Images from Taxi to the Dark Side

Few pictures remain of Dilawar. Here, his mugshot from Bagram prison.


The forensic photograph of Dilawar's corpse.

Captain Caroline Wood now teaches military interrogation at the United States Intelligence Center, Ft. Huachuca, AZ.

Shackles are attached by chains to the wire mesh ceiling.

Sleep deprivation chart indicating how many hours up and down for each prisoner.

Dramatic reenactment of overhead shackling.

Dramatic reenactment of dog use at Guantanamo.

Photo of dog use at Abu Ghraib. Other photos indicate bitten prisoners and blood, with Charles Graner and Sabrina Harman sewing wounds.

Tim Golden's two-part article in the New York Times, based on a leaked Army investigation.

Alfred McCoy writes on the CIA and torture, especially its developing psychological torture.

Cloonan speaks about the most effective interrogation techniques, based on rapport building.

Mohammed al-Qahtani's treatment in Guantanamo, dramatic reenactment. [Click here to see more images of this reenactment.]

Rumsfeld's standing desk. Click here to see more photojournalism used for ironic effect, especially in relation to the soundtrack.

Still from video showing recently arrested prisoners, composed to elicit sympathy for them. Click here to see more images of prisoner roundup.

Carlotta Gall

It was available at Bagram but nobody had time to consult it.

Dilawar's daughter and grandmother. Click here to see more lyrical images of Dilawar's home, which bookend the film.

A rare photo of Bagram prison. Secrecy surrounds the Afghan prisons controlled by the U.S..

Aerial view of the CIA's Salt Pit prison, north of Kabul.

Gibney filmed the tribunal room in Guantanamo, but Bagram prisoners so far cannot look forward even to this kind of military tribunal to state their case publicly, with legal representation.



Part one: Taxi to the Dark Side
and torture epistephilia

Taxi to the Dark Side and some facts about torture

Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side uses a detective story structure. The narrative investigates the story of one man's homicide in Bagram Prison by tracing out ever-widening circles of cause and effect until it arrives at the larger crime of U.S. government-sponsored torture. In its broadest scope, the film analyzes torture and its effects but it also circles back at intervals to the opening story. This emblematic crime, the murder of Dilawar, a rural Afghani taxi driver, accrues more and more layers of meaning and affect.

Dilawar had a new taxi and had driven it to the provincial capital to look for passengers. He came back to his village to sleep every night, bringing provisions for the family.
Arrested along with Dilawar, his two passengers were released when the bomber of a nearby U.S. outpost was found. They had been turned in by the local warlord who had committed the crime. The U.S. offered big rewards for denunciations and arrests.
Dilawar's village is just a few houses... ...with the extended family working the land.

Gibney presents the story of Dilawar largely through interviews with MPs (military police) and MIs (military interrogators) who worked at Bagram Prison in 2002. He also interviews New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden, who uncovered the story and presented it to the public. Dilawar, the taxi driver, died following five days in captivity in December 2002, just several days after another prisoner, Habibullah, was murdered in the same prison. The men died in a similar way. At Bagram, prisoners were regularly shackled with their hands over their head, cuffed to chains hanging from the ceiling; their legs were also shackled together. Standing for very long periods in a chained position led to pooling of the blood in the legs, severe inflammation, and blood clot formation. Habibullah's death came from a blood clot that traveled from his beaten legs to his heart and lungs. In Dilawar's case, death also came from repeated strikes to his legs, especially at and just above the knees. MPs learned this kind of blow, called a peroneal strike, in military training where they learned to subdue prisoners by kneeing them so as to hit a specific nerve center in the leg. In Dilawar's case, because he called out "Allah, Allah" when struck like that, his cries amused the guards. Consequently many came in to knee and kick him just to hear him call out. The Army Coroner's report, uncovered by Carlotta Gall, ruled Dilawar's death a homicide, and it listed the cause as repeated blows to his legs, which caused a heart attack. The corner also wrote that Dilawar's legs had been "pulpified" and would have needed amputation if he had survived.

The Army Coroner's report actually listed Homicide as cause of death. Forensic photo of the pulpified legs.
New York Times article on Dilawar. Cinematic juxtaposition of coroner's report and forensic photograph.

