Richard Rowley on Dirty Wars
Already a celebrated and polarizing figure in the world of war reporting and investigative journalism, Jeremy Scahill, whose incendiary 2008 bestseller Blackwater landed him on virtually every political news show in the business, returns to the spotlight this season with the unsettling, yet arguably vital, documentary Dirty Wars, a companion piece, of sorts, to his new doorstopper of the same name. A hit at Sundance, the film credits Scahill as co-producer and co-writer, and features him as both narrator and chief subject, but at the helm is director Richard Rowley, a veteran documentarian who’s worked with Scahill for more than a decade overseas, and who played an invaluable role in shaping what’s become a very hot-button movie.
Made with painstaking detail, but in an efficient, guerilla style, Dirty Wars kicks off with an investigation into a deadly U.S. night raid in Afghanistan (which the film’s evidence shows was meant to be covered up at all costs), before launching into a stirring investigation of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an all-powerful, cloak-and-dagger military unit that’s reportedly keeping the war on terror chugging in dozens of countries worldwide. According to Rowley and Scahill’s findings, it’s the same group responsible for the drone-strike deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and three other American citizens, deaths the Obama administration fessed up to just a few weeks ago.
Meeting in appropriately shadowy corner in the back of a Le Pain Quotidien in New York, Rowley proves himself a wellspring of information — the kind of storyteller who can’t bear to not tell his story. Like his film, what he divulges is captivating, disheartening, and revelatory. He discusses the stealth logistics of shooting in dicey locations, the different roles he and Scahill played throughout the production, the need to question your leaders even — or, rather, especially — when you like them, and how the mission of this film goes well beyond the film itself. Dirty Wars is released today through Sundance Selects.
Filmmaker: So Jeremy Scahill is the star of the film—the writer, the producer, the narrator, and the subject. I think that presents a good opportunity to address the oft-misunderstood role of the director. Surely you’re doing more here than just following him around with a camera. Could you speak a bit about how the film bears your signature, and about the collaboration between the two of you?
Rowley: I’ve known Jeremy for a long time, and this film grew out of our shared experience covering these wars. It really was a collaboration on every kind of level. Jeremy’s an amazing reporter and has this disciplined, almost insane, ADD devotion to facts, details, and specifics. But the thing that film does better than, say, print, and better than anything, is allow people to feel vicarious connections to other human beings who are separate from them by huge geographical, cultural distances. Even in the most mainstream, escapist, Hollywood sense, you watch a James Bond film and you vicariously feel a rush when he gets the bad guy or gets the girl. The same medium can create the possibility of you feeling a moment of human connection to villagers in rural Afghanistan, whom you never get to see as human beings. Or to people in the deserts of Yemen, whom you only ever see on those little spots from a drone camera, or something. From the very beginning we wanted to make a film that didn’t feel like a documentary—that wasn’t all talking-head experts sitting somewhere, but that had the depth, the power, and the immersive, propulsive energy that you associate with fiction films, with narrative films. The word documentary itself has become increasingly problematic, right? It doesn’t seem to adequately describe all of the amazing nonfiction films that are being done now. It sounds like the work of stenographers or archivists who are just filing things away for future generations, not people who are engaged in the process of powerful storytelling, and making things real and relevant for the present.
Filmmaker: Well, let’s talk specifically about the difference between what you’re doing while making this film, and what Jeremy’s doing. Where’s the line drawn between what the two of you are engaged in amid this process?
Rowley: There are huge amounts of overlap, and it’s really tricky to split our roles up. We were both creating the story on the ground everywhere we were. We were both seeing the world and exploring it together as we went. I would say that he’s probably more focused on the factual, reporting side of things and lining everything up, and I’m more focused on finding emotive ways to arc the story through location. And I’m definitely doing everything visual. I’m seeing the world and trying to make remote, austere places feel close, and intimate, and personal, and beautiful. But filmmaking is deeply collaborative, and anyone who pretends like he’s the unique owner of the artistic vision of his film is probably lying. So Jeremy and I, really, it’s hard to untangle us. And we also worked with David Riker, a great fiction film director and writer, for the the final six to eight months, or maybe year, of post-production. He really also became involved in helping us to find a way to turn this into a story that hopefully is powerful on the screen.
Filmmaker: Is there a way you would describe the look you were trying to achieve?
Rowley: There’s always been a kind of interaction between fiction and nonfiction film aesthetics. The great nonfiction directors and cinematographers of the 70s, with their handheld vérité and their immersive storytelling, created a look that became the texture of reality. Hollywood films, or fiction films, then dipped into that aesthetic to give a feel of realness and presence. Like Jason Bourne action films choose that shaky, handheld feeling of immediacy. And it goes the other way, too: Part of cinema vérité was trying to make documentaries feel like fiction films. And so we’re part of this tradition. And I think right now, although there’s always been that kind of interaction, this is a particularly interesting moment. Fiction films, like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, are looking more like documentaries, engaging with material that they claim is real in some way, or want to be real. And nonfiction films are using the storytelling tools and narrative structure of fiction films. So we wanted it to feel like a mystery thriller. We wanted it to be fast, and intense, and immersive, and drag the audience through this amazing, exotic, bizarre landscape, and make it feel intimate, personal, and close.
Filmmaker: I read that you had to travel light, so you opted to work with only a Canon 5D and a Sony EX1. Can you discuss the benefits and, perhaps, the limitations of the equipment that you used?
Rowley: Yeah, well the only way [shooting] was actually possible, for reasons of security, was for there to be a two-person crew, which meant me and Jeremy everywhere. No sound men, and only small cameras that didn’t attract too much attention. The value of these cameras is the low profile that you get. You’re able to kind of disappear as a cinematographer in those environments where you have what looks like a still camera, or a smaller video camera. You can float around and get close to people in a way that they’re not always feeling like they’re in some big production. And the drawbacks are obvious. The thing is, actually, we started filming this three years ago, before the Canon C300 was out. We would probably shoot on a C300 if we started shooting today. Or maybe the Sony F5, or something like that, which is also small and has the same sort of look. You’re able to work quickly with a kind of intimacy that is sometimes more difficult to have when you have the big cameras, and tripods, and sound people, and lights. There was just no other way it would work. We couldn’t have gone with more. One more crew member would have meant one more car, and it would have left too large a footprint and a possible security problem.
Filmmaker: In the film, Jeremy mentions the journalistic struggle of the subjective versus the objective, and how it’s hard to remain unbiased when the things he’s seeing are staring him in the face. As a filmmaker, can you discuss your own struggle with that? Giving the film a point of view, but still grappling with certain biases?
Rowley: Yeah. Everyone is a human being, and if you pretend like you don’t believe things, and see things, and feel things, then you’re hiding part of the truth about the way you interact with the world. That being said, for a film and a subject matter like this, we had to remain absolutely, passionately dedicated to the factual, the true, the real, the concrete, and things we could prove beyond the shadow of a doubt. For instance, in Afghanistan, we actually investigated several night raids. We traveled all over, and we would chase after night raids wherever we could. You see some of that in the film, but we only focus on one night raid because it happens to be the one where we found absolute proof of what happened. With most of these places, we’d go out and we’d hear heartbreaking stories very similar to the one our key family told, and we’d believe them wholeheartedly. We’d see weeping mothers, and children, and relatives mourning their dead family members, and they’d tell compelling stories that absolutely felt like they were real and true. But that isn’t worth anything to the world. It doesn’t matter if we believe them; we have to be able to prove that they’re right. And so, with this one night raid, there were all of these details and facts that were supposed to not be there, but they had somehow existed, like the cellphone video that someone shot in secret on the morning after the raid, or the photos of the US soldiers going in and apologizing. There was a trail of forensic evidence that was left behind that we were able to use to prove, absolutely, that the story was true, and so that’s the one we used. But you’re constantly confronted with stories that you can’t report — even though you believe they’re true — because you can’t absolutely nail it.
