Heart of darkness

A low hum of horror pervades this exposé of US abuses in Afghanistan

<strong>Taxi to the Dark Side

Film-makers have still not worked out a way to process the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into fiction. I admired parts of Rendition, but even that is a doodle on a Post-it note next to the Goya-like tableaux conjured up by the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. In 2002, a 22-year-old taxi driver known as Dilawar was turned over to US interrogators at the Bagram Air Base by Afghan militiamen who claimed he had been launching rocket attacks on Allied forces. Five days of American hospitality, and Dilawar was dead. Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning film collects the testimonies of those present at Bagram, including Damien Corsetti, an interrogator with a neck the size of a small continent. A brass neck, at that. Here is his angle on Dilawar: "They're a very frail people. It surprised me that it had taken so long for one of them to die in our custody."

You take the point. What kind of namby-pamby race expires after barely a week of savage beatings, torture, sleep deprivation, enforced standing and tissue damage? (Had Dilawar lived, the coroner observed, his "pulpified" legs would have had to come off.) Colonel David Hayden is an army lawyer who went to the same charm school as Corsetti. "This is not a hotel," he says. "This is not a place for [detainees] to get fat, lazy and happy." Gibney cuts to Dilawar naked on the mortuary slab. He has bruises in colours you never knew existed.

This story might have been enough on its own for a whole film. Just when you think you've heard it all, you hit yet another pothole of grief or outrage, such as when the New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall tracks down Dilawar's family members, and they produce a note that came attached to his body. It's the death certificate, with a tick in the box marked "homicide", and Gall has to explain to them what this means.

But what makes Taxi to the Dark Side an important film, rather than just a compelling one, is Gibney's ability to situate Dilawar's death in the context of the relationship between the White House and the grunts on the ground, who escaped charges of dereliction of duty because no one ever clarified what their duty was. With no advice on where to draw the line, they found it became all too easy to cross it instead. One soldier, who joined in the general pummelling of prisoners at Bagram, is defensive: "I didn't wanna appear to be going against my fellow soldiers. Is that wrong?" Well, if you have to ask . . .

The film sends out feelers in all directions - to Donald O Hebb, whose research into sensory deprivation in the late 1950s and early 1960s gave the CIA a new box of tricks to play with; to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where "the Bagram model" really caught fire; to John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales, paid to find ways around the Geneva Conventions; and to the torture-porn of the appalling 24, which sets out to corrode its audience's opposition to human rights abuse.

For all the physical violence on show, this is partly a story about semantics. George W Bush's declaration that "we do not condone torture" is perfectly true, once you accept that he is using his own eccentric definition of torture. (It does not include the medieval practice of waterboarding, described here by Dick Cheney as "a dunk in water", like baptism or bobbing for apples.) The film keeps touching on those ways in which acronyms, words and the spaces between them are used to obscure or ratify brutality. Even now it gives me a jolt to hear about "extraordinary rendition", which could still refer to an audacious cover version or poetry recital.

If some of Taxi to the Dark Side feels familiar, perhaps it's just that we've become accustomed to the constant low hum of horror: if we didn't steel ourselves for the worst, the shock would be unmanageable. The film's expertise lies in its intelligent arrangement of material, and the way Gibney keeps pulling back from the Dilawar case to show its precedents and repercussions. Oh - and Dilawar was innocent, in case you were wondering. His interrogators knew that, even as they were cooking up ingenious ways to prolong his suffering.

Pick of the week

California Dreamin’ (Endless) (15)
dir: Cristian Nemescu
The US army is stuck in rustic Romania. Hilarity ensues. No, really.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (15)
dir: Alex Holdridge
Low-budget, LA-set comedy romance.

The Incredible Hulk (12A)dir: Louis Leterrier
Back to the drawing board after the unloved 2003 Hulk.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis