I spoke with director Rick Rowley about his feature documentary DIRTY WARS for a piece in ; for those interested, here is a much longer version of the interview.
With DIRTY WARS set to expose the ugly, hidden side of America's ever-expanding War on Terror, Grolsch FilmWorks caught up with its director Rick Rowley, whose previous films have included the feature-length documentaries ZAPATISTA (1999), THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE (2000), BLACKwe knew that they were from Team 6; we knew what kind of helicopters and special modifications those helicopters had; we were told that they had Hwe knew that they had a dog with them and the dog was a Belgian malinois, and that that Belgian malinois' name was Cairo; we had a complete account, a blow-by-blow narration of how the raid through the house went; we had it constructed for us in a .
So we had all these details, but what we weren't told was that on that same night there were probably a dozen other night raids that happened. We know none of the details of those raids, and that year, there were 20,000 night raids, maybe 30,000, just in Afghanistan. So all were flooded in these details about this one particular raid, which is like a magician waving his hand while this immense body of war continues in the shadows. So yeah, it's another, in a way a more insidious way of concealing the truth. This raid was supposed to stand in and define for Americans what the global War on Terror was about, what it mean to us - but it's nothing, it's like a drop in the ocean of what this war is, and almost all of that war remains unseen.
GFW: Your film argues that the killing of Bin Laden in fact marked a new beginning, rather than the end, of the War on Terror; you suggest that America's targeted enemies like Anwar Al-Awlaki are increasingly the Frankenstein's monsters created by America's own polarising policies; and you imply that President Barack Obama, despite his rhetoric, is every bit as illiberal in his foreign policy as his predecessor Bush, if not more so. How have these paradoxes been playing with American audiences?
RR: We have been really overwhelmed at the response in the US. Three years ago when we started making this film, Jeremy and I thought that we would be screening it in church basements and renting out union halls to show it in ourselves, and we'd be selling DVDs out of the back of a minivan around the country, because there was no talk of the war in the mainstream media of the US - maybe on some progressive radio stations or a few print outlets or somewhere on the internet you could read about drone strikes and extrajudicial killings or some discussion of that, or spying. But you know, in the last year, with Snowden, with Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning, in all of these revelations, this discussion has worked its way off of that periphery and onto the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the film was embraced by the media and by the critics. We won the cinematography award at Sundance, we were picked up by a major distributor who put the film in a hundred cities in America, we were played in downtown cinemas next to first release Hollywood films, not just in New York and just going to LA, but in Little Rock, Arkansas, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we played in Traverse City, Michigan, close to where I grew up. So the fact that the film has been received like this I think - I hope - indicates that there's a sea change beginning to happen in American public opinion, so that people are beginning to want to have a discussion that we should have had over a decade ago about the direction this country's taken since the launch of the global War on Terror.
GFW: In many ways your film shows both the advantages and the dangers of being an unembedded journalist, but I wonder, given that you have been shedding light on a furtive yet powerful paramilitary organisation that apparently engages in all manner of criminal actions with full Presidential protection, whether you have felt at all in danger at home too?
RR: You know, Jeremy and I are both kind of embarrassed by questions like that - about our safety as a result of working on this - because the risks that we take are really absolutely nothing compared to the risks of the people we work with. We reported on the strike on Al Majala, Yemen, where US cruise missiles with cluster munitions killed over 40 civilians, and certainly that upset JSOC and the US government, I'm sure, in the US - but in Yemen, the reason why we knew to report on that story was because a very brave Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, had gone and taken photographs the day after the strike happened, that showed civilians being pulled out of wreckage, that showed US cluster bombs on the ground and parts of cruise missiles. So we reported this, and maybe it wasn't great for our careers if we wanted to be establishment journalists in the US, but Abdulelah Haider Shaye was rounded up by US-trained Yemeni counter-terrorism forces and was tortured in the National Security prison and locked away in a dungeon, you know, forever - he just was released two months ago, after a massive campaign that Amnesty International and some other people put on for him.
GFW: The revelation in your documentary that his detention was extended through the direct intervention of Obama is terrifying.
RR: It's amazing - and it's on the White House website! It's people like that who are taking the real risks - the Yemenis and Iraqis and Afghans and Somalis - and it's just an honour to be able to work with colleagues that fearless. The harassment - we might get stopped at the airport and taken aside for extra questioning - I think all of us now in the US, whether we're reporters or not, operate under the assumption that our communications are being monitored in some way or another - but that level of harassment is really minor when compared to the risks of everyone we work with.
GFW: When you were editing your materials together, you turned to David Riker, a screenwriter best known for penning fictive features (LA CIUDAD, 1998; THE GIRL, 2012), to help write your script. Why did you do that? And what did his contributions bring to your documentary?
RR: It was amazing to work with David, and the film would not at all have had the success it's enjoyed so far without his input. From the beginning we wanted to make a film that was a work of investigative journalism, that was passionately committed to the true and the factual and the real, but that had the engaging power and depth of a well-told story, of a great American fiction film. You've seen the way we shot it and the way it's constructed - we wanted it to feel like that and to draw the audience in. It's a very tricky thing. Film's power - the thing that film does better than any other medium and the reason why I am dedicated to it is that it allows people to feel and imagine a connection to human beings who they're separated from by massive cultural and geographic distance. We're asking American audiences to identify with Afghan villagers in a little town called Gardez, with Bedouin in the desert in Yemen. It requires all of our skill to be able to bridge that gap. So the writing is incredibly important - writers are, I think, the unsung heroes of well-constructed documentary films.
What David really helped us to see was that there were two sides of the story that needed to be told, and that we were really missing one half of it. One half of the story is this external exposof just how this war has gone out of control worldwide, and the other half was how this war was changing us in the West. Not just juridico-politically how it's changing us - the executive wing in the US has assumed the right to spy on all Americans without any probable cause, it has assumed the right to execute Americans without any kind of trial, it has assumed the right to declare wars, secret wars, without any meaningful congressional oversight and without a declaration of war from Congress - but also how it just changes us, over a decade of war, like that kind of violence seeps in, I think, into your culture, and you can feel it there, and it certainly affects us.We're people. So Jeremy [Scahill] became a proxy through which the audience is supposed to feel the connection to the Yemenis and Somalis and Afghans on the ground that he feels, and also a lens, a mirror, to see how this war is affecting us back home.
Interview by: Anton Bitel