TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE
“When you look at people as less than human, you find yourself doing unthinkable things,” rationalizes Army Spc. Damien Corsetti, one of six interrogators who confessed to the torture/murder of Dilawar, an innocent taxi driver, during his detainment in 2002 at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
The often dispassionate testimony from Corsetti and his accomplices makes “Taxi to the Darkside” a vital document in the U.S. war on terror. Those who see it will no longer be able to plead ignorance to knowledge of the atrocities inflicted upon suspected terrorists inside detention prisons such as Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Director Alex Gibney, whose father, a former World War II interrogator, expresses disgust for both the inhumanity and inefficiency of procedures such as sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and suspended shackling, uses the Dilawar case as a centerpiece in his investigation of the networks of torture that have been put into place by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11 attacks.
From Vice President Dick Cheney, the primary architect of the new interrogation policies, to former Navy counsel Alberto Mora, who demanded an end to torture as a tool of interrogation, “Taxi to the Darkside” is informed by the testimonies of those on all sides of the issue.
The film is not without flaws. Too much time is devoted to material that has been better covered elsewhere. The military politics behind the flouting of Geneva rules was more thoroughly examined in “Gitmo: The New Rules of War,” a 2005 documentary from the Netherlands. Also, the story of Moazzam Berg, a detainee who survived his ordeal at three prisons, is well known through his own book, “Enemy Combatant.”
Additionally, Gibney’s credibility is sometimes compromised by his penchant for exploitation, with torture images needlessly repeated, and chapter headings that resemble the graphic design of the “Saw” franchise. Still, the film’s merits outweigh its shortcomings.
“Taxi to the Darkside” journeys into a new heart of darkness, the destination of which lies outside the frontiers of humanity. It is a must-see for anybody concerned with the potential shift in the American character as a result of its war on terror.
THE NINTH DAY
When principled action results in the loss of innocent lives, moral compromise can be seen as the moral high ground. Taken from Father Jean Bernard’s 1945 memoir of his internment at Dachau, Volker Schlondorff’s “The Ninth Day” covers the nine days during which Bernard was given leave from the camp to effect a reconciliation of the Luxemburg clergy to Third Reich policies. It is a humanist meditation on the ethics of the Catholic Church’s decision to save itself by endorsing Hitler. The center of the film is a series of political and religious discussions between Bernard (in the film called Henri Kremer) and Gebhardt, a former deacon who, on the eve of his ordination, decided he could better serve the world as an SS officer. Their relationship references that of Christ and Judas as Gebhardt tries to tempt Kremer into betraying the church in exchange for the lives of his fellow priests. As Kremer, Ulrich Matthea is physically shattered and spiritually conflicted. The chubby-faced August Diehl conveys the well-fed haughtiness of the smug Nazi. The dark, rotting interiors and sunless winter skies create a festering atmosphere of unexpiated guilt as Kremer ponders the question of how a decent man is to navigate the rivers of hell.
Written and directed by Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana, “Cavite” is a two-man show. Llana operates the camera and Gamazon plays Adam, a Filipino American whose only problem is being rejected by his white girlfriend. That is, until he returns to the Philippines for his father’s funeral, where he discovers more about himself and his country than he wants to know. His mother and sister have been kidnapped by a Muslim terrorist who will release them only after Adam completes a transformative journey through the poverty-stricken streets of Cavite that ends in an act of ego-shattering horror. Bad camerawork communicates the jittery distress of the journey while a percussive soundtrack accents his sense of anxiety. Before he can determine whether the road he is on leads to destruction or salvation, unpleasant questions about cultural and religious identity must be answered. “Cavite” is a thrilling and scary ride through the side streets of a third world that is rarely seen in the movies, and carries a revolutionary message that is frightening in its political implications.
Director Lynn Hershman Leeson, herself an artist, brings an insider’s perspective to this real-life horror story. Conceptual artist Steve Kurtz, working on an exhibit about genetically modified foods, is accused of bioterrorism after a legal and easily obtainable bacteria is found in the artist’s house during a routine investigation of his wife’s death. Filmed in the midst of the experience, the work is without resolution, with Kurtz still awaiting trial two years after his arrest. His case is a chilling example of how an average person’s liberties can be curtailed in the era of the Patriot Act. It also shows how the country’s cultural institutions are put at risk when faced with an FBI that knows nothing of the art world. Leeson adds a layer of social satire to the film by using newspaper cartoons to show the way the media followed the case. She also does an excellent job with actors Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton as Steve and Hope Kurtz in the dramatized segments, which are seamlessly blended with the documentary footage. Longtime avant-garde musicians The Residents turn in a subtle yet creepy score.
Taking a step down from Mumblecore, we find the next incarnation of American independent film in Stuttercore, which adds an aggressively psychotic bent to the uncharismatic world of ordinary people who reflect the malaise of today’s young adults. “Frownland” invites you to spend two hours with a character you would not indulge for two minutes in three-dimensional life. Keith (Dore Mann, one of several amateurs in the cast) is the eternal pest who apologizes for bothering you and then refuses to leave. The script’s absence of dramatic structure makes Keith’s irrational confrontations more frightening for their lack of apparent motive. In the tradition of 1960s experimental films such as Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason,” Ronald Bronstein’s feature debut plays like a piece of found art, something that seems, in the absence of any skilled directorial control, to have engendered itself. Like “Eraserhead,” its direct antecedent, “Frownland” is at first revolting, then addictively fascinating, and in the end leaves you wondering whether you have discovered an entirely new cinematic universe or have simply suffered through a horribly incompetent mess. Either way, it will leave a lasting impression on those who stay with it.