In terms of the film's documentary function, it needs to depict the specific torture procedures enacted upon Dilawar and other Bagram prisoners for a number of reasons. One narrative line relates how torture techniques directly migrated from Guantanamo to Bagram and then to Abu Ghraib. Captain Caroline Wood, who led the 519th MI Battalion at Bagram (and won the Bronze Medal for Valor in January 2003 for service there), had a posting at Abu Ghraib in July 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began, where she took control of intelligence operations. Later she admitted to Army investigators that while in Bagram, she had incorporated harsh techniques such as stress positions, forced standing, sleep deprivation, and use of dogs because she faced pressure from above to get more intelligence. In Iraq, she contributed directly to the general interrogation rules issued in September 2003 by General Ricardo Sanchez, military commander in Iraq, a list posted on the walls of Abu Ghraib Prison at the time the infamous photos were shot.[7][open endnotes in new window] In addition, specific torture techniques spread more directly to Bagram from Guantanamo. As New York Times reporter Tim Golden states in the film,

"…in early December 2002 the interrogators at Bagram looked on the Internet, they're in touch with the interrogators at Guantanamo, and they learned that these guys in Guantanamo had gotten new techniques from the Secretary of Defense, and they just started using them."

Through having witnesses describe what happened to Dilawar and by introducing the voices of other authorities on the subject of torture, Taxi to the Dark Side analyzes the procedures and consequences of particular interrogation "techniques," particularly sleep and sensory deprivation and "stress positions" such as forced standing and overhead shackling. What is important about this presentation within the film is that many viewers do not understand how such treatment of prisoners is clearly torture, torture of a particular kind, "torture lite." Torture that does not leave visible marks on the body as proof that it happened has a sad history in twentieth century democracies, especially the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom. Although Israel and the UK eventually legislated against such practices after long struggles and public denouncements, the U.S., especially the CIA, has not done so. As Taxi to the Dark Side widens out its investigation and analysis, it thus offers succinct explanations of torture's history and effects, especially in the post-WW2 history of the CIA's development of investigative techniques. Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror,[8] describes in the film how the CIA learned to use sensory deprivation as a tactic to break down the psyche quickly (seen now in the ubiquitous hooding of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq) and induce confusion, dread, and dependency. As MI and MP witnesses who worked in Bagram Prison describe their instructions to enforce a regimen of sleep deprivation there, the film shows a wall chart on which the MIs wrote schedules for sleep scheduling; on it, a timeline for each prisoner indicates with arrows how many hours "up" and "down." Pfc. Damian Corsetti, MI, describes the tactic's effect,

"If you've ever seen someone sleep-depped, past two days they just begin to be mumbling idiots; three days sleep deprivation, they're just worthless."

The soldiers say that using stress positions, especially overhead shackling with its threat of shoulder dislocation if the prisoner falls asleep or passes out, meshes well with sleep deprivation to breakdown individual self-sufficiency. Alfred McCoy points out that using standing as a torture tactic makes prisoners themselves feel at fault, as if holding up or holding out relied upon their own effort and will. What McCoy does not talk about in the film is that some of these techniques were developed decades before by the British for use against the IRA and were known there as the "five techniques": forced standing, hooding, sleep deprivation, starvation and thirst, and noise bombardment.[9] As used at Bagram, forced standing for up to 72 hours at a time, especially with leg shackling, would have severe physiological effects. A Slate dossier on "The Taxonomy of Torture" describes the effects in detail:

"In 1956, the CIA commissioned two Cornell Medical Center researchers to study Soviet interrogation techniques. They concluded, 'The KGB simply made victims stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours, producing 'excruciating pain' as ankles double in size, skin becomes 'tense and intensely painful,' blisters erupt oozing 'watery serum,' heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.'"[10]

In Bagram as well as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, whatever practices were originally sanctioned or suggested soon got out of control. Tony Lagouranis, MI in Iraq, says in the film that he used muzzled dogs in interrogations, but as another speaker, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, puts it:

"Take the example of Rumsfeld's memo and say, look, he said the dogs have to be muzzled. Well, that’s a man who doesn’t understand the military on the ground. Because when that E6 is sitting there with that muzzled dog and there is absolutely no impact on that person being interrogated, he's going to take that muzzle off. That's reality, that's human nature."