Filmmaker: You mention in your director’s statement that this film has no voice-of-god narrator, but you also state that things changed considerably as production went on. Was an omniscient narrator ever considered, simply as a means to perhaps add a little more of an objective tone?
Rowley: No. I was always committed to making a film that was as immersive and present as possible. This is a decade-long war, the longest war in America’s history, and yet we only ever see the battlefields through the eyes of the military. We see the war filmed from the noses of bombs, helicopters, and drones, and we hear it narrated by generals who are brought in as experts on cable news shows, but we are never allowed to see people on the other side of that whole machine as human beings, or to connect with them as human beings. So what we were committed to doing was going and filming on the other side of that, and finding the human beings who live this war on the ground in an immediate, personal way. And that is our goal and our mission — to make that invisible part of the world visible to the American people.
Filmmaker: Initially, some people seemed to think, and even I thought at one point, that this was the feature accompaniment to Jeremy’s book Blackwater, which you two also made a short about together. But Dirty Wars is actually an outgrowth of Jeremy’s new book of the same name, and not exactly an adaptation.
Rowley: Right. Jeremy’s book [Dirty Wars] came out last month. The film premiered at Sundance before the book was finished. They were parallel projects. The film was finished before the book was finished, but the book was released before the film was released. So it’s not a film about a book. It’s not a film based on a book, or some research that had been done, or a magazine series or something. It is a filmed investigation. We’re not, after the fact, going in and covering something that’s been covered; we’re breaking the story as we film it. So in every moment, the story’s really unfolding in front of the camera as we go. The book is 650 pages with 150 pages of footnotes. It’s dense. The film is free to make sense of this world, to carve an arc through all this chaos and violence that can make people feel connected to it.
Filmmaker: You said you’ve known Jeremy for a long time. How did you guys click?
Rowley: We first met probably in Seattle in 1999, when he was working with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now! I really got close to him during the Iraq War. He actually worked with my wife in Baghdad before the war, in the months leading up to the invasion in 2003. They were there covering the area for Democracy Now! We were all unknown war reporters trying to get the story out. I don’t know anyone, embedded or unembedded, who wasn’t deeply traumatized and changed, and sort of shaped by the experience of covering the war. It makes you really close to the people you work with. We shared risks together, and found ways to cope and survive together, not just on the ground but coming back, too. The whiplash you feel when you come back from a war zone and into New York is sort of unbelievable. Everything feels so unreal, and so fake. Even the light is different. You go from Iraq or Afghanistan — where there’s hard light and shadow with blazing sun and it’s 120 degrees, and everything’s high-contrast and all of the grays are drained out — to breaking the cloud cover and landing at JFK, and seeing, all of the sudden, shades of blue, and green, and gray. And then you feel like you’re walking around in a fog. Nothing has that immediacy, and that presence, and that feeling of decisive action that you have when you’re there. And so, a lot of people lose themselves and lose their shit, or just decide to stay there and become permanent war reporters and go war-hopping from place to place. But it was because we knew each and other and had a tight group of people who were working together over there that we all pulled through it together and ended up on the other side, and managed to somehow live here and still work over there.
Filmmaker: What would you say was the most surprising or shocking discovery you made during the making of this film?
Rowley: The massive scale of this all. When we started, I’d been working in Afghanistan for awhile and Jeremy had been doing research on it as well, and our idea was to do a film about how the covert war was eclipsing the conventional war inside of Afghanistan. We thought it would just be a story about Afghanistan, and that was it. Now covert units are doing most of the raids, and more Afghans are killed and captured by covert night raids than by the entire conventional force of I don’t know how many thousand troops on the ground. We had no idea, when we arrived, that we would end up being sucked into a story that would take us to Yemen, and Somalia, and beyond. And we certainly had no idea when we were interviewing Afghan victims of these night raids that we would end the film with US citizens who were killed by the same units and missile strikes. It spiraled wildly beyond the scope and scale of anything we imagined when we began.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting because, speaking personally and probably generally too, when you think of probing documentaries, of all sorts, you tend to think of liberal viewpoints and liberal agendas. But , here, you’re directly challenging a Democratic administration, ultimately suggesting that the film is non-partisan. Anything to say about that?
