January 13, 2008
Camera Cinema Club
106 Minutes
Alex Gibney

This is gonna be tough. I’m a longtime member of a snobby film club who meet ten times a year and watch unreleased (and sometimes unreleasable) films, usually have a guest speaker, and then pass the microphone around to discuss what we’ve just seen. The most important aspect of the club for me is that we have no idea what we’re about to see until the actual title card appears on the screen. We don’t know genre or language or year or production company–nothing. This is where I saw ONCE, well before anyone had told me about it, and this secrecy probably helped make it one of my favorite experiences at the movies last year. So on this Sunday morning, the auditorium darkens and the ThinkFilm logo comes one, which is usually a good sign, and we go to Afghanistan. And we hear from a man’s family about what a nice guy he was and that he only chose to become a taxi driver to help his family out while the rest of the family farmed their land.

This man, Dilawar, was turned in by other Afghans, taken into custody by US military and governmental personnel at a former Soviet airbase, and was dead from torture five days later. We hear from people who’ve toured our overseas prisons, people in Washington who set the policy, people who have actually been tortured by US soldiers, and finally, and by far most importantly, we hear from the men who were probably responsible for this particular death.

If you have Iraqi War Fatigue, you may join the dozen or so people at my screening who walked out early in the proceedings. I mean, what can we learn about the conflict that we don’t already know? We can learn how men turn from patriotic soldiers into men who dispense pain because they feel that they’re expected to get information. They’re just not told exactly how to get it. This was a very hard film to sit through.

It is less one-sided than you might imagine for its subject matter. The low-ranking soldiers who do the hitting and “stress positions” and “waterboarding” (these euphemisms simply don’t sound as bad as the practices are) make compelling arguments towards their interviewers that people act differently in places like Abu Ghraib than they would in their own hometown. “If you had been there, what would you have done?” one convicted former solider asks. The title of the film refers to Dilawar, a cab driver, who picked up three men, was arrested with them, and portrayed to the soldiers as a collaborator who was in charge of the timing device for a bomb. The three others were released eventually; Dilawar was murdered.

The footage is harrowing. I’ve seen all the Abu Ghraib still photos, thanks to Salon, but for the first time, I saw what appeared to be cellphone video of prisoners doing anything and everything, regardless of embarrassment, that their captors insisted upon. This typically involves guard dogs or sexual degradation.

One former marine, not involved with the death, says “we were told that Muslim men are particularly susceptible to sexual humiliation and ridicule. That’s bullshit. Isn’t everyone? Who wants to masturbate in front of a crowd with a hood on their head.” We are not spared this footage either.

The talking heads chosen are similar in tone to NO END IN SIGHT, including Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff and the architect of the so-called “Terror Memo”, John Yoo. We also hear from more low-ranking soldiers than are typically found in a story like this. We hear from a pioneer in psychological torture, a professor from McGill University. And perhaps most powerfully, we hear from a British national, who underwent the same sorts of torture that Dilawar went through. Upon his release, a US soldier said “if you weren’t a terrorist before, we probably made you one here.”

In the news yesterday, Canadian officials sent out a note to their diplomats which told them to exercise caution when dealing with the USA because the United States is now on the same list of torture-users as Syria, Egypt, and all the other places we’d expect. This film is very timely.

People will jump on this documentary as another left-leaning anti-war tirade. But it really doesn’t have a political side. The cornerstone of a fair legal system is the ability to learn of and defend oneself against charges and accusations. There are people locked up under American control, who have no idea why they’re there. For more than five years now. But our government has suspended habeas corpus for terror defendants.

The so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario is brought up and dismissed. The value of information gleaned from torture is brought up and dismissed. The words of former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and our very own President Bush are brought up and dismissed. John McCain is the only man running for President who has been a victim of torture and he is the strongest spokesman for its elimination. Why do we listen to career politicians who have never served in combat?

We find out that not only did Dilawar not help the other men with their rocket launch, but THERE WAS NO ROCKET LAUNCH. We hear from a a former FBI special agent who tells us how to get intel without torture, in a “friendly” manner.

To sum up, this film was hard to watch, both philosophically and visually, with scenes I promise you haven’t seen before. A thoughtful story on our new American Policy of Torture. A good summary of the history of torture. A good counterpoint to those scenes in 24 where Keifer saves the planet because he chose the exact right moment to torture someone.

The film ends with the horrifying idea that a huge, worldwide payback is on the horizon. How could there not be vengeance for what we’ve done?

7.3 Metacritic
7.7 IMDB


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Written by Michael W. Cummins