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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

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