Movie review: Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

The topic of torture may seem passée. Until you remember that War on Terror has still not ended and GITMO still exists. In some respects, nothing has changed since late 2001.

Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2007 and it is easy to see why. The film uses the kidnap, torture, and murder of a Pakistani taxi driver as a springboard into examining the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror.

Dilawar, who earned a living by driving a taxi for his remote Pakistani village, disappeared in 2002. Five days later he turned up dead after having been tortured by US forces. His death certificate, which had been given to his family, listed homicide as the cause of death. Homicide at the hands of Americans. (The death certificate was in English. The family did not know the listed cause of death until a reporter read it to them.)

Dilawar had no rights, no hearing, no trial. He was considered a threat, picked up, interrogated, and tortured—to the point that his legs were described as “pulpified”. If he had lived, his legs would have needed to be amputated.

Taxi to the Dark Side proceeds to interview soldiers who were responsible for the treatment and torture of detainees at the Bagram detention center. They did not have clear rules or guidelines to follow. They did not follow field manuals. Nor the Geneva Conventions. Vague instructions trickled down from above that allowed, even encouraged, what could only be called torture. At the end of the documentary, we learn that these soldiers were eventually made scapegoats, tried, and in many cases convicted of torture. Higher-ups were never charged.

The techniques used at Bagram made their way to Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq where similarly horrible atrocities were carried out. The documentary does not sugarcoat anything that was done. Graphic pictures and short videos show the torture.

Experts such as lawyers, military personnel, and psychologists appear in the documentary, explaining how torture came to be the norm and how the Geneva Conventions were ignored. Torture was defined however higher-ups in civilian and military leadership wanted to define it, which let them state with a straight face on camera that the US does not torture. All of the techniques that were used were never officially approved but were on lists of techniques to use that circulated among detention facilities worldwide.

Fascinating was the bit about how these techniques came to be. Decades earlier psychologists looked into the best ways to essentially break someone. In recent years, putting people in isolation has been recognized as inhumane treatment—isolation can mentally unhinge people and have lasting psychological effects. Related to extended isolation is the use of sensory deprivation. Psychologists discovered, and the US started to use, techniques of sensory deprivation to destroy people.

The use of sensory deprivation explains the use of hoods on detainees (and the use of goggles underneath these hoods) as well as mittens. The hoods, not to mention the goggles, were never about transporting prisoners safely. Without input from your senses, you start to loss contact with reality, which has profound effects on your mental health. Within a couple days, you start to hallucinate.

The basic arguments against torture are also laid out in the documentary: torture doesn’t work and it violates our American principles. Despite the evidence that torture leads to misinformation at best and the realization that torture defies basic human rights upon which our American principles are built, over a third of Americans still condone its use—even after the Abu Ghraib scandal!

That Americans would still condone torture in large numbers is shocking to me and a profoundly depressing realization. If we are fighting the War on Terror to preserve America and its principles, but doing so violates our principles, what is the point of the war? If we do not have our principles, what do we have?

Another disturbing point brought up in the documentary is that Guantanamo was touted as a place to put people that the US captured on the battlefield. But in fact, most of the people who have called Guantanamo home have been people that our allies have handed over to us, not people that we captured. By some accounts, 95% of detainees were handed over by our allies. By other accounts, this number is only 93%.

And by allies, I mean Afghani warlords and Pakistani authorities. For money. They handed over people, and we gave them money for these people no questions asked. The abuse of such a system is enormous. How many detainees have been there for years or decades because someone had a grudge against them back in Afghan (or as one person mentioned, someone wanted their poppy field and turned them in in order to gain possession of the land)?

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was one such person. Begg was seized in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he spent 20 months being tortured. Eventually the British government was able to gain his release.  Begg is interviewed throughout the documentary.

The horror is that not only is US torturing people, which goes against our principles, our military rules, and the Geneva Conventions, but the US is giving people money in exchange for detainees. It is the body count phenomena in Vietnam all over again.

Unlike in Vietnam, success in the War on Terror is not necessarily counted how many people we have killed, but how many people we have locked up. To prove that we are winning, we have to inflate the body count. Here, let us pay you to give us people whether they are involved in terrorism or not. Guilt isn’t important. Numbers are. Just like in our criminal justice system where we value people—anybody—being locked up more than administering justice and getting the right people locked up.

