Images from Taxi to the Dark Side

Sgt. Thomas Curtis, former MP at Bagram prison in Afghanistan.

Curtis demonstrates how prisoners were shackled for long periods of time.

He drew this picture for Army investigators.

It later appeared in the New York Times.

Once torture starts, it escalates.

Official words carry emotional weight.

Techniques authorized for Guantanamo.

Rumsfeld signs his memo authorizing severe techniques with: "However, I stand for 8-10 hourse a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?"

His note encourages military personnel to take the abuse much further.

John Yoo narrows the definition of torture to allow the U.S. to escape the Geneval Conventions.

Frank Gibney's interview ends the film.


Torture documentaries

by Julia Lesage

To begin with, I would like to encourage readers of this essay to see one of the films described below, even better, two, so they can evaluate how a documentary might analyze U.S. involvement in torture.[1a][open endnotes in new window] To see these films now is important because the issue itself, state-sanctioned torture, has become the issue of our time, especially in the United States. Historically speaking, the films participate in our collectively creating a "story" around torture. Developing such a narrative, which is both descriptive and analytical, influences how we imagine and act on what happened, how we formulate our activism. Later, as years pass after this traumatic event, we may develop an "official version" of what happened—as seen, for example, in the Holocaust Museum or other museums dedicated to catastrophes—but it will long be a contested version, both in the way it is framed and in the aspects of the trauma that it elides. For teachers, these documentaries provide excellent classroom material. The films open onto other readily available information on the Internet and in books for student research, for example, or shown together in pairs they provide media and social studies classes with usefully contrastive examples of the "framing" of contemporary issues which most students would like to be informed about.

In general, documentary filmmakers who take on the task of representing a large-scale event of historical importance do us a service. Their films give information about the subject, indicate ways of dealing with the issues, invite an emotional response, and invoke an ethical stance. They offer a path to mastery over a complex topic, even if it is only a provisional mastery that becomes more nuanced and revised the more we consider other facts and other voices on the subject. In this instance, because there is so much information about the issue of torture, far more than any one person can remember or easily draw upon, the documentaries offer a structure for organizing that knowledge, setting out main ideas that can shape further exploration or be modified as the viewer reads more about the subject on his/her own. In this way, the films are a valuable tool for any concerned viewer, especially activists, since the films place an emphasis on understanding and also draw attention to how we understand. That is, the films indicate how information about torture is repressed, mediated, and filtered before it ever gets to the public eye.

Interestingly, the torture documentaries have as a predecessor a visual text that suddenly irrupted into public history in 2004, a text collectively known as the Abu Ghraib photographs. These images seemed to have come from "below," bypassing political censorship. In terms of their institutional impact, the Abu Ghraib photographs initiated an intense, long-term scrutiny of U.S. involvement in torture and illegal abduction and detention of prisoners. As images, the photographs remain shocking and puzzling. As political documents, they reveal a previously hidden world that seems to sum up imperialism's racialized and sexualized domination and abuse.

In addition to the Abu Ghraib photographs, because of legal action from progressive organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, many military and government documents related to U.S. torture policy have been released. Some journalists have now devoted years to uncovering the history of this abuse as well. The Internet has become a tool for disseminating texts of analytic essays and primary documents, often in PDF form, and many journalists, lawyers, and activists have blogs that discuss both news and legal strategies, in addition to offering first-person narratives and opinions from those most directly involved. This pursuit of knowledge around torture continues unabated in the United States, and the massive quantity of information we now have is one of the topics I wish to explore in the essay below.