Alberto Mora, former General Consul to the Navy, describes such a spread and expansion of torture in terms of a phenomenon called "force drift," in which interrogators exert ever greater increments of force to get desired results.[11] Citing a specific example of force drift, Tim Golden describes how sleep deprivation was effected at Bagram:

"…the previous unit [of MIs] had generally limited [sleep deprivation] to 24 hours or less, insisting that the interrogator remain awake with the prisoner to avoid pushing the limits of humane treatment. But as the 519th interrogators settled into their jobs, they set their own procedures for sleep deprivation. They decided on 32 to 36 hours as the optimal time to keep prisoners awake and eliminated the practice of staying up themselves."[12]

Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure and The Road to Guantanamo, all examine one or a few abusive situations in detail. The advantage of this documentary strategy is both to gain empathy by focusing on specific individuals and also to detail the particular circumstances surrounding the abuse and the abusers, especially the circumstances of the soldier on the ground. However, only Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and The Road to Guantanamo also look at the experience of torture from the eyes of the abused. Taxi to the Dark Side effectively uses the crime against Dilawar to broaden out to examine the chain of command and the larger issue of what torture entails. The film also repeatedly returns to this one specific instance of abuse so that we look at Dilawar's situation, and that of his captors, with new understanding each time the film circles back to Bagram. Gibney said that Golden's articles on Dilawar's death inspired his film, which seems to be more about finding those ultimately responsible for his death than it does about the life of an ordinary rural Afghani living in a time of war. As a documentary, Taxi uses this narrative structuring in an artful and informative way: widening circles around a central departure point, but it is limited in how much it tells us from the Afghani point of view.

Taxi to the Dark Side's visual style

Although I discuss the torture documentary's emotional aspect in greater detail in regards to a later textual analysis of Standard Operating Procedure, it is also important to acknowledge Taxi to the Dark Side's visual art. The film incorporates a variety of emotionally suggestive visual material to reinforce the arguments about torture that its authorities advance or that its witnesses explain on the basis of their own experience. In particular, the film uses dramatic reenactments to depict torture techniques, close-ups on texts to highlight ideas and words, and shots of Dilawar's family to heighten pathos. From the archive, Gibney draws on photojournalism, both photographs and video, already coded to elicit empathy with Iraqi and Afghani prisoners; other times "photo-op" stills of political figures stand in ironic contrast to what's being discussed on the sound track. Finally, the film is edited around the recurring image of a Bagram prison cell, showing shackles and chains dangling from the ceiling, from which prisoners were hung by raised hands. The recurrence of this image elicits ever-greater horror as the narrative circles back to it and as we know more of the background of torture, especially at Bagram.

Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award for best feature documentary in 2008. Certainly much of its accomplishment lies in the range of its issues it addresses and its interviewees' explanatory power. However, it also integrates a wide range of visual styles that might not be remembered as much as its argumentative force. Although Errol Morris was widely criticized for using dramatic reenactments in Standard Operating Procedure, Taxi also uses them, including reconstructions of the Bagram prison and a recapitulation of the infamous Mohammad al-Qahtani interrogation at Guantanamo, from which a detailed log of torture tactics survives.[13] Al-Qahtani was reputed to be the missing twentieth hijacker who presumably would know about future terrorist attacks planned for the United States. Donald Rumsfeld was personally involved in his handling, and when he was taken to Guantanamo, his torturous interrogation lasted fifty-four days straight. He was subject to many other abuses, including being in an isolation cell for three months under constant blinding light. [14]

Taxi to the Dark Side's depiction of al-Qahtani's imprisonment is particularly innovative, shot in black and white, often with stills or slow motion, and with overlaying words from the interrogation log. In fact, the reenactments in this section may have inspired Errol Morris' extreme-close-up dramatizations in Standard Operating Procedure (although Morris uses such visualizations across his oeuvre). In Taxi to the Dark Side, often these images are spare and symbolic, such as an extreme close-up of a man's eye and ear with a female whispering into it; the word WHORE is printed on the screen between them. Or a close-up of a man's shoulder and head as he lies on the ground face down, wearing a collar with a leash leading offscreen, is overlaid by LOG PAGE 47: DOG TRICKS CONTINUED. At one point, al-Qahtani is taken to the hospital for hypothermia since the air conditioner was turned so high; to represent this, one image shows the prisoner shivering on the ground, clinging to a small blanket, a small figure against a white background, with the words: LOG PAGE 53: THE INTERROGATORS REMOVED THE BLANKET AND TURNED AIR CONDITIONER BACK UP. Understanding the details, often grotesque or gratuitous, of al-Qahtani's torture plays a crucial role both in the film and in our understanding of how torture tactics were developed. Guantanamo is, as an intertitle puts it, "the laboratory," and what happened to al-Qahtani, according to Alfred McCoy, "contains within it the entire genealogy, the entire history of CIA torture over the last fifty years."

Also to illustrate the interviewees' points, Gibney selects well from numerous images by photojournalists, often shot for ironic effect. Frequently in such photos, the journalist has capitalized the distorting powers of a wide-angle "fisheye" lens to emphasize power differences. In one such photograph, a short, hooded man wearing a suit and standing outside a shop seems to have been recently arrested; the picture is shot from a ground level angle, as U.S. soldiers take his jacket off and a large machine gun looms in the left foreground while the other soldiers stand by.