Experts in gathering intelligence speak in the documentary about how misleading information gathered from torture really is. Building rapport is a much more successful technique to extract legitimate information.

One intelligence expert explains how a typical rapport building session goes. The thing is, he states, the life of the person detained is over. They know it. You know it. What is important to the detained person now is negotiating with captors about the things that matter to him: his family. You offer to do things for his family, to take care of them, to give his children education…only if he cooperates. That method of intelligence gathering, the expert explains, is highly successful.

But rapport building does not make for good TV. A small point made in the documentary bears some thought. Popular culture touts not rapport building but torture as a legitimate way to extract information. The ticking time bomb scenario, where we must extract information immediately to save hundreds or thousands or millions of American lives, is a common theme. Would you justify torture if it meant saving lives? Rather a hypothetical question for a situation that has never occurred. But this scenario and the justification of torture has permeated our culture thanks to its portrayal in media and entertainment.

Ironically the use of torture is putting millions at risk rather than making them safer. The more we torture people, the more we create people opposed to the US and willing to attack the US as revenge for the torture and mistreatment that they endured. Since 2001 we have been creating future terrorists because of how we have treated people from Islamic cultures. We reap what we sow, and the chickens will come home to roost.

In the process, we are losing what we are trying to defend. America was founded on rule of law and certain freedoms. We have betrayed this and continue to do so. Without these rules and freedoms, such as habeas corpus, which states that we cannot be detained indefinitely without a hearing, what are we? How is American democracy different from a dictatorship or authoritarian regime?

Movie review: Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015)

Going Clear is a pretty disturbing documentary. Maybe I found it disturbing thanks to the age we live in—in an age of collective lies, misrepresentation, and alternative realities. Or maybe I would have found it disturbing even if we weren’t living in our current political and social reality in the US.

The documentary is interspersed with interviews of former members high up in the echelons of Scientology. As the narrative that the documentary recounts unfolds, one by one these people leave the organization.

“Leaving the organization” sounds so benign. In fact, leaving is not an easy thing to do. Often it sounds like the tactic an abused woman must take to leave an abusive man. By leaving they lose their social network, which is made up exclusively of other church members, and family members, who are told to sever all ties with them.

The documentary starts by focusing on the founder of Scientology, his background, and his motivations. L. Ron Hubbard comes across as an authoritarian, ego-driven blowhard who was motivated by the almighty dollar. It is not a flattering portrayal, though I have no reason to think it is unrealistic or exaggerated. His background was science fiction writing. With a need to make money, he parlayed his stories into a religion that he sold to millions.

The documentary also recounts the history of Scientology, its power, and the abuse it inflicted on adherents. The organization fought the IRS to recognize it as a religion so that it could avoid paying taxes. (L. Ron Hubbard lived out the later decades of his life avoiding the IRS.) The fact that the organization beat the IRS says something to its power and reach.

What could only be called human trafficking, kidnapping, and slave labor went on behind its cloak of secrecy. Those in power sought to destroy anyone who escaped and spoke out. Unimaginable amounts of money were at stake. Scientology was founded on a desire to make money and through the decades morphed into a monster fed by gluttony.

The experiences of the people who escaped are heart-breaking. They were all lured into the lie that they were working towards something bigger—Scientology claims to channel people to work for making things better in the world. In fact, these people lost decades of their lives and family members to this cult. It is a scary reminder that dreams and hopes can be manipulated, and people subjected to trauma all for power and money.

Movie review: National Gallery (2014)

National Gallery is another documentary directed by Frederick Weiseman, very similar to the format of his later Ex Libris. He and his cameras are flies on the wall during the normal activities that occur in the National Gallery in London. Through his camera, we the audience are present for lectures about paintings, sketching workshops, painting restorations, board meetings, and artistic performances. There is no single narrative. We are left to take from the documentary what we will—sort of, I would argue, as one does by viewing a painting in an art museum.

I enjoyed listening to the mini-lectures that docents gave to groups at the National Gallery about a particular painting or artist. The docents describe context around the painting in order to help us view the painting in a different way. In one case, in a small gathering, a museum employee explains how and where the painting was made—in situ over a large, high fireplace to the right of a window that let in light. That he knew from knowledge of the painting’s providence, how light was used for painting before the advent of electricity, etc.

