Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney came to USF last Thursday as part of the Davies Forum: Re-making the News and the Human Rights Film Festival. This co-sponsorship is actually symbolic of Gibney’s work: it is part news, part film; part giving people the facts and part telling people a compelling story in an artistic manner.
Davies Forum Professor Dorothy Kidd posed the idea that the documentary may be becoming the most effective form of news-making in an era where traditional news outlets are struggling. Gibney did not say that he believed documentary to be the “superior form of journalism” when the question was posed to him during a Q&A session before the screening of his film “Taxi to the Dark Side.”
He did point out that documentaries have the power to touch people in a more personal way than traditional journalism. He said, “Documentary has a personal voice combined with collected facts and evidence. It engages you in a story that can touch you with images seared into your mind in a magical way.”
“Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won the Academy Award in 2007 for best documentary feature, is a film which questions the United States military’s use of torture as an interrogation technique.
The story begins by telling the story of one man, a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar. Dilawar was abducted by U.S. soldiers, detained in prison and beaten and tortured to death by interrogators within days of his arrest. Dilawar was completely innocent.
From there, the film goes on to discuss other incidents of U.S. torture such as the case of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Gibney interestingly blames the media in part, saying shows like “24” show torture as an acceptable means to an end, when in reality the types of “ticking time bomb” situations, as depicted on television, rarely actually occur.
Gibney’s documentary-making career has included multiple successes, including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “No End in Sight,” about the Iraq war, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards. While he is currently involved in an array of projects, his plans for the future vary. Some ideas that have always interested him range from creating a documentary about people who keep primates as domesticated pets to venturing into the fictional genre, making a narrative film based on the classic novel “1984” by George Orwell.
His projection for the future of documentary was positive, noting the possibility of making film much more cheaply than in the past as a benefit for aspiring documentarians. “With Final Cut Pro and a camera you can put together a pretty good cut of a film without too much money,” Gibney said. But money will always be the bottom line in this and all other industries, so he emphasized the need to learn how to get investors to back a project, and look at every film as a fundraising campaign.
In a room full of aspiring film and news makers, many wondered what other advice Gibney had for the next generation. “Watch a lot of movies; documentary and fiction,” he said. And, he said simply, “Just do it! The tools are inexpensive enough now, so just do it.”