(This post is the fourth part in mt series “Torture Awareness Month”)
After the scandals of the leaked photographs from the Abu Grahab prison, torture has been a hot political button. So much so that one of the big promises President Obama made during his presidential election was to close down the most obvious and famous of the detention centers performing torture (most infamously “water boarding”) on its prisoners, Guantanamo Bay. During the Bush Administration many human rights activist and groups held massive campaigns to bring attention to the secret prisons (black sites) and the torture that was carried on incessantly there. One of the most horrific and problematic situations this culture of torture instigated was to draw out a slew of politicians who came to justify, lie or downplay the abuse prisoners faced in these secret prisons. Recently the use of torture under the Bush administration came again to the attention of the world and we found ourselves again confronted with many a politician again responding to the most ignoble and abusive of tortures with either denial or with the literal argument that “what´s done is done, let´s forget it and move on”. Such mentalilites was even mocked on “The Colbert Report”.
Since the resurgence of the use of torture by supposedly Open Democracies, and their justifications as appropriate abuse (John Yoo’s legal justification for torture absolving the Bush Administration most notably), many documentaries have been made on this subject in the contemporary era. In this blog post, I will shortly review these three documentaries: “Taxi to the Dark Side”, about the death of a young Afghan taxi driver due to torture, “Standard Operating Procedure”, where the soldiers at the focus of the Abu Gharab torture scandal are interviewed, and “The Road to Guantanamo” recounting the tale of random atrociousness which placed three young men at Guantanamo.
“Taxi To the Dark side” (2007) is in my opinion the best documentary out of these three. The documentary was the second film in the BBC series “Why Democracy?”, was directed by Alex Gibney and won an Oscar for best documentary. It interviews former guards, politicians, former prisoners, and the family of a killed prisoner to give a whole picture of the politics and the rising culture of torture coming to the fore at the time. The film critiques the use of torture most effectively by the means of focusing on the one particular case of the afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, who is arrested arbitrarily and tortured without constraint. The case of Dilawar is shown bit by bit and we follow the vile pathway of how he is detained only because his customer was deemed suspicious, how he is subjugated to a torture founded on meaningless abuse and power, and finds his fate ultimately in his unjustified killing.
The Documentary film makers cleverly let those propounding pro-torture state their arguments and then later ply a decisive deconstruction to these that arguments mauling the pro-torture stance through facts. The case of the death of Dilawar is dealt with delicately and with candor, and the film even flits with a not completely unsympathetic view to the ordinary soldiers caught in the machinery of torture at Bagram imposed upon them from within and without restraint. In contradistinction to the nowadays abusive practices the filmmakers find an alternative to the abusive practices in a former war interrogator who worked during WWII. The Former interrogator from WWII expresses great sorrow and revulsion to the emerging status quo and that the states has fallen into the disgrace by using torture. The film is an emotional watch, but well worth the while.
“Standard Operating Procedure” (2008) is a documentary directed Erroll Morris, who also directed such classic documentaries as “The Thin Blue Line” and “Tabloit”. In this documentary he examines the history of the horrific photos leaked from the Abu Gharab prison. The soldiers that are in the photos and who took the photos are interviewed, and Morris, giving insight to the mentalities of the Prison, details other incidents within the world of the US Military and the White Houses move towards a normalcy of abuse to clarify the abusive photo moments of Abu Gharab which hold us in disgust. Morris´ film is much more stylistic and cinematic than “Taxi to the dark side”, but leaves less of an emotional impact. While in “Taxi to the dark side” one guard admitted that he wished that he would have gone with his own conscience, none of the guards interviewed in “Standard Operation Procedure” show any signs of reflection on their crimes. The film shows that the torture, that allegedly was meant to help the US find Saddam Hussein, didn´t lead anywhere and resulted in random torture and at least the death of one prisoner (captured in one of the photos). SOP follows how the original Abu Gharab was founded as to be used as a torture machine and execution site for and during the regime of Saddam Hussein, which was then quickly converted to be used, in a like manner, as a torture chamber by the American Military. The film isn´t as clear in its critique as “Taxi to the dark side”, but it does show how soldiers use all forms of rationalization to justify their actions and the political turmoil of the Bush Era which lead to the scandals.
“The Road to Guantanamo” (2006) illustrates the torture scandals from a more personal point of view. The film focuses on three British citizens of Pakistani descent who were captured by military forces and detained unlawfully for years. The film director hired actors to portray the young men, who re-enact past incidents while filling these staged sets with stories directly from the protagonists.
The director, Michael Winterbottom, won the Silver bear for best director in the 56th Berlin film festival for this documentary and it is hardly a surprise since the film manages to be an intense true tale resembling a dark thriller while also delivering a harsh truth about corrupt, racist systems. The three interviewed men walk the audience through their experience; they explain that they traveled to Afghanistan to do humanitarian aid, but ending up just witnessing bombings. They later get arrested, but when discovering that they are being held by American military, grow hopeful that they will not be unfairly threated. Unfortunately this does not happen; they are detained, tortured and starved. This experience shakes the world view of the three men as they come to experience incarceration and torture without reprise or meaning and to this moment haunts them as possible from anywhere and from anybody. Tightly focused on the emotions and thoughts on the three protagonists, this is a documentary which is viscerally from the torture survivor’s point of view, and this documentary came to inspired more films to allow torture survivors to tell their stories*. Holding its own in creative filmmaking while pluming a subject which makes us recoil in shock, “The Road to Guantanamo” holds out as all-around good and solid work of film.
All three films bring different angles and views to the torture used by the Bush Administration, and deserve to be viewed. The subject matter is always dealt with wisdom and, due to their unyielding candor regarding the subject set into such dark places of the human mind, show uncomfortable truths about the war on terror.
*For example, A Finnish documentary named “After Life – 4 stories of torture” (directed by Mervi Junkkonen in 2011) interviews four refugee men who tell about their experiences with torture and the impact it has had on their lives. A similar documentary was also made in 2012, named “Beneath the blindfold” (directed by Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger) which also consist of four survivors speaking out.