WINNING an Academy Award should be a boon for any film. After all, the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the awards as a marketing tool.
The marketing and distribution of the documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side , has been anything but easy since it won the bestdocumentary Oscar at the Academy Awards last February.
Its Australian producer, Eva Orner, hasn’t been shy about expressing her displeasure at SBS’s treatment of the film.
The film uses the case of an Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, who died in custody, to explore the issue of torture by US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.
It was one of 10 documentaries commissioned by 39 broadcasters under the Why Democracy initiative. SBS initially screened a one- hour version of Taxi to the Dark Side last year and screened the full 105- minute film only after it won an Oscar, but with little fanfare.
Even worse, the release of this film and others in the Why Democracy series was postponed in Australia. Taxi to the Dark Side finally makes it to DVD this week.
It hasn’t fared any better in the US, where director Alex Gibney has taken the film’s American distributor, ThinkFilm, to arbitration, charging it with ‘‘ fraudulently concealing’’ its ability to properly release the film. He contends the company, which faces a number of lawsuits from creditors and producers, didn’t extend the film’s theatrical release beyond 20 screens despite the Academy Award.
ThinkFilm chief Mark Urman, who recently left the company, said the film earned only $ 300,000 at the box office because of its grim subject.
It is a grim film, but a very good one, better than Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, which covers much the same territory in an overly stylised manner. The film’s potency lies in speaking to people at detention camps as well as to several US government policy- makers, including a surprisingly candid — or naive — John Yoo, who as a legal counsel at the Department of Justice in 2001- 03 orchestrated ‘‘ a flexible approach’’ to legal interpretations of torture.
‘‘ The lawyer’s job is to tell people what laws do or do not apply,’’ he says in a modern variation on president Richard Nixon’s contention that if the president does it, it’s not illegal.
Dilawar disappeared in 2002 and soon became a statistic: one of what the documentary reports were 105 deaths in detention in Iraq and Afghanistan, 37 of which are classified as homicides.
Gibney deftly explores the complex chain of command from President George W. Bush down to the US military police controlling prisons such as Bagram in Afghanistan, which came to define much of US practice in such prisons. The circumstances of Dilawar’s death are gruesome enough: he was beaten to death while shackled. It’s even more confronting to encounter uncensored pictures from Abu Ghraib.
The process by which prisoners are broken — through the shock of capture, which includes loud music, exposure to dogs and other scares; followed by 24 hours in an isolation cell, sleep deprivation, being handcuffed to the ceiling and ritual beatings ( including the corking of legs, which proved effective, at least in enhancing pain) — is systematic and terrifying.
Of course, there is the notion that such prisons are run by bad apples.
As Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to ex- secretary of state Colin Powell sighs, ‘‘ You’ve always got people in the military who are just this side of the Marquis de Sade.’’
bodeym@ theaustralian. com. au
Displeasure: Australian Oscar winner Eva Orner