Friday, March 6, 2009

Taxi to the Dark Side

As a movie critic, I have two responsibilities to you, my reader. The first is to tell you whether a movie is any good – in my well-informed opinion. The other is to prepare you for what you are about to see. Sometimes, that amounts to providing you with information to help you better appreciate the movie. In this case, it is also to offer you a warning.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is a huge departure from previous “happy” movies in this Cinema 100 series. “An American in Paris” it is not. “Taxi” is a tough documentary to watch. It is brutally frank in its unblinking look at torture and its aftermath. It depicts the very worst things that one human can do to another.

It is a movie about how the unimaginable horrors of September 11, 2001 were answered by the equally unimaginable horrors of Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. And it is a movie expressing great sadness over the United States government and military having chosen that response.

I watched with a mixture of fascination, sadness, and nausea as the movie walked me through a museum documenting man’s boundless creativity. I never imagined how many ways one human could cause another pain. Methods on display include sleep deprivation, forced standing, snarling dogs, sexual humiliation, and something called water-boarding which convinces one he is drowning. The U.S. interrogators depicted make the Marquis de Sade look like Charlie Brown.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is stunningly well made and always compelling. It weaves photographs and video smuggled out of the prisons with interviews of people ranging from interrogators to victims to experts on the history of interrogation techniques to tell its story. It also includes footage of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld who’ve never looked half as scary as they do here.

A metaphor is used repeatedly to describe how desperate the establishment from top to bottom was to bring someone, anyone, to justice for 9/11. Do whatever it takes to get information, even if it means “taking your gloves off.” This boxing metaphor is later trumped by one of dog fighting. An interviewee says, “If a muzzled dog didn’t get the desired results, someone would take off the muzzle.”

The other point made powerfully is that the young men and women conducting the interrogations didn’t know what they were doing. They were poorly trained and provided with even less guidance and direction from their superiors. One young soldier was chosen for the role simply because he is big and loud and scary. They were just a bunch of young people, college age really, forced into a strange and terrifying situation and left to improvise.

It is the resulting images that will stay in my head forever. A hooded man is forced to masturbate (we see everything) while a woman soldier poses beside him with a cigarette and a wink, like some sorority initiation from Hell. There’s the terrified look of a prisoner as a barely restrained dog is held just one foot from his face. There are images of hooded prisoners chained to the ceiling with handcuffs and deprived of sleep by blaring heavy metal music.

The movie ends with the suggestion that most – or all – of these prisoners were not terrorists before incarceration, but, after the way they’ve been treated, many will become terrorists after their release. That’s the tragic irony. We set out blindly to stop terrorism only to become terrorists ourselves and to become manufacturers of future terrorists. Ooops!

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