UW-Madison history professor Alfred McCoy describes viewing the Academy Awards Sunday night as a "euphoric moment." The winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature award was Diliwar who died in the custody of U.S. Army interrogators in December, 2002. McCoy is featured in the film, speaking about the findings in his 2006 book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
"It was incredibly touching, because in the midst of rambling and incoherent Oscar speeches," says McCoy on Monday afternoon, "Alex Gibney was succinct and moving at the same time. He thanked Diliwar, and he thanked his father who was a U.S. Navy interrogator in World War II. In the film's closing credits, his father pulls off his respirator mouthpiece to speak against the counterproductive nature of such coercion and for the rule of law. It was a very touching moment in the film, and a very touching moment last night."
A Question of Torture was originally published in January 2006, and subsequently reviewed in March by Jane Mayer at The New Yorker, explains McCoy, who "recommended the work to a filmmaker who was just starting a documentary, still loosely focused, on the subject of torture." This happened to be Gibney, who has also won awards for the documentaries Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Trials of Henry Kissinger.
"I spent over three hours, non-stop, on camera with the director," McCoy continues, "reducing my book to pithy sound bites to explain how the history of CIA torture research shaped the Bush administration's policy. Only about five to ten minutes of that interview made it to the final cut, but the balance helped shape the film's analysis."
McCoy notes that the film is "very important and timely" given the upcoming trials of six prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes in the execution of the 9/11 attacks. The Oscar comes while the U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing an investigation of its legal statements and advice on the use of waterboarding.
"It's a stunning piece of investigation and a superb documentary," says McCoy. "Given all of the magnificent films it was up against, including Michael Moore's Sicko and the Iraq documentary No End in Sight, Gibney's film stands out. It makes an undeniable case that there were no bad apples, and that this abuse started at the very top. As one person in the documentary notes, the problems fell down the chain of command like a dead weight. It makes an undeniable cry for the restoration of the rule of law in this aspect of U.S. policy."
Isthmus published a cover story about A Question Of Torture and McCoy in February 2006 by Robert Chappell, who described the book as "a compact, 209-page narrative that lays bares a hidden and unsavory aspect of our nation's history." The complete text of this piece is available as a PDF in the related downloads at right.
Taxi to the Dark Side is set to be shown on HBO in September after the Discovery Channel surrendered its original broadcasting rights, but it will be playing in Madison much sooner. The documentary is opening at Sundance Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 29.