In Representing Reality, Bill Nichols explains documentary's pursuit of knowledge and the sense of mastery it gives, calling that pursuit epistephilia. Nichols explains how epistephilia is often the goal of both documentary filmmaker and documentary viewer. He delimits this sense of mastery, however, since documentary epistephilia mediates and filters information, structuring it in relation to the spectator who receives and uses it:

“Documentary convention spawns an epistephilia. It posits an organizing agency that possesses information and knowledge, a text that conveys it, and a subject who will gain it. He-who-knows (the agency is usually masculine) will share that knowledge with those-who-wish-to-know; they, too, can take the place of the subject-who-knows. Knowledge, as much or more than the imaginary identification between viewer and fictional character, promises the viewer a sense of plenitude or self-sufficiency. Knowledge, like the ideal-ego figures or objects of desire suggested by the characters of narrative fiction, becomes a source of pleasure that is far from innocent. Who are we that we may know something? Of what does that knowledge consist? What we know and how we use the knowledge that we have are a matter of social and ideological significance.”[1]

I am interested in Nichols' approach not only because he qualifies documentary's granting spectators a sense of mastery and insists on the social uses of documentary epistephilia, but also because he leaves something out when he describes documentary's pursuit of knowledge, something documentaries about torture cannot elide—the role of affect, the affect the very information conveys (or rhetorically tries to suppress). Viewers cannot learn about torture without coming into contact with strong emotion. All the filmmakers who use images and first-person testimony of abuse understand that this material has a great emotional charge; it conveys the repeated story of people intending to inflict grievous harm on others. But the torture documentary uses this material differently than it might be used in we-know-it's-not-real works of fiction. Documentary images of torture and people's descriptions of torture become part of history, and they bear an affective charge enhanced by the genre's "representation of reality."

Such an affective charge not only adheres to documentary images, such as in photojournalism or the Abu Ghraib photographs, but also to the way these films use witnesses to torture, sometimes perpetrators and abused. For example, a number of these torture documentaries have interviews with lower-ranking military figures accused and perhaps convicted of torturing prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons. As I watch them in close-up talking to the camera, these former guards and interrogators seem sympathetic, yet I know of their terrible acts. As they speak, I search their faces for signs of remorse and any indication that they are lying or telling the truth. My emotional response, especially to the Abu Ghraib photographs, conflicts with these people's expressed attitudes about past events and about themselves.

At this point, I would like to step back and indicate something about my own writing style in this essay. From time to time, as I have done here, I will focus on my own spectatorial response in an autoethnographic way as a case study. While analyzing the emotional dimensions of the torture documentary, I hope to write in a way that could embrace a potentially wide range of responses, especially in terms of affect. By locating myself as a viewer, then, I would like anchor the discussion of affect with more specificity. In addition, I mention my viewing experience of evaluating these interviewees because that particular aspect of the torture documentary relates to my ongoing scholarly work. For example, I evaluate the eye-witnesses' reports according to my interest in autobiography and predilection for emotional expressiveness and melodrama in film. Specifically, I have a theoretical interest in the first-person voice as used in non-fiction reportage and film. Here the pronoun and speaking position "I" invites, as it were, a direct connection to a "you," in this case, me the viewer. In documentary film, such an "I" rarely has the complexity of literary autobiography, which often takes pains to explore mixed, layered aspects of the self, complexities of past situations, and one's own mixed motives and shifting ambivalence. In contrast, in non-fiction film and television, the "I" who's interviewed usually speaks words edited into a documentary argument. I am emotionally moved by what these interviewees from Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo have to say and by their direct address to the camera, but as I scrutinize them, their subjectivity ultimately eludes me.[2]

I have organized this essay to explore two large aspects of the torture documentary—epistephilia and affect. To do so, and also to give some indication about genre structures, I provide a textual analysis of three highly accomplished films: two documentaries—Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure—and a docudrama—The Road to Guantanamo. However, in the way that the documentaries actually work, knowledge and affect are not so neatly divided; all these documentaries elicit emotion and purvey knowledge and are structured to do so. Thus, even though I particularly use Taxi to the Dark Side to consider how it uses voices of authority—and more generally to offer my own to challenge torture epistephilia at this moment in the United States—I also consider how the film uses photojournalistic images for emotion, especially irony. In the same way, I use a textual analysis of Standard Operating Procedure, which takes as its topic just the Abu Ghraib photographs, to explore issues of affect in the torture documentary. However, I also explore how the film works as an analytic documentary, one that explores what the photograph, or indeed witnesses, can and cannot convey. Standard Operating Procedure particularly raises the question of "authenticity" in relation to its interviewees. It uses lengthy segments of people talking, with edited moments from what were clearly very long interviews, and the camera holds on them after a speech to capture just their individual expressions. We are asked to evaluate not only the history of Abu Ghraib torture that these participants tell us about but also how much we trust what they have to say.

