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Alex Gibney in Conversation With Robert Scheer
Posted on Feb 24, 2008
Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer interviews documentarian Alex Gibney about his 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a compelling examination of the circumstances that led Americans to commit torture.
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Robert Scheer: Hi, it’s Robert Scheer, Editor of Truthdig. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, but I’m really excited to talk to Alex Gibney here, because I have enormous admiration for your work, and I’m not just blowing smoke here. I thought your film “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, was just about the best way to teach about the American economy. I use it in classes. It’s a great film. You worked as the producer, the executive producer, on “No End in Sight,” which is also this Sunday up for an Academy Award for documentary, competing against the film that you directed, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which I think is the most compelling movie, certainly in the last 10 years, maybe one of the most compelling movies ever made, about the subject of torture. And I want to tell people you can see it up the road, maybe you can rent it, see it in some theaters.
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Scheer: It can win the Academy Award.
Gibney: And then it will come back again, and soon, this fall, it will be on HBO.
Scheer: And it will be on Link TV for those who get Link where they are. What I felt compelling about this movie—first I wasn’t going to see it. I only saw it because we were going to do a discussion after I watched and thought it was going to bum me out.
Gibney: See the problem.
Scheer: I know the problem. We all avoid seeing it, and I didn’t have any trouble watching it, because, I don’t want to use the word educational. ... I kept learning, I kept learning about human beings. And what’s compelling about this movie is you get inside the heads of people who did the torturing.
Gibney: That’s right.
Scheer: And some of them fall apart. Why don’t you talk about that?
Gibney: Well, generally speaking, I’m more interested in perps than the victims. It was that way with Enron, too. I was interested in these traders who broke down the California grid. I was interested in actually what made Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling tick. And in the case of “Taxi to the Dark Side,” I was interested in these guys who brutally tortured and murdered this young Afghan taxicab driver. And some of them were interrogators, some of them were military police. They had felt scapegoated because the people who either condoned or ordered [them] to do what they did weren’t even investigated, much less convicted of anything. So I think that gave them a motivation—.
Scheer: Right up to the president of—.
Gibney: Right up to the president of the United States. So in talking about—.
Scheer: So for people who haven’t seen the film, we should stress that. Some of these guys are kids.
Gibney: They’re all kids. And they had exactly one day of guard training, these guards. And the interrogators sometimes had three-four hours of interrogation training before they performed their first interrogation. That gives you some sense of the kind of science of interrogation and detention that we were dealing with. There were kids thrown into a situation at a time when the Bush administration were saying the gloves were off, there are no rules anymore, forget the rules, throw out the rules. Just get the information however you can. And so these kids went into that situation and were being pushed harder and harder by their superior officers. One sergeant told one of these kids, “Take that prisoner out of his comfort zone ... ,” meaning, beat him up. And in retrospect, they’re deeply haunted by what they have seen and what they did. As one very big, burly guard said, “I wish I had done stuff according to my own morality instead of what was common.”
Scheer: But these are kids who’ve never been out of the country before? Some may have found themselves—.
Gibney: A lot of them were National Guard and suddenly they’re in a foreign country, where bullets are flying and your buddies are dying. ...
Scheer: Now this taxi driver, he was totally innocent?
Gibney: That’s one of the things of this story that have always haunted me. There are two things that will always haunt me. One is, this kid, he’s a 122-pound kid, he was 22 years old, I believe. He was driving home in his taxi and was picked up by Afghan militia, turned over to American forces. [The Americans were told] that he was responsible for a rocket attack. It turned out that the people who turned him over were the ones who launched the rocket attack. The Americans didn’t know it. They tortured him so badly that, they beat him so badly that ultimately he died of his injuries after five days. On the third day, though, they discovered he was innocent and, for another two days, they tormented him until he died. They literally kicked his legs so often that they became pulpified.
Scheer: Even though they knew he was innocent?
Gibney: Even though they know he was innocent. And that was one of the things—.
Scheer: It was that the inner barbarian had been released?
Gibney: I think so. There is kind of a momentum to torture, as later on I discovered in the process of making this film. They have a term, it’s called “forced drift,” and so when you’re interrogating somebody, you’re trying to get information out of somebody and they don’t give you it, then you ramp it up. Particularly if there are no rules to guide you. And then you go more and more. And the next thing you know, you’re starting to brutalize somebody because they’re no longer a human being. And the military does understand this, and that’s why the military had rules in place, because you want a disciplined unit. You don’t want a mob, a lynch mob, in effect. But the Bush administration removed those guidelines. ...
Scheer: And in your movie, you interviewed people who were higher up, but not the highest?
Gibney: We go up the chain of command.
Scheer: You go to Colin Powell’s chief of staff.
Gibney: We go to Colin Powell’s chief of staff. And also Alberto Mora, who was a former general counselor for the Navy. We also talked to the commanding officer of Guantanamo. And the man inside the Bush administration who was responsible for manipulation of all the laws, or at least manipulating the interpretations of all the laws. So that we could imagine a policy of torture and so the people at the top of the administration could elude prosecution for war crimes.
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