Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room won acclaim for its inventive, expressive but journalistic and rigorous expose of the facts and finances behind a story that came to represent turn-of-the-millennium capitalism gone mad. Now, with Taxi to the Dark Side, which opens today in New York and expands nationwide in the coming weeks, Gibney's looking at a very different kind of power, and a very different level of abuse. Winner of Best Documentary honors at both the Tribeca and Chicago International film festivals, Taxi's uncompromising look at the death of an Afghan cab driver named Dilawar at the hands of U.S. military interrogators at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan in 2002 has made it one of the films selected for the 'shortlist' of films eligible for this year's best Documentary Oscar. Gibney's interest in the material isn't just academic or moral; his late father served as an interrogator for the U.S. Navy during World War II. At the same time, Gibney's film is fiercely principled: " ... if you study Osama Bin Laden's words, if you study other terrorist groups throughout history, the goal is to get liberal democratic societies to publicly undermine their own principles. Well, in this case? Mission accomplished." Gibney spoke with Cinematical in San Francisco. Also, you can listen to the interview by clicking below:
Cinematical: Your previous film, (about) the last days of Enron, was similarly about the excesses of power, but a lot lighter. Were you looking for something that didn't quite have the kind of comedic potential for your next project, or did you stumble across Taxi to the Dark Side in a moment of fortune?
Alex Gibney: I guess I stumbled across it -- the way someone would stumble across a corpse in a dark room. It was brought to me, in fact I was on a panel talking about Enron, and a very angry attorney who was on that panel said "if I helped get together some of the money, would you do (Taxi to the Dark Side)?" And I said I would. And my father also encouraged me to do it, because he was a Naval Interrogator during World War II; I felt honor-bound to do the film, but it was a tough one to do, it was a very dark topic. But I will tell you that in earlier cuts, I tried to render this subject in a tone that was more similar to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, that had dark humor in it. Because there was dark humor to be found in this story. But I found that viewers, as we showed this story to them, once they saw and heard the details as to how Dilawar was murdered, they weren't in any mood for jokes. This tended to be a much more serious subject that took us to a much darker place.
Cinematical: Say what you will about the excesses of Enron, but at least they didn't kill anyone; automatically, you're dealing with that (in Taxi to the Dark Side). Someone brought you the kernel of this story; was it your decision to focus on Dilawar, to follow that one narrative thread through the process?
AG: Yes, it was my decision to focus on Dilawar. Because you can't make films about things and sort of abstract ideas; you have to make films about characters, about people. And the story of Dilawar, to me, seemed very powerful. Because he was a pure innocent. And there was something that haunted me in Tim Golden's original article; he had said, I think in the very last page of the article, a very long, front-page piece in the New York Times, that they discovered on day three of a five-day interrogation that Dilawar was almost certainly innocent. And yet over the next two days, they tortured him mercilessly anyway. And it told me something about the kind of momentum of torture has that was haunting to me. So, for those two reasons, it felt right. And the other key reason for the Dilawar story, I think, was that what was interesting about the Dilawar story is that as you follow it, it's kind of a murder mystery; it takes you to different parts of the torture system; the people who interrogated him are sent to Abu Ghraib; the people in his taxi are sent to Guantanamo -- in effect to cover up the fact that they had arrested an innocent man. And all those roads ultimately lead to the White House. So for all those reasons, the Dilawar story seemed a great one, the most right.
Cinematical: And it gives you a chance to go from micro to macro, to go from one person's case to the legal precedent that set all of this up. What's public reaction been like? I know the film's received accolades and an award (Best Documentary) at Tribeca; how's it been playing for rooms full of people not from the film industry or not involved in activism?
AG: I saw the reaction at the Tribeca Film Festival; it also won (Best Documentary) at the Chicago International Film Festival -- and the Newport Film Festival, oddly enough, in a sort of rarefied atmosphere. We had a screening the other night in Washington D.C. -- not, I would say, for activists, but more for a general crowd, although they were interested, clearly, in the political aspects of the film. What's interesting about is that at the end of the film -- unlike Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which sort of pushes people to jump out of their chairs -- there's sort of a sucking in of breath; it's as if people have the wind knocked out of them at the end of the film. I've gotten a lot of unsolicited responses of people who though that they were deeply moved and profoundly affected by (Taxi to the Dark Side) in a way that I don't think Enron did.
Cinematical: A lot of conservative commentators have a phrase that they love, "the 'blame America first' crowd ..." But I think even more perilous than that is the "blame America last" crowd -- people unwilling to face up to the idea that bad things are being done in their name and with their tax dollars. Have your heard from that segment of the population in regards to Taxi to the Dark Side?
AG: Well, I hear more from them; I'm imagining that when this film goes into general release, I'm going to hear more from the Bill O'Reilly's and et cetera, and I'll be attacked on that score. It does seem to me that there's no excuse for looking the other way when crimes are committed; it seems to me that - and if you study it, if you study Osama Bin Laden's words, if you study other terrorist groups throughout history, the goal is to get liberal democratic societies to publicly undermine their own principles. Well, in this case? Mission accomplished. And to me, that's what we have to look at. This is no self-flagellation; this is trying to recapture the greatness, or the possibility, of our national character -- and, I would argue, to keep us more safe.
Cinematical: Because in the war on terror, bad police work is almost worse than no police work at all; do you ever get people saying "The resources brought to bear on this innocent taxi driver -- those could have been used on someone who actually knew something?"
AG: That's right. What you discover is this kind of reckless abandon with which we pursued this intelligence-gathering enterprise; it wasted resources, and it sent us scurrying down the wrong paths. In the film, you see how after the torture of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libby, we're given wrong information about connections between al-Quaeda and Iraq that leads us into the Iraq war. So bad police work is, I agree, sometimes much worse than no police work at all.
