F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 12, 2010)

12 11 2010

There are plenty of political documentaries out there to watch, each of them pointing out a specific flaw in the system and offering an optimistic solution.  Most find that they can make the most effective film by focusing very narrowly on their subject.  Alex Gibney proves an exception with his Academy Award-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

I got a chance to attend a seminar and discussion with Gibney at the Houston Cinematic Arts Festival today, and it was a very interesting and enlightening hour.  Gibney talked about how he learned the importance of voice, story, and individual perspective while working on “The Blues,” and these three things have shaped the way he has made all of his movies since then.  He said that it’s often hard to keep these things in mind, particularly the story since the process of scripting a documentary is backwards.  But, as he stated, “If you don’t pay attention to the story, no one will care about the themes.”

I watched a few of Gibney’s movies to be able to ask an intelligent question at the seminar, and I found myself really wanting to ask him about “Taxi to the Dark Side.”  It’s such a fascinating movie because at the core, it’s about three soldiers who torture and kill an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar on the Bagram Air Base.  Yet Gibney knows that their story cannot be accurately and honestly told by keeping the perspective limited to just the men, the victim, and the base.  He expands the scope of the movie not only to cover the United States’ torture policy and the complicated ethical arguments surrounding it, but also to include how the American public has become desensitized to torture.  We leave the story of the three normal soldiers for extended periods of time to cover the highest officials in the country but the movie never forgets that their story is at the center of the movie.

The movie was made in 2007 whenever George W. Bush still occupied the Oval Office, so I wondered what exactly Gibney hoped to achieve by making the movie when he did.  I asked him how the times affected the way he made “Taxi to the Dark Side,” wondering what it would look like if he made the movie in 2010 when Barack Obama calls the shots.  He replied, “I don’t think of myself as a crusader; I think of myself as a storyteller.”  In response to his claim, I can only be in full support.  Gibney clearly has an opinion and isn’t shy about expressing them in his movies; however, he offers up so many facts and ethical questions that you can’t help walking away from the movie questioning why you believe what you do.  You can choose to change or stay the same, but everyone is bettered by further understanding of their own values.

Gibney concluded his response to me by stating that “Taxi to the Dark Side” centered around this question: how do we retain our values in the face of a pernicious threat?  No matter your opinion on what went down in Iraq, we all have to admit that we lost a sense of American righteousness and justice in the eyes of the world over the past decade.  Terrorism has threatened our security and stability as a nation like few things ever have, but are we willing to discard our most American values to stop it?  What price are we willing to pay for our safety?  Gibney doesn’t offer us any easy answers, and that’s what makes this such a great movie.  Rather than throw solutions in your face like other activist documentaries, his “Taxi to the Dark Side” merely raises the questions and leaves you pondering them for days.


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