Here in New York, where much of the Tribeca fest frustratingly takes place miles away from Tribeca, it's hard to get a handle on the program. Since one of my main interests is politics in cinema (here's a short WSJ.com report on the subject), that's been a way for me to sample and sift.
Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side," one of the festival's most high-profile docs, doesn't disappoint. As harrowing and upsetting as Rory Kennedy's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" -- and covering much of the same territory, with even some of the same interviewees -- "Taxi" nevertheless still gripped me by the throat and never let go. Gibney digs deeper into the torture memo, itemizing such horrendous torture tactics practiced on the "20th hijacker" such as an enema, sexual humiliation, the psychological horrors of sensory deprivation (or "sense dep," as one MP calls it) and forcing him to take water from an I.V. and not allowing him to urinate.
How and why government officials and American people think this is acceptable to do to another human being, even one who desires to kill people (but hasn't), I will never understand. Gibney offers us some possible clues (the culture that breeds "24" and the ludicrous "ticking time bomb" mythology), but the most appalling thing about the film is watching leaders like Alberto Gonzalez, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo and other high-ranking military and civilian personnel completely disavow any moral responsiblity for the murdering of innocent people. After watching the movie, I was profoundly upset, couldn't sleep, sense depped myself, plagued with the notion that the cycle of violence perpetuated by the U.S. war machine will only spiral further out of control. If Kennedy's "Abu Ghraib" doc never made much of a stir beyond the walls of HBO, perhaps "Taxi" can create a larger discussion via a much-publicized theatrical release.
"I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne," directed by John Laurence (the famous maker of seminal Vietnam chronicle "The World of Charlie Company") is not a great documentary, but next to "Taxi to the Dark Side," it helps expose the way 9/11 has been exploited by the military to justify their abusive actions overseas. Bookending the film, Col. Mike Steele brings out a World Trade Center flag and rouses the troops, giving them a reason to fight and later applauding their heroic actions on the battlefield -- men whose limbs are lost, and psyches shattered.
If these docs show how war destroys humanity, I guess "Beyond Belief" is the inspiring antidote: the story of two Boston women who, pregnant on 9/11, lost their husbands in the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center and then tried to raise awareness for widows in war-torn Afghanistan. I wept like a baby throughout the film, and while it may sound cheesy, the woman's message is a laudable and largely selfless one: Take 9/11 to look at the root causes of terrorism, use America's overwhelming wealth and privilege to help the less fortunate. "If we can teach love and kindness as oppose to hatred, then that's how terrorism will end," says one of the women.