Cinematical: And your dad was a Naval interrogator; had you sort of learned enough, around the house growing up, about he did his job, or did you sit down with him formally and go "Hey, dad, I'd really like to ask you about your modus operandi and procedures during World War II and Korea?"
AG: Well, he was a journalist by the time of the Korean War, but in World War II, he was an interrogator. But he was the one who told me -- not too long before he died -- he told me "Go get your camera; I want to talk to you about this." It wasn't like me coming to him; it was like "I'm so pissed off - I want to talk to you about this. ..." The Japanese parallel is an interesting one, because a lot of times -- not a lot of times, but the key excuse used in the "war on terror" for the so-called 'coercive interrogation techniques' -- i.e., torture -- is that we have an enemy that's unlike any enemy we've ever faced before, because they have no fear of death, they're fanatical, they don't respond to the normal forms of ... they're not human beings, in other words. But let's remember what we used to say about the Japanese -- these fanatical people who were so fanatical that they were willing to use suicide missions in airplanes -- does that sound familiar? So my father encountered that, and that was certainly the propaganda that cast a shadow over the interrogations he did in Okinawa, which, after all, was one of the fiercest, most brutal battles of the war. But their approach was decidedly different, because the policy was "No." Straightforward, human being to human being, you established a rapport. And by the way, my father, unlike many of the interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan, was trained in the Japanese language. And there was a sense of why do you train somebody in the Japanese language except to be able to have a sense of rapport with them? To understand their culture? So you can look at them, person to person? The other thing about my dad's experience is that ... I would go and visit him; he lived in Japan for many, many years. And I would go and visit him, and spend some time. And we would go out to a bar, and sometimes a guy --a Mr. Yamomoto or Mr. Hijono or somebody would join us, and he would introduce us, and we would talk briefly and he would leave. And I would say "Dad, who was that?" And he would say "Oh, he was a former prisoner of mine." It's hard to imagine, now, ten years hence, that we're going to see a lot of interrogators sitting down in a bar with some of their prisoners in the war on terror.
Cinematical: Paul Fussell has written extensively about the deliberate attempts to de-humanize Japanese culture and the race during World War II; are you seeing that here, or is it slightly less strenuous in our so-called enlightened age?
AG: No, I don't think it's any less strenuous; I think it's every bit as extreme. The idea is to dehumanize the other; that's what allows us to do what we do. That's what 'taking the gloves off' meant; if you talk to some of the soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib, it was all about de-humanizing their prisoners, so that they were less than human. They were constantly told "These people are sub-human, they're less than human; they have no value of life." (Army Interrogator) Tony Lagouranis, in the film -- the whole idea was to use certain 'cultural techniques' that were specific to 'the Arab mind' or 'the Middle Eastern mind.' And Lagouranis just laughs; he said 'I don't think having a hood put over your head and forced to masturbate -- I think most people would find that offensive.'
Cinematical: I don't know many culture's that's part and parcel of. (Gibney laughs.) And this is the laughter equivalent of whistling past the graveyard. ... When you made the decision to actually do re-enactments or visualizations in the studio, was that a tough decision to make? Did you worry that would pull away from the real content of the film, or was it ultimately more necessary to get people engaged in the reality of what had happened?
AG: It was a tough decision, and we thought about it a lot -- even as we were late in the process in the cutting room. But ultimately I thought it was the right decision for a couple reasons; one is that in the sequence where the great body of re-enactments, the (Mohamed) al-Qahtani interrogations, I had read not just the excerpts of the interrogation log, but the full 65-page interrogation log. And one of the things that struck me in reading that log was not only the horrible things that were done to Mohamed al Qahtani, but the degree to which our own soldiers had become utterly unhinged and lost their way, maybe even lost their minds, in terms of the kinds of things that they were doing. They were becoming reckless, and utterly desperate. Who blows up a surgical glove, runs it across someone's cheek, tells someone it's a 'sissy-slap glove'? Who comes in with a cupcake singing 'God Bless America' to a detainee strapped to a chair, or puts a smiley face on them and has them dance with another interrogator? At the same time, I don't think that to mention those things would have been sufficient; you have to see it. You have to see a woman saying 'Your mother is a whore.' You have to see that, I think. But we tried to do it in such a way that you would juxtapose it. Because not to see it, not so show it, is effectively to allow the administration to cover it up. And what could be more obvious than, recently, where you saw the administration destroy videotapes? Well, this is the revenge of the film maker against the kind of administration that destroys videotapes. We can make our own videotapes; we can be forensic about it, and we can, by the way, shoot it in such a way that the viewers know this is a recreation. We're not trying to fool you, but we're giving you a visceral sense of what happened. And I think, as a film maker, we can't allow the administration to out-flank us, or people in power to out-flank us, just by destroying the videotapes.
Cinematical: One final question; you're about to head to Sundance, with a new documentary which I think is going to be a bit of a palate-cleanser for you, a bit of a change up -- can you tell us about that?
AG: (Laughs) The idea of Hunter Thompson being comic relief! But yes; it's called Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. There are political elements to it, I should say -- but it's about the wonderful Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and it looks at his heyday -- '65 to '75 -- and every stitch of narration in the film is narrated by the good doctor himself --or his words, anyway. I think it's funny -- and it also goes to this last point, and it goes to what we were talking about in terms of the recreations; here's a guy, who, when he felt he was being foiled by politicians in power, he created fictions to make fun of the politicians in ways that were often more powerful and provocative than the straight reporting that the campaign reporters were doing. I think people will enjoy it; it's a pretty funny film.