In another image, with a viewpoint steeply angling down, we see a boy and man with bandaged foot huddle in a corner as the man looks up to the soldier, whose side and large gun barely enter frame left.

With more direct commentary from Gibney, a newsphoto ironically frames General Geoffrey Miller, commander of detention facilities in Guantanamo and Iraq; Miller's small head and shoulders appear in the lower right corner against a backdrop of a huge U.S. flag hung behind him that takes up the rest of the frame; superimposed is US ARMY DECLINED TO DISCIPLINE GEN. MILLER.

Sometimes these ironic photos are of national leaders, such as the silhouetted Condaleeza Rice and Dick Cheney in an ornately furnished, elegant, red-toned White House room shown as the soundtrack tells how the Bush administration twisted laws and treaties to its own ends.

Or a newsphoto of Donald Rumsfeld presents him standing at his exaggeratedly large desk working in his office, while the sound track reads what he wrote on a memo about interrogation techniques,

"However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited
to four?"

At this point the reproduced memo is shown, with a close-up on his penned words.

Gibney uses a wide range of video material as well as photography from photojournalists and videomakers accompanying the troops. Most of these are shots of the Afghani and Iraqi people, especially those taken into detention. The images selected show roundup procedures, including shackling legs and arms with zipties, the faces and postures of the detainees, and details of the locales where they are taken. One medium-shot shows a detainee pushed down on the street, gun in his ribs, with his artificial leg by his side; another close-up focuses on a man's hands ziptied behind his back; a label affixed to the ziptie identifies his status.

Another poignant video clip shows a man facing away from us, hands ziptied behind him, as he stands by the small concrete cookstove behind his house, a common utility area in so many modest homes throughout the world.

Within the film, photojournalists have already framed such images with social commentary in mind. Sometimes they are shooting with irony and other times with empathy for the occupied people. Many times news gatherers compose their images to demonstrate power relations and structures of authority. By using the previously artfully-composed images of photojournalists, Gibney can make political points, borrow the images' emotional impact, or set up his own ironic contrasts in an astute way.

In terms of visual style, the film also incorporates many close-ups on the written word, chapter headings, superimpositions identifying speakers, and inserts of onscreen text to make key points. Two of these moments occur early in the film. New York Times reporter stationed in Afghanistan, Carlotta Gall, heard about deaths in Bagram prison and followed up on them, finally tracking down Dilawar's family after an extensive search. She visited them with a translator and they showed a piece of paper they had received along with the body:

"… and that's when I opened it up and read it. It was in English and it was a death certificate from the American military. And it was signed by a U.S. Major, a pathologist. And there were four boxes [for cause of death] and she ticked the box for homicide. I said, my god, they killed him. And we had to tell the family. I said, do you know what's written here? They said no, it's in English, we don’t understand…. And the pathologist had said it was due to blunt force trauma to the legs…"

As Gall speaks, we see both images of Dilawar's family and close-ups of lines in the U.S. coroner's report. With this story, Gall indeed had a journalistic coup in early 2003 (The Abu Ghraib photos would not appear on CBS and in the New Yorker till April-May, 2005). However, the Times sat on the story for a month and then buried it on page A14, running it on March 4, 2003 under the headline, "U.S. Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody."[15] Two years later, after the Times received a copy of the U.S. military investigation into crimes at Bagram, only then did they run an extensive article that included a backward look at Gall's findings. (This article, by Tim Golden, was one of the main inspirations for Gibney's film.) Other textual inserts in the film include lists of torture techniques; John Yoo's infamous definition of torture as leading to organ failure or death; individual words such as "habeus corpus" or highlighted words such as "nod-and-a-wink"; coversheets of manuals and documents, such as the CIA's 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual[16] or the Army Field Manual for Intelligence Interrogation; and copies of fliers passed out to Northern Alliance soldiers advertising $5,000 bounties for captured prisoners. The effect of the onscreen text is to elicit a kind of pause in viewing, an invitation to reflect on rhetoric and its social genesis and effect. In particular, because the material to which the text refers is also being discussed on the sound track, the effect of seeing an original document adds to a sense of historicity that the film is trying to convey. In addition, just as Gibney often uses press photography and video for ironic effect, he also uses the images of these words to the same end, since the logic of many of these documents is to define torture out of existence, especially in terms of U.S. culpability.

