Episode from the podcastStories That Matter

Alex Gibney

Released Monday, 2nd February 2015
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Alex Gibney, director of the Peabody Award-winning documentaries Taxi to the Dark Side and Mea Maxima Culpa, spoke with us about his role in documenting the abuses of institutional power.

Transcription Notes

  • Interviewer: Matt Shedd

  • Interviewee: Alex Gibney

Welcome to Stories That Matter, presented by the Peabody Awards. I'm your host, Matt Shedd. In each episode of this show, we talk to writers, creators and producers about their Peabody winning work, and why they felt those stories needed to be told.

In this installment I talk to documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. He's directed over thirty documentaries, tackling subjects as diverse as Enron, Wikileaks, Hunter S. Thompson, lobbying in Washington, and Lance Armstrong, to name just a few. Gibney made his Peabody-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side in 2007. It's a disturbing and detailed look at the U.S. military's abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan.

His second Peabody-winning documentary, 2013's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, told the stories of deaf men, who had been sexually abused as children in Catholic schools. The movie also documented the cover-up of those cases, that went all the way up to the top levels of the Vatican.

Two of Gibney's most recent films include Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, and Going Clear, a film about Scientology that has yet to be widely released. It has already prompted an official response from the Church of Scientology.

Here's my talk with filmmaker Alex Gibney.

I was wondering if you would like to talk a little bit about the abuse of power, that seems to be a constant theme in your movies.

It definitely turns my crank. I mean I think ... I don't like bullies and I've been, you know, even when I was young, I would, I remember reading, for example, Sideshow by William Shawcross and just being outraged by what Kissinger and Nixon had done in Cambodia. And so there's something about people when they get power and power is sometimes important...the idea that they would abuse it and use it to inflict pain and suffering on the powerless. Somehow that really does turn my crank. And, you know, I grew up with some, you know, my dad was a journalist, my mom was also a writer, and my step father was a minister who was very much of a crusader for civil rights, so I guess I had it around the house.

[Clip from Taxi to the Dark Side]

You released [Taxi to the Dark Side] about the US Military torturing prisoners in 2007. Were you nervous at all about what the repercussions might be for taking on Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush?

I was nervous when I went to Afghanistan. I mean, that's something to be nervous about. In terms of taking on Cheney and Rumsfeld,etc, I feel like there's a long tradition of that in this country and if we don't do it, then something's wrong. And I think that, so ... for whatever reason, that didn't make me as nervous as it did facing my own mortality in Afghanistan.

And again I would say I was very cautious and I wasn't embedded with the American military, you know, on the field of battle or anything like that, but when you walk down a street and somebody tells you, "Oh that place where we just bought the outfit that might be good for you to wear ... somebody ... you know, a suicide bomber blew somebody up there not too very long ago." It does give you pause. And, even when we were in the guest house, you know, the rafters were rattled one night, and, literally, plaster came down from the ceiling as a couple of stray rockets landed near by, so, you know, it does make you think.

So as you were putting together Taxi to the Dark Side, what was the thing that you learned that surprised you the most?

What surprised me most in that film was to understand how the introduction of the willingness to torture people acted like the introduction of a very virulent virus. And that, you know, the permission for a few CIA agents to waterboard people spread throughout the entire system through something the psychologists call Force Drift, the idea being that the people felt they had permission to go beyond the bounds of normal interrogation and to keep pushing the limits and using more and more force in order to get information.

It spread like a virus throughout the entire system and you can see very much, you talked, you know, you were talking earlier about the abuse of power, you can see how with a wink and a nod, people at the top of the system can give tacit permission to everybody down below to break the rules, to break the law, and to transgress the moral values that we're supposed to stand for. That was the most interesting and most surprising thing for me in terms of making that film – to see how that virus was introduced to the system and how it spread.

[Clip from Taxi to the Dark Side]

How would you compare the practice of torture, and how that spread through the military, with this kind of culture of abuse that you document in your film about Enron?

