By Hannah Eaves
Alex Gibney does not trust the men and women at the top, and for good reason. Gibney's body of work, both as a director (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and producer (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, No End in Sight) examines the ease with which the people in power can toss away their moral compass without so much as a strained muscle. Simultaneously, our fixed systems - government, law, chain-of-command - seem to adapt to support this expression of power, especially when higher goals can be quoted, as evidenced in Vietnam and the war on terror.
Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side is both passionate and dryly systematic, drawing a disturbing, hemorrhaging line from the escalating use of torture at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan in 2002 to the interrogation "techniques" then adopted at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons, using Bagram as a model. It covers all the bases in this horrible path, from the death of innocents like Dilawar the titular Afghani taxi driver, to the incremental increase of physical and psychological violence used by individuals in the military police, the ultimate result of which was the adoption of these techniques by the system as a whole. His interviews with the perpetrators from within the military police, and his use of graphic, uncensored images, lift the film beyond a paint-by-numbers portrayal of what has gone wrong, into a must-see examination of this ongoing abuse.
There seems to have been a real shift in your career around the time you made The Trials of Henry Kissinger with Eugene Jarecki. Before then you had mostly worked on apolitical documentary series for television. Was there any particular reason for this change, and what were you big projects before then?
Yes and no. Going way back, I was a feature film editor. I worked for the Samuel Goldwyn Company. I cut trailers, and then I was a movie editor. But I got frustrated, because being an editor can be a very frustrating. I loved the editing process, but I'm not a particularly neat person. You need to be a neat person if you're an editor, I think, generally speaking. But I also got frustrated with the movies I was getting. And particularly in fiction films - it's very difficult to save a film in the cutting room.
I had done some documentaries and I kind of hung out a shingle. There were a rough few years, but it finally got off the ground. I did a Frontline, and then I did a big series for PBS. It was a 10-hour series called The Pacific Century, which won a Dupont and an Emmy, and some other awards. Then I got known for doing these big series. Another big one I did was a series called The Fifties, based on David Halberstam's book of the same name. Then I did Sexual Century, about sex in the 20th century, and so forth and so on. And then out of that, really, in part I came to do a series on the blues, with Martin Scorsese.
[Note: Alex Gibney acted as series producer on The Blues, bringing together episodes directed by luminaries including Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders. Since then he has often worked "behind-the-scenes" with other directors on their documentary projects.]
You could go back to some of the TV documentaries I've done, and particularly with the use of music, you can see some things I did back then that I'm still doing today, that were interesting to me. But I think that by watching these seven or eight different feature film directors approach the same kind of documentary material in radically different ways - and making them very personal, and also worrying a great deal about exactly what was important visually to convey it. To find a language for conveying what it was that they wanted to say, right? A cinematic language for a documentary. That taught me a lot.
And it had expanded the sense of possibility for me so that on Kissinger, a collaboration with Eugene Jarecki - that was the first foray into doing something like that. I was a producer in addition to being a director. I had a sense that as a producer too, that it just might be possible, if you could make a film that was compelling enough, to say things that you otherwise wouldn't be allowed to say on television. And Kissinger really proved that in abundance, because no US TV outlet would give us a dime.
The reason that Eugene and I were put together was because the BBC said, "There's only going to be one film about Kissinger. If you guys want to work together, we'll fund you." They funded us and I thought the only way it would get seen in this country would be if it got shown in theaters, if it was perceived as entertainment - then TV stations would have the license to put it on. That's exactly what happened.
We showed it at the Human Rights Film Festival and they were scalping seats for two, three times the value outside in order to get in. On that basis, a very small distributor decided to take it on a national distribution and it did quite well, at least then, for a documentary. So that sort of started it.
Was there something about the Kissinger story that attracted you or was it more that you were interested into moving into making political films?
I'd always been haunted by Kissinger ever since I'd read this book called Sideshow, written by William Shawcross about the destruction of Cambodia - he's interviewed in the Kissinger film.
Christopher Hitchens had sent me a copy of his two articles for Harper's before it was turned into a book. And it seemed interesting, provocative and very bold. Here's this guy, this guy who many people revere, who is brought on to any number of television shows as the great authority on foreign policy. What if we saw him differently? What if we looked at him and realized, no, this is not a reasonable man. This is not a great man. This is a horrible man. This is a war criminal. Well, that was pretty provocative.
Was that before or after he was nominated to be on the 9/11 Commission?
Before, and I think the film played a role in getting him bounced, because we had arranged a screening for the [9/11 Family Steering Committee] of our film. And I do think it played a small role in having him bounced, even though he said he had to withdraw because he didn't want to disclose the names of his clients.
That's quite a victory for you. You've also turned into a master collaborator in the documentary field. Is part of what you bring to these other filmmakers your sources, as it were? People you've interviewed in the past that now trust you?
I think I have a body of work, and so people do come to trust me. At the same time, you know, sometimes you do a film and it makes it more difficult to get people to talk. I think that perhaps because of Enron and perhaps because of Kissinger, Larry Wilkerson and Alberto Mora may have been reluctant to talk to me at first. I think now they are both quite glad that they did talk and are very proud of the film.
I don't tend to like to do films where you talk to people who agree with your point of view. Or who are kind of expert critics. I like to talk to the perpetrators. A lot of films are made about victims.
Yes, and here you're talking instead to the people implicated in what's going on, as you often do, which is kind of amazing. In the case of Taxi to the Dark Side, did you have negative preconceptions because of what they had done in Bagram?
I think I did. And yes, they do change. Look, reading the Dilawar story you can't help but be horrified. I mean this was a pure innocent, a young kid who had never spent a night away from home. And he was brutally manhandled in prison.
My view of these guys was, what bastards. How could they do that to somebody? When you meet these people in person, you realize how young they are, how - not innocent, but how tormented they were by what it was that they had done. So you get a very different perspective. They're not monsters. They're human beings.
I think all of us have a capacity for goodness and a capacity for doing evil. And in the wrong circumstances, a lot of us might find ourselves doing evil things. So you have some sympathy for them that you might not otherwise have going in.
But I ended up having a good bit of sympathy for them, even while I don't think they're victims. They may be scapegoats. But I think they've done bad things. And you can't sugarcoat that. But it's the degree to which they were led to what they did. And they've been badly scarred by what they've done. You know, that's something that I think people overlook.
Were your interviews with them more informed after making The Human Behavior Experiments?
In part, although I had also put the Milgram Experiment in Enron. That Milgram experiment has been hugely influential to me. And I hope that maybe in a future film I'll be able to look at the one experiment that he wanted to do, but didn't, which was, Why was it that those 35% said no? Cause he wanted to look at what makes a hero. We all know that 65% press that 450 volt button that would have been a death sentence if there had really been a victim on the other side. But what about the 35% who said "No, I'm not taking part in this"?
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