Finally, in visual terms, one of the key elements of the film, repeated in various ways throughout, is MP Sgt. Thomas Curtis' little drawing, made at the request of investigators right after Dilawar's death. They asked Curtis to draw how Dilawar had been shackled. The drawing is reproduced several times in the film, including as it was published in Golden's 2005 New York Times article. In addition, a reproduction of the detention cell, with handcuffs hanging from the wire mesh ceiling, is also shown repeatedly, as are some dramatic reenactments of overhead shackling. To reinforce the importance of such a torture tactic, as the film introduces Carlotta Gall, we see her hands playing a tape of General Daniel McNeill, Commander of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, 2002-2003, explicitly denying such shackling exists. In the film's spiral of revisiting the Dilawar story, Curtis' drawing accrues metonymic emotional force.

Finally, the film is book-ended with lyrical images of Afghanistan as the camera people visit Dilawar's family and his grave. Toward the end of the film, the family members relate their grief as we see them gathered in their home, with Dilawar's three-year-old girl sitting in her grandfather's lap. With grave sadness, his brother poignantly says he cannot "taste anything" since Dilawar's death. These intimate images, also seen in the section with Carlotta Gall, lend the film a sense of being in touch with the everyday life of Afghanis affected by the war. However, the shots of Dilawar's family do little to inform us of the political circumstances of Afghani life but are used more for their connotative power. They contrast with the film's depiction of U.S. militarism and policies gone awry and thus are used in both an elegiac and utopian way.

Bagram prison now

Regrettably Taxi to the Dark Side will not lose its relevance for a long time to come. Bagram prisoners do not have the protections that President Obama promised detainees in Guantanamo.[17] After the Supreme Court decision in June 2008, Boumediene v. Bush, which ruled that Guantanamo detainees have the right of habeus corpus, the U.S. government stopped sending prisoners there and directed them to Bagram instead. The population of Guantanamo went from around 700 to 250, while the population of Bagram prison went from around 300 to over 600. In addition, the government is building a new Bagram facility that will hold over 1,000.[18] This is in addition to a highly secret CIA prison known as the Salt Pit, located north of Kabul. Bagram currently holds prisoners taken there after years in extraordinary rendition as well as those captured in Afghanistan like Dilawar was, often turned in by Northern Alliance warlords for bounty.[19] And although senior Pentagon official for detention policy, Sandra L. Hodgkinson, says all "Department of Defense" detainees at Bagram have access to the Red Cross, nothing at all has been said officially to acknowledge CIA detainees there or at the Salt Pit. Reports are that the conditions in Bagram are worse than Guantanamo, and it is clear that prisoners' voices from there have been effectively suppressed.

However, in one of the most significant ongoing litigations around detainee status, a Federal court case was initiated by the International Justice Network during the Bush Administration asserting the habeus corpus rights of four Bagram prisoners, who had been taken to Afghanistan by rendition and who had been imprisoned there without counsel for over six years.[20] In January 2009, Justice John D. Bates of the D.C. District Court, invited the Obama Department of Justice to reconsider its definition of "enemy combatant" in light of its pronouncements about Guantanamo and rejection of that label describing prisoner status. In response, the Attorney General's office wrote a meager one-sentence refusal, "Having considered the matter, the Government adheres to its previously articulated position."[21] That is, the Bush lawyers previously argued that the United States could legally hold prisoners, then conveniently labeled "enemy combatants" instead of POWs, outside the country and outside the law.[22] Sadly, in the Obama administration, the defense lawyers hold to the same arguments as before about the prisoners the U.S. holds in custody abroad. Fortunately, Judge Bates ruled that the D.C. Court does have jurisdiction, since it is not ruling on prisoners taken in Afghanistan, who might be considered POWs (although the government does not, in fact, give them that status, which would grant them Geneva Convention protections), but on those who were taken to Bagram Prison from other countries.[23] So as this case and others like it move through the courts, Taxi to the Dark Side will have continued relevance as it points to issues we must face with the buildup of prisoners accompanying an expanded war in Afghanistan.

I wish to note here, as I revise this essay, further developments in the case I describe above make clearer the government's adamant decision to deny Bagram prisoners habeus corpus, including the right to an attorney.[23a] The passage of time will mark more and more such actions taken in this ongoing struggle. Even when no end to U.S. torture policy is in sight, understanding the scope and implication of the many issues adjudicated in the Bagram detainee case remains important for those concerned about justice. We have to name where torture is practiced, who experiences it, and what it consists of—and not let the government do it for us. As we conduct this war over meaning in public space—in books, on the Internet, in classes, and in the press—Taxi to the Dark Side sets out the issues in a concise and compelling way.

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