakes haven’t been taken on board. The torture issue is at the heart of the documentary. The Bush administration had a fast and loose definition of torture, tailoring it to whatever they felt acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld himself sent memos authorising its use. Domestic and international law was trampled upon as it had been by dictators across history.

Fox television series ‘24’ has made torture palatable to the American public with its ludicrous plot scenarios and the main concern is that its 12 million viewers and wide press coverage will sanitise torture, by citing issues about national security to prey on the fears of the American public. Documentaries like Gibney’s are competing on an unfair playing field and can’t hope to achieve anything like the saturation of ‘24’; a shame since ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ shows the real facts about torture – how it’s been used on the completely innocent and the inhumane methods that would make Amnesty International wince. Just one of the recent cycle of documentaries on the War on Terror, ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ is one of the most important of our time. In a nation where voicing any dissent faces accusations of treason and disloyalty, this should be mandatory viewing.


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