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Alex Gibney Discusses Taxi To The Dark Side

Making A Film About Torture

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Alex Gibney Discusses Taxi To The Dark Side

(c) Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney's new film, Taxi To The Dark Side (ThinkFilm, 2007) opens in limited theatrical release on January 18, 2008. The acclaimed director met with me in New York on January 10 for an exclusive interview to discuss the making of the film.

MERIN: Taxi to the Dark Side is a very complicated documentary, with three different story lines and a great deal of information. You tell of the torture of prisoners by American military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba. When presented with the subject matter and the opportunity to make the film, what was the thing you learned, the first bit of information that convinced you could make the film work not only as a document about torture, but as a film?

GIBNEY: I knew it was an important issue before I was even considering making the film. I’m not sure I knew it was an important film to do until the project was actually presented to me, but even then, when I knew we had the money to make it, I wasn’t sure it would be a good film. Because when someone says how’d you like to make a film about torture, it’s sort of like, would anybody go to see that film? But, like everything else, you learn something as you go. In a documentary, you write the script at the end instead of at the beginning. But part of writing that script is learning and going down all sort of interesting pathways that make you understand what’s important and what’s moving and what’s valuable. So, over time, I discovered the story.

MERIN: But what was the first thing that indicated to you that you had a film? What was the element that made it click for you?

GIBNEY: I’d read Tim Golden’s New York Times article and thought the Dilawar story would be good in a film. But when we first started doing the interviews with the guards and interrogators who’d been at Bagram prison, that’s when I knew there was a movie.

MERIN: How did you find them? And, how did you get them to speak with you?

GIBNEY: One of them we got to through his lawyer, and then over time we got more of them through the grapevine. We had a list of people who’d been stationed at Bagram, and we had a copy of the criminal investigation, the report they’d done on the Dilawar murder, so we kind of knew who we wanted to get, and bit by bit my team and I went out to try to convince some of these people to talk.

MERIN: The film involves three stories, actually. Dilawar, the Afghani taxi driver who was tortured to death, is your central character, but how important are the other two stories--of Moazzam Begg, the British citizen who was detained without reason, and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was transferred from FBI to CIA interrogators for harsher questioning?

GIBNEY: Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi is a kind of self-contained story. Moazzam Begg was good addition for me in the sense that he is really a branch off the Dilawar story. Moazzam knew Dilawar at Bagram. He was one of the Bagram prisoners, and he saw Dilawar being beaten, so he was a witness to the central murder. But it’s sort of like other movies that I like--like Three Days of the Condor or Chinatown, where you start out with a little crime, and as you follow that little crime, the next thing you know, you’ve come to a conspiracy that’s so immense you can hardly believe it. So, Moazzam is a step along the way. Even al-Shaykh al-Libi is the illustration of a point-- he also has a Bagram connection because his initial interrogation takes place at Bagram by the FBI--and then the Bush administration doesn’t like the information they’re getting from him, so they wrap him in duck tape and stick him in a box, send him off to Cairo to be water-boarded, where, tortured, he gives them whatever information they’re looking for--and then falsely sends us on the road to Iraq. So there are lots of balls in the air--a lot of stories--but what they have in common is that, on the one hand, you have the Dilawar story and it’s ramifications--because we use the Dilawar story rather loosely, you know, when we follow the passengers who’d been riding in Dilawar’s taxi and were arrested with him--we follow those passengers to Guantanamo. And, then there‘s Moazzam, who‘s still--to this day--testifying against the guards. But at the same time, we’re answering key questions about this important subject of torture of prisoners and getting false information, and that has to be worked into the larger narrative. You know, questions just what is torture--like the water board, is that real torture? What about this ticking time bomb scenario? Why do so many Americans seem to think that torture is okay? All these issues have to be reckoned with in some way, shape or form, and you have to find a way to fit them into this larger narrative.

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