Well, I think psychologically, it's very similar. As you know from watching the Enron film, I included a small sequence from my favorite psychological experiment: the Milgram experiment. And that was called Obedience and basically what's interesting about that is that so long as you have this guy in a white lab coat saying, "You know, it's okay. I'll take responsibility, you can continue to administer those shocks," that people then feel they're empowered or they're not bound by the same kind of personal morality that might have governed their actions.

So they, you know in the experiment, they keep going up the line administering higher and higher shocks, and in Enron, you know, through this kind of wild, free-market fundamentalism, the idea that the most aggressive, the most vicious kind of competition, even if it meant shutting off the lights in California, was good. Once you imbued that philosophy, then anything went, anything goes. And that culture spread through Enron, again, very much like a virus. So much so that people's own individual morality were soon left by the wayside and they felt they'd been given permission by the people at the top to do whatever they needed to do to make money. It was the bottom line – the ultimate ascendency of the philosophy of the bottom line – that so long as you're making money, it's good.

[Clip from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room]

I feel like every one of these films about abuses of power has led me a little bit further and further into the psychological mechanism and also into the organizations in which this plays out, and there's a wonderful phrase that police sometimes use called "noble cause corruption," and basically it refers to the dirty cop who, believing that he knows who the bad guy is, can't get him through traditional means, so say plants a, you know, a marijuana joint in his pocket and then arrests him for possession. Now, maybe now marijuana isn't such a good example as heroin, but that's the idea, and the idea being that the end justifies the means – that you know you're a good guy, so it's a okay for you to do that, and you know the guy you're planting the drugs on is a bad guy, so it's okay for you to go there.

So, whether it be 9/11 where we assumed that we were the good guys and everyone else out there were bad guys, the terrorists were the bad guys and we could do whatever was needed, thereby, you know, effectively giving up on the very values we were supposed to be fighting for, or at some place like Enron, where you believe that you have this kind of higher mission which was a kind of unchecked capitalism that was gonna make the world a better place, and so long as you were imbued by that philosophy, anything goes, anything was okay – that idea of "noble cause corruption" that would allow you to commit greater and greater crimes because it was in the service of a higher ideal. You know, we did some research on some of the electricity traders who took down the California grid. It wasn't just Enron, but it it was a bunch of other trading companies that did that, and, you know, a lot of them talked about it in kind of classic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology, you know, the idea that we had to thin the herd, it was kind of Ayn Rand-ian stuff, you know, survival of the fittest, and you create a more efficient market if you're absolutely brutal in the prosecution of going after your competitors, or sometimes, in the case of Enron, your own customers. But I think they saw that the Enron stuff was a way of showing how pitiful the government was, you know, the government shouldn't be trusted to have anything to do with the market, there shouldn't be any rules – if there are no rules, everything will work out just great. Well we found out with Enron, and then in 2008 with the banking crisis just how wise that philosophy was.

So what's your secret? How do you get people to open up about all these difficult subjects on camera?

It's not so much about what you ask when the person you're talking to is in the chair, it's getting them in the chair to begin with, and I think that it's persuading the interview subject that you're going to create a space in which you will listen to what they have to say, and if they lie to you–and many people lie to me–if they lie to you, you can ... there are ways of dealing with that in the editing room, but, in the moment, you know, you wanna give them the opportunity to say what it is that they have to say, and if you can persuade them that you will take their testimony and listen to it and treat it with dignity, then I think you have the basis for discussion that moves beyond the facts of the matter into deeper considerations of, of motive and understanding. And I think most people want to tell their own stories, really, but the idea is to create an environment in which they feel it safe to do so.

Now sometimes, you know, you're confronted with people who–and Lance Armstrong would be an example here–who kind of enjoy this process of telling stories in part because they're lies, and, and so you have to engage people like that, and Lance was an interesting character. I liked Lance, I liked hanging out with him, but you could tell that there was a kind of enjoyment that he had in terms of telling these lies, and so going down that road with him was an interesting path, and it was interesting not only for him, but also for me 'cause you can get lost in there.