In another lecture, a museum employee walks a group through restoration of a huge image of a nobleman astride a horse. Before restoration, X-rays are taken. In this case, it showed another full figure painted underneath. The artist painted over it and rotated the canvas before painting what became his final piece. Over time paintings underneath bleed through. In this case, some of that bleeding through probably confused previous restorers of the painting about what to restore or what not to restore.

And I learned more about the restoration process. I always thought it odd that museums would touch up paintings. Doesn’t that risk damaging them? How is the modern-day museum employee able to touch up a painting that doesn’t do a disservice to the skill and technique used by the original artist? I learned that at least in modern day restoration, they clean the painting, re-varnish the painting, and then do the touch-ups on top of the varnish. By doing so, future restorations can easily remove the touch-ups and varnish when they clean the painting. So in essence, the painting isn’t damaged or permanently altered by touch-ups. Well, that’s not entirely true.

In another talk, an employee discusses how sometimes the original artist used a particular varnish on the painting to get a certain effect with the color. With restoration, when cleaning is done, the varnish is stripped off. So the original intent of the colors may be permanently altered. The restorer is in effect altering the painting. My original fear was well founded.

Like libraries in Ex Libris, art museums are moving beyond their traditional mission. In addition to being places to enjoy art, art museums like the National Gallery are becoming much more. The documentary shows the plethora of lectures to different audiences—in the gallery and back in the areas where restoration is done (normally not accessible to the public). Workshops employ different techniques, creating more 3D type images of paintings that blind audience members can feel as the speaker discusses the painting. Other workshops are hands-on creative enterprises—participants sketch human nudes.

A recent trend with art museums is to become more than places that house works of art. In the case of the National Gallery, it is working to become a place of doing art and enjoying performances. The National Gallery hosts musical and dance performances. Audience members enjoy the performance surrounded by beautiful works of art. The ambiance is as important as the performance itself.

In meetings that the documentary shows, the board is not ready to popularize the venue simply to bring in revenue. Other art museums have chosen the path of popularizing their venues. The modern goal of art museums seems to be to bring people (and revenue) into their spaces, not necessarily to enjoy the works of art, but to enjoy more popular activities and spaces—all in the name of popularizing their space (aka bringing in revenue). At what point does it go too far? The National Gallery seem to have a clear demarcation. Other museums, like the Indianapolis Museum of Art, are becoming more popular community spaces.

The IMA for several years has embraced the popularization movement. Some of their new activities try to meld art with popular appeal. Others not so much. For two years the museum hosted a mini-golf course, with each hole a work of art designed around a theme. The museum also opened a beer garden with at least one beer locally crafted specifically for the museum. Recently the museum completed an indoor/outdoor exhibit of cracking art—brightly colored plastic animal sculptures that spoke to environmental themes. For the second year, the museum is hosting an outdoor winter lights display—a grandiose affair in terms of time, effort, and money. For years, the museum has hosted film festivals and musical/ballet performances. The common theme seems to be to reach out to the non-art museum goer and get them into the museum or at least on the museum grounds.

The National Gallery, at least at the time of this documentary, decided against such a popularization. They discuss a marketing approach to museum, but seem to want to maintain the museum as an art venue meant for lovers of art, artistic performances, and artistic endeavors.

With the numerous mini-lectures that National Gallery shows, I felt that the three hours was an easier watch than Ex Libris. But I am a lover of traditional art museums and eagerly attend lectures on the works in their galleries. With the documentary, I was able to attend a number of mini lectures and learn interesting tidbits about how paintings are restored and how to look at paintings as stories and examine the context in which paintings were created. But I am an old-school art museum attendee. I ride the popularization wave albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Movie review: Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour left me feeling confused and unsettled. Has it really been five years since the Snowden leaks? Has it really only been five years since the Snowden leaks? After the bru-ha-ha died down, did anything change? Were any programs stopped? Was our privacy restored?

After all is said and done, was it worth it? Was it worth Snowden giving up his life to go public with information about government programs that violate, if not laws and our Constitution, then the spirit of America?

Watching Citizenfour and the assumption that the revelation of this data would change the world was deeply saddening. The end game is also quite ironic: idealist American fighting for privacy, freedom, and the curtailing of government powers ends up living in a profoundly unfree autocratic state (Russia).