Because of the historical role of the Abu Ghraib photographs and their shocking image material, I consider the photographs on their own terms, first in terms of torture, sexuality, and theatricality; and then in terms of elements within those photos that shape viewer response. Finally I offer a briefer textual analysis of The Road to Guantanamo, which as a docudrama has its own particular way of evoking the specifics of a situation and eliciting an emotional and political response.

The documentaries under consideration here:

Taxi to the Dark Side, dir. Alex Gibney, 2007: This film uses the documented homicide of an Afghan taxi driver in Bagram prison as the focus for interviewing Bagram prison guards and interrogators, as well as for investigating U.S. government policy and the legal and social/psychological issues around torture. The film incorporates dramatic reenactments and many still images taken by photojournalists on the political or war beat.

Standard Operating Procedure, dir. Errol Morris, 2008: Morris explores the circumstances around the Abu Ghraib photographs. He interviews participants from Abu Ghraib, freely uses dramatic reenactments, and edits to a highly emotional musical score by Danny Elfman. The film shows many Abu Ghraib photographs uncropped and at length as it questions what photographs can and cannot convey, what's outside the frame. Morris collaborated with Philip Gourevitch to write a book of the same name based on the transcribed interviews, court testimonies and depositions, and other documentation about torture, especially the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Morris has an extensive web site, and he also writes lengthy entries for a blog at the New York Times including many issues directly related to this film.[3]

The Road to Guantanamo, dir. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, 2006, Channel 4, UK: This low-budget docudrama uses actors and the original figures of the Tipton Three, who provided one of the first exposés of Guantanamo abuses in England. The film traces the long journey of the young men, UK citizens from a Pakistani background, who traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, were captured by the Northern Alliance, imprisoned by the U.S. military in Kandahar and Guantanamo, and two years later released. Because the film was made for activism, it was released on DVD and television within days of its theatrical release.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, dir. Rory Kennedy, 2007, HBO: Kennedy situates torture in the context of the Milgram experiments. In the film are interviews with MPs (military police) and MIs (military intelligence) from Abu Ghraib; legal figures and authors such as Mark Danner who explain torture's larger context. Uniquely, Kennedy interviews as witnesses former Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib who testify to being tortured there. The HBO website for the film has a useful resource page with links and a brief bibliography.[4]

The Torture Question, Frontline, PBS, Oct. 18, 2005, written and dir. Michael Kirk: The Torture Question traces the history of national public policy decisions made in Washington after 9/11 about interrogation practices—including an internal administration battle over the Geneva Conventions. The film follows how that interrogation policy laid the groundwork for prisoner abuse in Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Iraq. Like other Frontline documentaries, this film has an excellent website with many resources, including debates with legal experts, analysis pages, full text of interviews, history, teachers' guide, links.[5]

Torturing Democracy, 2008, PBS; consultant, Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side; written and produced by Sherry Jones: The film develops an history and argument, using an essay-like narration, read by Peter Coyote, and supplemented by brief segments from a wide range of interviews and testimony from detainees. It traces the history of torture after 9/11 and U.S. response to the legal issues that the government's stance poses. This film is part of a larger project, the Torture Archive, and has an excellent web site, including an annotated transcript of the film text, more full-length interviews, links to key documents, a study guide, annotated links to online articles and blogs, and a brief well-selected bibliography.[6]

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