I mean, to me it's even more paradoxical than that because when [Armstrong] says, you know, "Maybe years later, they'll look back and say, 'Yeah, he won the Tour de France seven times,'" what I find so staggering about that answer is that it's utterly devoid of any larger context. It's like he's seeing the footnotes and he's missing the big story, and the big story is that he lied, and he lied to a number of people that he said were closest to him, and those were the cancer survivors, and somehow he's clinging to the idea that he won, but he's mixing up a sporting event with life, and they're not the same.

Maybe it's the same ethos that's behind the practice of torture in the US Military as well as the abuses at Enron. You know, "We're going to win no matter what."

Well, Dick Cheney said, "We're gonna go over to the dark side." If you really think about that, "we're going over to the dark side," it's a way of saying, "We're gonna beat these guys," but as you suggested, by saying "We're gonna go over to the dark side," it means we've already lost because we've lost our fundamental values that we're supposed to be fighting for to begin with... so he announces a new path to winning, but that very announcement says we've lost.

Now I want to transition into talking about your 2013 film Mea Maxima Culpa. This is your second Peabody Award-winning film, the first being Taxi to the Dark Side. Can you talk a little bit about what's different about Mea Maxima Culpa from some of your other films we've touched on?

I'll tell you one thing that's different about that film, in a way–I focus a lot on the perps in these films, if you think of them as crime films, and you hear a little bit about the victims, I mean, at it's heart I suppose you could say that Taxi to the Dark Side is the story of Dilawar, the young taxi cab driver, but he's almost a ghost through the film, and most of the time is spent with the people who made him suffer, who killed him, who murdered him. Same thing at Enron, you know, you see the lineman who lost his life savings, but most of the time is spent in the corporate boardrooms [where] these people hatched their heist.

In the case of Mea Maxima Culpa, we spend much more time with the victims, but in this case, the victims–these men who were students at a deaf school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – found a way of fighting back in a way that I found very powerful, so Mea Maxima Culpa is ... really ... I think a film about fighting back. And of course it's about power and it's certainly has a lot to say about "noble cause corruption," but there's a reason I ended that film with one of the deaf men putting his left hand over his ear and thrusting his fist into the sky, which is the deaf sign for deaf power.

You know, these guys fought back and they were the weakest of the weak if you think about it. I mean, in some cases, you know, the way the priest used to creep into their rooms at night and often would abuse the kids that he knew had parents who couldn't sign so they couldn't even tell their parents what was happening to them. He was a predator of the worst kind, preying on the weakest, and yet, somehow, over time, they found a way not only to process that pain, but to fight back, and some of them sued the Pope, the guy who, at the top, the Capo di tuitti capi, allowed this kind of gangsterism of pedophilia to continue. So, to me that's what makes Mea Maxima Culpa so powerful is that these people who couldn't speak ended up having the loudest voices.

[Clip from Mea Maxima Culpa]

I'm a lapsed Catholic. I was interested in the story, and even though this issue had been covered by many people, I felt there was an element to this story that was special, it mostly had to do with the way the men were fighting back, that part of the story hadn't been told. Where I dug in was in the personal details of the men and the story of this deaf school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And not only did we get their testimony in great detail, but also went to Italy and stumbled upon another story of another deaf school in Verona that was shockingly in "harmony," I use that word in quotes, with the story in Milwaukee, so that it really created a senses of the breadth of this. Then we also went to Ireland, so it was that kind of discovery of the pattern that I think was valuable. And also finding some materials that had never been much seen before, particularly this home video of these men, frustrated by the fact that the Church wasn't holding this predator priest to account, so they went up to his cabin in upstate Wisconsin and confronted him. And that video tape is just one of the most chilling and also inspiring things I've ever seen. Terribly shot and full of emotion, it was incredible.

