Taxi to the Dark Side
On the Sunday following Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney told the truth. On NBC's "Meet the Press," he said regarding plans to pursue the perpetrators of that attack: "We have to work the dark side, if you will. We're going to spend time in the shadows." The grim, deadly consequences of his promise have, in the intervening six years, become the shame of our nation and have outraged millions around the world. President George Bush and Cheney, many argue, have overseen a massive global campaign of kidnapping, illegal detentions, harsh interrogations, torture and kangaroo courts where the accused face the death penalty, confronted by secret evidence obtained by torture, without legal representation.
Cheney's shadows saw a moment of sunlight recently, as Alex Gibney won the Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature for his film Taxi to the Dark Side. The film traces the final days of a young Afghan man, Dilawar (many Afghans use just one name), who was arrested in 2001 by the U.S. military and brought to the hellish prison at Bagram Air Base. Five days later, Dilawar was dead, beaten and tortured to death by the United States military. Gibney obtained remarkable eyewitness accounts of Dilawar's demise from the very low-level soldiers who beat him to death. We see the simple village that was his lifelong home and hear from people there how Dilawar had volunteered to drive the taxi, which was an important source of income for the village.
Dilawar had never spent the night away from home. His first sleepover was spent with arms shackled overhead, subjected to sleep and water deprivation, receiving regular beatings, including harsh knee kicks to the legs that would render his legs "pulpified." He had been fingered as a participant in a rocket attack on the Americans, by some Afghans who were later proved to be the attackers themselves. Gibney uses the tragic story of Dilawar to open up a searing and compelling indictment of U.S. torture policy from Bush and Cheney, through Donald Rumsfeld and the author of the infamous "torture memo," now-University of California Berkeley law professor John Yoo.
The Oscar ceremony was bereft of serious mention of the war, until Gibney rose to accept his award. He said: "Thank you very much, Academy. Here's to all doc filmmakers. And, truth is, I think my dear wife Anne was kind of hoping I'd make a romantic comedy, but honestly, after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, that simply wasn't possible. This is dedicated to two people who are no longer with us: Dilawar, the young Afghan taxi driver, and my father, a Navy interrogator who urged me to make this film because of his fury about what was being done to the rule of law. Let's hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light. Thank you very much."
Taxi to the Dark Side can be seen in movie theaters, and the Oscar will surely help open it up to more audiences. Gibney got a surprise, though, from the Discovery Channel, the television network that had bought the TV rights to the film. He told me: "Well, it turns out that the Discovery Channel isn't so interested in discovery. I was told a little bit before my Academy Award nomination that they had no intention of airing the film, that new management had come in and they were about to go through a public offering, so it was probably too controversial for that. They didn't want to cause any waves. It turns out Discovery turns out to be the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil channel."
The Discovery Channel is owned by John Malone, the conservative mogul who owns Liberty Media, one of the largest media corporations on the planet. Malone is famous for his complex business deals that involve spinning off media properties with stock offerings that net him millions. He also has just gotten approval to swap his extensive stock holdings in News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's empire, for control of Murdoch's DirecTV satellite television system. When Discovery told Gibney they would not be airing Taxi to the Dark Side, Malone and Murdoch were awaiting approval for the DirecTV deal from the Bush administration's Federal Communications Commission. (It was approved on Monday, the day after the Oscars.)
HBO managed to buy the television rights to Taxi to the Dark Side so the film will find its way to those households that subscribe to premium TV channels. As Discovery wrote to a critical member of the public, "In its first pay-TV window, HBO will debut the film in September 2008. We are proud that Taxi to the Dark Side will make its basic cable debut in 2009 on Investigation Discovery." So Discovery will show Taxi on one of its smaller side channels, after the election, after its business with the Bush administration is wrapped up.
In the meantime, films like Taxi to the Dark Side and Phil Donahue's excellent Iraq war documentary, Body of War, have to fight for distribution. Let's hope that Gibney's Oscar will help open the theaters and the TV airwaves to these truly consciousness-raising films to turn this country away from the dark side and back to the light.