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Using the torture and death in 2002 of an innocent Afghan taxi driver as the touchstone, this film examines changes after 9/11 in U.S. policy toward suspects in the war on terror. Soldiers, their attorneys, one released detainee, U.S. Attorney John Yoo, news footage and photos tell a story of abuse at Bagram Air Base, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. From Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Gonzalez came unwritten orders to use any means necessary. The CIA and soldiers with little training used sleep deprivation, sexual assault, stress positions, waterboarding, dogs and other terror tactics to seek information from detainees. Many speakers lament the loss of American ideals in pursuit of security. Written by
Impacting film that stands as a good summary of the issue
In 2002 taxi driver Dilawar was picked up by US forces with his passengers in the desert and taken to Bagram prison in Afghanistan. Five days later he was dead. Injuries to his legs were compared with those he would have sustained if he had been run over by a truck had he lived it was likely that his legs would have had to have been amputated due to the damage. With this as the starting point, this documentary tells the story of the role of "torture" in the war on terror, from Abu Ghraid to Guantanamo.
Having put Gibney's documentary on Enron as one of my ten favourite films of 2005, I eagerly took up the opportunity the UK (and much of Europe) had to catch this on television ahead of the full release in the US in 2008. Shown as part of the BBC's excellent "Why Democracy" series of films, this one opened with the caption question "can terrorism destroy democracy?". To the casual listener the question appears to be about the ability of terrorists to bring down what we see as Government (ie by crashing planes into it) but really the question in regards this film appears to be more about whether our idea of freedom and democracy can survive the way we fight terrorism. As a result this film is about the use of "torture" against terrorist suspects, specifically focusing on the United States.
The reader may be wondering why the focus (in the title) on Dilawar. Well I did too because he died in Bagram and his story sadly ends there, while the vast majority of the film focuses on the infamous examples of torture and inhumane treatment in the other places. Well it turns out that Dilawar is a device and one that the film uses very well. The morality of the use of torture is not black and white and of course the usual "ticking time bomb" scenario is thrown up; the film does counter this by suggesting that the weekly scenarios in Fox's 24 are not the norm (to say the least) but the best answer to most of the moral questions are simply to refer back to a taxi driver who died after five days in captivity with horrific injuries the film doesn't say he was innocent but it doesn't need to nobody suggests he was evil or a key player either, but yet he is dead. This hangs over the film even though he is not the focus after the first twenty minutes.
What the film does from then on in is paint a picture of lack of respect for humanity, lack of respect for international laws, lack of accountability and lack of transparency. The film plays a clip of Rumsfeld speaking on the (then) allegations of mistreatment and says that it will be looked into so that "the world will see how a free system, a democratic system, functions and operates"; well he was right and it is not pretty viewing. As with Enron, Gibney does betray his politics and the film has very little in the way of even handedness about the debate. This is a little disappointing in regards the debate but the overwhelming nature of the presentation of arrogance and carelessness did make wonder how you would balance these issues certainly the quotes I have heard down the years from politicians have not been able to convince. Certainly a clip of Bush talking about "suspected terrorists" who have died, or as he says "put it this way they're no longer a problem to the United States"; the fact that he acknowledges they are "suspects" rather than convicts but yet sees their death as a good thing says it all.
Considering this issue is everywhere in the media, Gibney does very well to structure his film to build it from the ground up. Not only does he use the words of the Bush administration against them ("the only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people") but he also details the wider political picture beyond the blame that was dumped onto Lynndie England, Charles Graner and others. He does this very well, bringing in the input of John Yoo and the terribly smarmy Alberto Gonzales. Even after the photographs in the paper, seeing the unedited video and hearing firsthand accounts from both sides is shocking and disturbing affair again, how would you set out to "balance" these? Beyond the issue of torture I found the lack of accountability and ownership to be just as shocking as privates are floated down the river while those in charge never face worse than early retirement. The biggest challenge with this material is to keep it as a valid piece of work even as the topic grows daily and that many will be tired of hearing about it just this last week or so we have seen more debate and also the CIA deleting old tapes of interrogations (tapes that Bush has "no recollection" of existing); however Gibney brings the film to a close well, making it feel like something that can stand still and still work the personal touch of his late father's comments at the end (himself a WWII Navy interrogator) talking about how "we" should be different than "them", making for a suitable summing up of why the film is important.
Another strong documentary from Gibney despite the lack of balance and the challenges with the topic. It deserves to be seen by a bigger audience than it has been, even if it won't make the difference it should do. Depressing to think that, decades from now people will look back on this and wonder how on earth we allowed our leaders to do this in our names and let them get away with it.
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