It was the men decided to go up and confront Murphy and they took a video camera. And I think one of the reasons it was so poorly shot was one of the men was just terrified, he didn't know where to point the camera. They were confronting this predator who, and you have to remember, they're seeing this predator while he was weak when they confronted him, he was an old man, they remember him when they were kids and he was this vital authority figure, so the camera is visibly shaking as this one man really berates him and confronts him and has this toe-to-toe argument in signing language, American sign language with this housekeeper who is also a Catholic woman, and she keeps reminding him in sign language that he's Catholic, and he's saying this has nothing to do with religion, this is a crime, it's very moving stuff.

[Clip from Mea Maxima Culpa]

That's the kind of thing when you're making a film that's different from writing an article, and you have to examine whether or not it's worth making a film. What is it about images and sounds that, that are particular to the story that make it right to make it as a film as opposed to just repeating an article? So we dug deeper in those areas, and we spent a long time, also, trying to figure out how best to film the deaf men because I felt that was terribly important in terms of how they gave their testimony. And I wanted to have a conversation with them, which meant the use of translators, but I also wanted to hear the sound of their struggles, because you can often hear the grunts and sometimes, you know, almost inaudibly, the attempt to say words in English even as they're signing them. And then exclamations. This one guy, as he's talking about getting it all out, he goes "Paaaa."

[Clip from Mea Maxima Culpa]

To hear all that, which is both kind of exalting and also gives you a sense of distance between the hearing world and the deaf world, was very powerful and it took us a long time to figure out exactly how to film that in a way that would both bring some appreciation to the wonderful creativity of that language-and there was a lot of debate about this, whether we should subtitle or whether we should use voice actors–we decided to use voice actors for a couple of reasons. One, we felt it would be more emotional and less intellectual than reading the subtitles. Two, you know, if you're reading the subtitles, you're not able to pay as much attention to the visual beauty of American sign language. So that was why ended up going down that road.

In this next part of our conversation, Alex Gibney and I discuss his more recent documentary Mr. Dynamite: The rise of James Brown.Gibney tells me about how he got on board with this documentary. It involved a phone call from none other than Mick Jagger.

If Mick Jagger calls you and asks you to do a documentary about James Brown, there really isn't another answer except for... yes! And one thing in terms of the James Brown film–and I should say this really, and it goes for all the other films– I work with some very talented producers, and the first thing we do in a project like that is to say "Okay, let's get all the clips we can." And then I brought on board a talented writer named Christopher John Farley who also suggested some areas of inquiry that hadn't much been looked into before, like the March Against Fear and James Brown's role in it, which I wasn't really aware of.

[Clip from Mr. Dynamite]

And then it was like "Let's reach out to as many people as we can, particularly the musicians. Let's see where they are and let's see if we can go talk to them." So it really happened all at once. I think the hardest part with something like James Brown is to find a focus, and to find a way of telling the story. And for us, that was two things. One was I didn't want to tell a cradle to grave biography. We ultimately focused on the rise of James Brown. The other part was I thought it would be fun to make it a musical, so a lot of the story is actually told through song, and those two ideas in tandem gave us the key to unlock the mystery of how to tell the story.

[Clip from Mr. Dynamite]

You've dealt with a lot of heavy subject matter in your documentaries. What one would you say made the biggest impact on you personally?

People ask me that question and it's always hard to respond to it. I can only say that, in the case of Taxi to the Dark Side, it probably had the biggest emotional impact on me because my father died while I was making the film and my father's in the film at the very end. He was a Naval officer, and he was an interrogator in the Pacific theatre and he felt very strongly about this subject, and I actually video taped him when he was very sick, and he said "Let's turn off the oxygen machine and let's do an interview."

[Clip from Taxi to the Dark Side]

Because of that, I changed the narration, I kind of changed the take in the film and it became a very powerful, personal journey for me because I felt to some extent I was honoring his righteous anger over what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were doing to the values that he felt he was following in World War II. So for me personally, that had the biggest emotional impact.