The documentary was filmed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists that Edward Snowden initially approached about sensitive government information that he acquired during his work at the NSA. She films the initial days of meeting with Snowden through the initial days after the revelations went public. What would be interesting would be a follow-up: So what happened or changed in electronic surveillance since that time?

Poitras films Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian meeting with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room. What is the information that he has? What does it mean? How best to disseminate it? How to communicate electronically but safely?

Citizenfour also shows other meetings and talks, such as Snowden meeting with human rights lawyers as he was seeking to flee Hong Kong or William Binney, a former NSA crypto-mathematician, talking to the German Bundestag after Snowden’s revelations.

The information that Snowden revealed basically showed that the US is hoovering up data from anyone and anything in the world, with telecoms as accomplices. The US, in the grand tradition of authoritarian regimes, is seeking to acquire as much knowledge of the population as possible as a method of control. (A tactic eerily similar to Putin and his intelligence agency roots.) If democracy dies in the darkness, it also dies without privacy and the accompanying freedoms of thought and expression.

As Greenwald points out in a talk to the European Parliament, the US is engaged in electronic surveillance not for national security. National security is just a convenient bogey-man—fear is a tool in the compliance toolbox. Rather gathering this data and monitoring people is in the industrial, financial, and economic interests of companies. It comes down to, I would say, power and money.

I still am not entirely sure how I feel about the leaks or Snowden. It is not clear to me that he is a criminal or a martyr, just someone who was living his conscience and his conscience wouldn’t let him sit by as the government betrayed our trust and the Constitution.

Since he went public with the information he had, I have no proof that things have gotten better. In fact, I assume that they have only gotten worse or accelerated and that the US has improved its techniques and its reach into our lives.

Knowledge is power but in a twisted way I am not sure that making the knowledge public was empowering. There was nothing the public could do about it. Instead, knowledge as power speaks exactly to what the US government is doing: control and power through the accumulation of information about the people.

Movie review: Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)

Ex Libris is an odd documentary. I don’t know that I have ever seen one quite like it. It’s a…voyeuristic documentary.

Rather than being a narrative that pushes towards a conclusion, Ex Libris has no narrative or narrator. The documentary is a collection of meetings that we the viewers watch. We are voyeurs to the things that happen in the libraries, whether it is a board meeting or a recording of a book for the blind or kids programming robots.

Ex Libris takes us to different branches in the New York Public Library system where meetings, talks, readings, and discussions are taking place. The goal seems to be to show us all that libraries are in the modern age and how they are staying relevant.

Libraries are so much more than collections of books. They are hubs for community centers—with everything radiating out from them. They partner with different organizations—government, private corporations, schools—to fulfil community needs. They might work with others to provide support to immigrant communities, mental health initiatives, after-school programs, family and childhood literacy, and the homeless.

Ex Libris shows a library system that is continually stretching, growing, and learning to intertwine more with others to provide exponential value. What libraries can do is limited only by their imagination and funding. Community outreach and advocacy is constant…as is fundraising.

Thrown into the mix is a discussion about digital inclusion—what that means and what the library needs to do to succeed in it. Providing access to the digital world is not sufficient. That will not solve the digital divide between those with digital access, knowledge, and skills and those without. More is needed to include all in the modern technological world. Libraries need to have—and at least in the case of the New York Public Library are having—this discussion.

The thoughtful discussions that the library is involved in is inspiring. Those working in the library system are constantly pondering the role of the library and how to enrich the community and the lives of those in it. The question is not: are libraries relevant, but in what ways and to what depth should they be relevant.

Ex Libris shows us all of the ways that the New York Public Library is deeply intertwined in the community. Some of the services and collections offered were things I did not even imagine, such as a picture collection for anyone to use, recording books for the blind, dance classes, or job workshops. Others were more mundane outreach (at least to me) such as book groups, lectures, or author talks.

The implicit message of the documentary is powerful—the library is more relevant than ever in a digital age and can partner with other organizations to provide deeper, enriching experiences for the community. The format of the documentary with no overarching narrative or explicit drive to a conclusion left me feeling uncomfortable. I wanted to turn off the documentary rather than be a voyeur. I wanted to see a story unfold rather than eavesdrop on meetings and groups using the library.

However, the documentary did one thing. It made me want to move to New York City just so I could use their wonderfully vibrant and relevant library system.