Review: "Taxi to the Dark Side"

Dennis Harvey February 5, 2008

The first-person documentary has become awfully prominent in recent years, for both insightful good and indulgent ill. It’s a lot less ego-gratifying to work in the traditional mode of informed, investigative, opinionated but self-effacing reportage — which comprised the vast majority of valued nonfiction features until, well, “Roger and Me.” (Disclaimer: I think Michael Moore is mostly good. It’s just that his myriad imitators are mostly bad.)

Praise any god you like, then, for the likes of Alex Gibney, who has quietly risen from stellar PBS series (“The Fifties”) to a recent run of exceptional theatrical-release docs.

In varying roles as producer, writer and director, he’s had a hand in Scorsese-presented series “The Blues,” last year’s devastating “No End in Sight,” “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” and several other important titles. As all three, he created the definitive analysis “Enron: The Smartest Guy in the Room” and “Gonzo,” a terrific overview of Hunter S. Thompson’s life-‘n’times that just premiered at Sundance, and will soon be at Landmark near you.

Meanwhile, there’s Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” probably the bleakest journalistic exercise he’s been involved in to date — and politically the most necessary, though naturally its bad-news-messenger nature won’t likely attract those who need to see it most. (Or even more than a handful of impotency-exhausted Iraq War protestors.)

“Taxi” pivots around a single, initially ignored (and buried) incident that occurred in the frenzied pro-war, get-Osama immediate aftermath of 9/11. A taxi-driving son of rural Afghan peanut farmers, young husband and father Dilawar — the heartbreaking picture of uneducated bewilderment and panic in official photos — was seized by Pakistani “security forces” hired by the U.S. to sweep up suspected dissident. On a bounty-per-head basis, so some 97 percent of those arrested were likely taken on no credible grounds.

That was December 1, 2002. Five days later, Dilawar was dead… from “natural causes,” or so military authorities overseeing the Bagram Prison claimed. They omitted note of the “blunt force traumas” that had virtually “pulpified” the prisoner’s legs during sustained torture while suspended from chicken wire over his cell. (It is noted here that if he had survived, his legs would have required amputation.) This might not have turned into an international scandal had not one NY Times reporter uncovered the coroner’s report, which in defiance of all prior and subsequent cover-ups frankly listed Dilawar’s cause of death as “homicide.”

“Taxi” interviews personnel directly involved with his care/abuse — most notably SPC Damien Corsetti, a f-t f — k who says of Afghans “They’re very nervous people. I was surprised it had taken that long for one of them to die in our custody,” and was said to be “qualified” for these “interrogations” because he was “big, loud and scary.” But the film’s indictment is larger than Dilawar’s story. It encapsulates how the Bush administration, military brass and Pentagon used (uses?) secrecy, deception and fear to override our own and international strictures against torture. Bagram Prison is seen as the laboratory way-station between abuses at Guantanamo and those later at Abu-Ghraib, which involved several personnel “promoted” from the aforementioned institutions. They brought with them tacitly (but not in writing, of course) condoned-from-above tactics including use of vicious dogs, long-term nudity, cavity searches, sleep deprivation, “stress positions,” sexual humiliation, blaspheming, sensory deprivation….et cetera.

It remains unclear just how many — thousands perhaps — accused “terrorists” were, like Dilawar, terrified know-nothings simply caught up in indiscriminate sweeps, then “interrogated” to horrific (if seldom terminal) ends by U.S. grunts under huge pressure to extract “confessions” by Any Means Necessary.

The administration doggedly popped loose the Supreme Court, Constitution, Congressional oversight and free-press access from policy input like oysters pried from shells it preferred clean and empty. We’re still living with that. Is this democracy? Is this who we are, in the world and at home? “Taxi to the Dark Side” doesn’t lecture, it just asks. Which is conscience-strickening enough.