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.