I think I also recognized on that film that it had a deep psychological impact on me in another way that my editor and I both recognized, my editor Sloane Klevin, which was seeing all those images of torture really scarred our psych. We didn't experience it, we didn't ... it wasn't even close to what other people experienced in the flesh, but understanding the damage that was done to the interrogators and sometimes to the guards who administered these beatings, never mind the people who died or were wounded or psychologically scarred from it, we felt a kind of pale reflection of that that was really upsetting. I mean it was changing us personally just to look at those images day in and day out. So for all those reasons probably Taxi to the Dark Side had the biggest emotional impact on me personally.

As far as which film do I like the best, I don't want to go there. There are a lot of things I like about them all, so ... and a lot of things I wish I could change now, but Taxi is the one that had the biggest emotional impact.

It's been over seven years since you released that documentary. Would you say that the US has made any progress since then?

Well, I would say one step forward and two steps back. I mean, when Obama came into power in early 2009, you know, he said we're gonna close Guantanamo. Well, it was a noble thought, but it hasn't been done.

He said we weren't gonna torture anymore, and I think that, by and large, that's been effected, and yet at the same time the Obama administration is now fighting tooth and nail to prevent the proper release of the Senate investigation into torture which holds the CIA and certain members of the U.S. government complicit in terms of violating our fundamental values. So, I think ... maybe Benjamin Franklin's line here if I can remember it properly ... should be remembered, the idea that "here's your republic if you can keep it." The idea that we always have to be vigilant, that, you know, "If men were angels," said Madison, "We wouldn't need government." So, you know, this process never stops, and I think in the main, you know, over the course of human history, we are probably getting better, but we're getting better at a time when we're about to make the Earth boil up, so, you know, we better take stock.

I think it's this idea of self reflection that's so important, and that's what I discover over and over again in these stories about the abuse of power, is the unwillingness of those in power to reflect on the ways in which they may be deceiving themselves about their own rectitude.

I've read that you have a film coming out soon that talks about Scientology. Can you tell me a little bit about that film?

It's an interesting film and it follows along the lines of some of my other inquiries, it was something I couldn't have done until I had done Mea Maxima Culpa. And also, the abuse of power issue is represented. But the focus I would say is on the process. We follow a number of people who came to Scientology, spent a long time inside the church and then decided to leave. And it traces kind of their psychological process, the psychological and religious process.

And I also saw that in this film you explore a little bit about Hollywood's connection to Scientology. Does that make you a little bit nervous about potentially offending future backers for future projects?

I have thought about it, but, you know, at the end of the day, you have to go forward and, it's kind of a damn the torpedoes moment, you figure that if you do a good job and you're telling a story that's attacking abuses of power, let the chips fall where they may.

But I'm sure that you've gotten blowback before for some of your other documentaries...

You know, there's always some blow back, but, let's just say that the satisfaction I got out of exposing abuses far exceeded any of the blow back that I received.

That's our show for this time. I'm Matt Shedd. Thanks again for joining me for Stories that Matter presented by the Peabody Awards in cooperation with WUGA-FM. Music in this episode included selections from the Nine Ince Nails album Ghosts. Also that's a cut from Tom Waits album Blood Money playing behind me right now. Throughout this episode you also hear excerpts from the films Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Armstrong Lie and Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown.

Wes Unruh worked as the sound engineer and helped me produce this episode. Special thanks to Ele Ellis, Chris Shupe, Noel Holston, and the director of the Peabody Awards, Dr. Jeffrey P. Jones. Dr. Nate Kohn, Associate Director of The Peabody Awards, is our Executive Producer. Join us next month as I talk to another Peabody Winner. To keep up with all the content we're producing you can also follow us on PeabodyAwards.com and on twitter @PeabodyAwards. And thanks again for listening to Stories that Matter.

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