Indiewire caught up with Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney at the TCA Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, where he’d come to talk about the television premiere of his film “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” on HBO. We’ll have a full interview with the filmmaker about that doc closer to its air date on Monday, February 4 at 9pm — in the meantime, we spoke with Gibney about the piece he wrote for Salon in December titled “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is indefensible,” part of the ongoing debate about the depiction of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, the latest volley in which has come from Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. (Bigelow addressed the topic herself at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.) Gibney told Indiewire about what led him to write the piece and what the reaction has been like.
I received, privately, criticism. Publicly, seemingly, a lot of praise. I thought long and hard about it before I raised my voice. There’s actually much about that film that I really admire, but I felt they got this one subject wrong. And I feel that that subject — the subject of torture — is not incidental, it’s terribly important to who we are as a nation. It’s not just an interrogation technique, it’s not something technical. I felt that because [Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal] were representing the film as journalistic, and that word was used, that I needed to reckon with that subject, because I’d spent a long time thinking about it.
In “Taxi to the Dark Side,” I photographed my dad [journalist Frank Gibney] just before he died because he wanted to say something to me about that topic, and ended up including some of it in the film, which is what caused me to narrate the film myself as opposed to hiring a third person narrator. So it was quite personal to me. I felt I had to say something about it.
It was tricky, because I’m a filmmaker, not a critic. But I felt this was an issue of some public debate. Some inside the industry have criticized me for doing it because they felt it was somehow unseemly to be criticizing a colleague — and I thought, well, wait a minute, this is a film, and a film is meant to be shown and a film is meant to be talked about, so what’s the big deal?
Films are made, films are viewed and people talk about them, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m talking about it, and that’s it. I feel that the subject merits discussion. Both the fact that the filmmakers referred it as journalistic and also referred to their access to key CIA sources… That also was a fraught answer for me because I know a little bit about that and I know that there are people within the CIA who are still trying to defend the enhanced intertogation program, So it raised questions about whether or not access granted and information given was done in the service of selling us a vision of the world that I don’t happen to agree with.
Films are textured, so it’s difficult to pick them apart, and also difficult to separate intention from result. A filmmaker can say “that’s not what I intended” — well, maybe, but now it’s a film and people are watching it, so this is what I think it means. We can all argue about what it means, and I think that’s healthy. And I don’t think anybody should see anything else but that — it’s a debate. I think some of the rhetoric has gotten a little overheated. Some people have compared Kathryn Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, which I think is very unfair. But when you make a film, you can’t say it’s a journalistic account and then when you’re criticized for it say “Oh, it’s just a movie.” Films mean something. If they don’t mean something, why do we watch them?