Correction to This Article
In a photo caption accompanying an April 27 Style article about the movie "Taxi to the Dark Side," Army soldiers transporting a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were incorrectly identified as Marines.
Tribeca Film Festival

Down a Dark Road

Dilawar, an Afghan cab driver whose story is the centerpiece of
Dilawar, an Afghan cab driver whose story is the centerpiece of "Taxi to the Dark Side," died at Bagram Air Base after five days in U.S. custody. (Jigsaw Productions)

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By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

In 2002, a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who'd never spent a night away from his dusty little village, got lost in the fog of war and took a wrong turn into an abyss from which he would never return. It was a detention center at Bagram Air Base, where he was grilled on suspicion of being a Taliban fighter. Military interrogators hung him from a cage in chains, kept him up all night and kicked him senseless, turning his legs into pulp.

He lasted only five days. The Army initially attributed his death to natural causes, even though coroners had ruled it a homicide. Low-level soldiers were punished. It turned out that Dilawar (who, like many Afghans, used only one name) was not an enemy fighter, had no terrorist connections and had committed no crime at all.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was the wrong man," says filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose latest documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side," puts the fate of one hapless, ordinary Afghan into a larger and more disturbing context. Its focus is torture, and whether torture became a deliberate component of U.S. policy at places like Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Researchers at Human Rights First have categorized more than 70 detainee deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as homicides linked to gross recklessness, abuse or torture. The findings are based largely on the military's own records, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, according to Hina Shamsi, an attorney for the organization.

"Murder's torture," Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former Colin Powell aide, says in the film. "Murder's the ultimate torture."

More than 250 service members have been "held accountable for their roles" in detainee abuse cases, according to a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. But official inquiries have basically exonerated the brass. Indeed, a dozen such reviews found no evidence of "a government policy directing, encouraging or condoning abuse," Ballesteros says. "I can tell you that, in general, humane treatment of detainees is and always has been the Department of Defense standard."

Gibney's 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" explored corporate and personal corruption. "Taxi," he says, explores corruption of the rule of law and American principles. His conclusion, supported by Wilkerson and several other experts in the film, is unflinching: Those truly responsible for the detainee deaths are the top Pentagon and Bush administration officials who set the detainee policies in motion.

"Taxi," which premieres tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival, is part of a long tradition of documentaries that tell the Unofficial Story, revisiting and synthesizing media coverage of events, then probing further. They posit conclusions or lead viewers to them through well-grounded arguments, saying, essentially, Take another look. Forget the trees, here's the forest. Among those that have won accolades: "Hearts and Minds" (1974), "The Panama Deception" (1992) and "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" (1997).

"The film becomes a sort of agent provocateur," says Gibney. "Part of my brief is to make a hopelessly complicated and arcane subject comprehensible to the average viewer."

The movie borrows its title from Vice President Cheney's observation not long after 9/11 about intelligence gathering: "We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. . . . It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena."

Shedding light into that shadowy zone, "Taxi" puts a human face on the complex "unlawful enemy combatant" court cases and legislation of the past few years. It focuses sympathetically on grunts who were court-martialed in connection with Dilawar's death. Much of the narrative is constructed through interviews with these interrogators and the New York Times reporters who suspected a whitewash after Dilawar and another Bagram detainee died within a week. Avoiding political polemic -- a flaw of many anti-Iraq war and anti-Bush documentaries -- the film instead illuminates characters we can relate to, both the 22-year-old victim Dilawar and his victimizers, people such as Spec. Glendale Walls. He believed the taxi driver was innocent, but says he was told by a superior to take Dilawar "out of his comfort zone."

Then there's Spec. Damien Corsetti, nicknamed "Monster" by his peers, who took to screaming out the ingredients on a box of Frosted Flakes to keep captives awake. Yet he knew full well that when it came to gleaning intelligence through sleep deprivation, "past two days they begin to just be bumbling idiots. Three days, they're just worthless."


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