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New York Cool - Interview

Julia Sirmons Talks to Alex Gibney, Director of
Taxi to the Dark Side


Press Roundtable
January 3, 2007
Regency Hotel/NYC

Opposite Photo: Alex Gibney
Photo Credit Julia Sirmons

Click here for movie review



Taxi to the Dark Side

When director Alex Gibney walks into a room, there’s no doubt that this is the man who could be the savior of documentary film. His even-keeled demeanor and cool incisive blue eyes are balanced with a sharp and strong convictions – both about his craft and his revelatory, politically charged subject matter.

In a press roundtable at the Regency Hotel preceding this week’s release of Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, a thorough, riveting and incendiary examination of the US government’s treatment of detained “enemy combatants,” Gibney, in a thoughtful and lively discussion of the film, proved beyond a doubt the prediction made in my review of the film at last year’s Tribeca film festival, that he is emerging as “a powerful and confident voice in contemporary documentary filmmaking.”

The discussion of an undoubtedly political film began on a very personal level, as reporters asked questions about Gibney’s decision to serve as the film’s narrator. While he quipped that he “couldn’t afford anyone else,” Gibney elaborated that the decision – which inevitably made the film a little more personal and perhaps less objective – made perfect sense, since Gibney’s father Frank– who served as a military interrogator in Pearl Harbor and Okinawa and strongly encouraged his son to make the film – gradually became more deeply involved in the story. Frank, who was continually pressuring his son to finish the film quickly, never got to see a rough cut of Taxi, as he passed away during production, but in a moving segment during the credits, the film is dedicated to him.

Gibney explained that his father really was the impetus that drove him to make the film. To Frank’s mind, the slipshod and ethically questionable tactics of interrogators in prisons like Bagram in Afghanistan – where the story of Taxi begins with the brutal death of Dilawar, a cab driver detained under the flimsiest of pretenses – and the more infamous Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not only went against the principles that officers like himself felt they had a duty to uphold, they were also ineffective means of obtaining accurate intelligence. The idea of employing such brutal techniques “never even occurred to him,” Gibney said of his father. Frank’s deep distress about the breaking of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal lent the film “a sense of urgency,” said Gibney.

He elaborated, explaining that many of the techniques used by interrogators in foreign prisons were first discovered from American POW’s testimony of the indignities – such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding – they suffered in internment camps in Asia. The irony of the situation, Gibney explained, was that these techniques were designed to brainwash their victims and illicit false confessions, not “to get good intelligence.”

A far more successful interrogation strategy, he argues, is one involves building a relationship of mutual trust between interrogator and prisoner, a relationship. (This technique is explained in great and persuasive detail in Taxi to the Dark Side by Jack Cloonan, a former FBI special agent.)

Gibney provided a humorous anecdote that illustrated just how powerful such relationships can be. When his was stationed in Japan, his father was charged with interrogating an influential Japanese colonel, with whom he would often drive alone in army Jeeps. At one point the colonel pointed out that it would have been very easy for him to grab Gibney Sr.’s gun and use it against him. When asked why he didn’t do it, the colonel replied it would have been improper; they had a rapport. Through his father’s experiences and his own making the film, Gibney is convinced that interrogations that allow opposing sides to “relate to each other as human beings” are the most effective intelligence-gathering methods. Such relationships often endure long past the conditions of wartime; Frank Gibney remained in contact with the prisoners he interrogated in Okinawa for the rest of is life, and his son even accompanied him on a trip to Japan to meet them.

This personal discussion inevitably gave way to political concerns – Taxi, is after all, a film full of righteous indignation about the way the government has treated foreign detainees. Asked what he thought about Dick Cheney, Gibney replied that he took umbrage at his doctrine of “American exceptionalism” and his apparent determination to exert American values on the rest of the world through sheer military and economic might.

Gibney was then asked if various important political figures – such as former POW Senator John McCain, who is featured in archival footage in Taxi – had seen the film. Gibney replied that he didn’t know, although the production team had “tried very hard” to reach out to him. When another reporter asked the same question about members of the Bush administration, Gibney again said he wasn’t sure, although one of the film’s producers, journalist and former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, had written an open letter to Bush advisor Karen Hughes, published on Salon.com, inviting her to attend a screening.

Turning conversation to the current presidential race, Gibney said that “Giuliani and Romney are the ones who really need to see it,” since both condone waterboarding as an acceptable interrogation technique. He added that he felt “so disappointed in two Democratic senators,” California’s Dianne Feinstein and New York’s Charles Schumer, who also “rolled over on the waterboarding issue.”

When asked about the recently opened Department of Justice investigation into the alleged destruction of Guantanamo interrogation tapes, Gibney declared it “too early to tell” whether it would lead to any serious reforms or reprimands. He added that America “can’t go forward unless we reckon with the past” and some people had to be held accountable for the atrocities and violations committed in these prisons.

Looking forward in a more positive vein, another reporter asked Gibney how he felt about the chances of Taxi winning the Oscar for best documentary feature.

With the refreshing mix of sanguine modesty and deadpan humor I’d come to expect from Gibney, he said he felt his odds were pretty good, so long as he didn’t have to go up against any “fucking penguins.”

One of Gibney’s earlier films, 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, was nominated in the same category, but lost out to the surprise hit March of the Penguins.

After half an hour with this insightful, bold, and incredibly talented filmmaker, it’s clear that it’s going to take more than a bunch of cute little flightless birds to keep him from taking off.



 





 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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