Rowley: Right now this issue is bigger than party, right? The units and programs that we’re investigated were begun in the Bush administration and continued under the Obama administration. Jeremy always says that your true principles are not tested when someone that you hate is violating them; they’re tested when someone you like, or respect, or maybe even voted for, is violating them. Those are the moments when you really show what you’re true colors are. And yeah, we have a popular Democratic president who has taken what a lot of people thought and hoped would be aberrations of the Bush years, and institutionalized them, and created a kind of a legal framework that is making them, in a way, permanent. Whoever comes after him is going to inherit this incredible, unilateral power to execute Americans without a trial, to fight covert war without effective oversight in any country they want to, to lead a secret army that numbers in nobody knows how many tens of thousands of people anywhere in the world, without a declaration of war, or even the need to disclose anything about what they’re doing. In many ways, I don’t think that could have been done under a Republican administration. I think there would have been pushback and resistance in Congress. I don’t think McCain could have run through some of these things. So, yeah, it is a paradoxical position to be in. There was a bizarre moment earlier this year when Rand Paul was filibustering on the floor of the Senate, blocking John Brennan’s appointment to the CIA, demanding that the Obama administration talk about drone killings, and talk about the right they’re claiming to assassinate American citizens without a trial. I mean, here’s this crazy guy who, 75 percent of what he said was bizarre, right-wing paranoia, but 25 percent of what he said was the clearest articulation on the floor of the Senate about all of the problems that these programs have. It’s a weird position to be in.
Filmmaker: On May 23, The New York Times obtained a letter to members of Congress, wherein Attorney General Eric Holder admitted to four American deaths caused by drone strikes. Jeremy gave his reaction in a press release. What was your initial reaction to that?
Rowley: That and Obama’s speech, which came just a few days later, were completely surreal. For three years we were working on a story that no one wanted to talk about. On the fringes, maybe there was some talk about the drone strikes or renditions, or whatever. But in the last six months, we’ve seen that discussion work its way out of the fringes and onto the editorial pages of The New York Times. And for the first time, the president is trying to get in front of the story by addressing these issues. For 600 days, people were being killed and there wasn’t a single word about why, or what the justification or rationale was. And now, all of the sudden, the president and attorney general are speaking up, and sounding, in a way, like they’re talking to us—talking about this story that was a secret for three years and we’ve been working on forever. It’s suddenly at the center of a national discussion. [Obama’s] was a strange speech. “This borderless war against terror someday has to end,” he said. An absolutely true, and great, and wonderful sentiment—from the man who dramatically escalated the borderless war, and who moved it from 27 countries under Bush to 70 countries. There was even a day last year when JSOC was on the ground in 100 countries in the same day. So the Obama administration has seen a rapid escalation, and now he’s saying we can’t kill American citizens without due process, when he ordered the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, without a trial, without even an indictment. So, just the fact the the President of the United States and the attorney general feel the need to get in front of the story and start talking about it shows that it is because there is a growing public dissent about the way this war is being fought, and all the aspects of this program. But to turn those words into reality is going to take more of that kind of pressure, more public debate and criticism. It’s going to have to work its way up from the base into the halls of Congress.
Filmmaker: In the press release I mentioned, Jeremy states that Holder’s letter raises more questions than it answers, and the same thing could be said about this film. Since Dirty Wars raises so many questions of its own, what’s the takeaway? What are you hoping people will walk out with?
Rowley: A decade ago, when I started doing this, I probably would have made a film that ended with a whole bunch of answers — with a 10-point program, and the Congressmen you should call, and the constitutional changes that need to happen, and the reforms that need to be made. Hopefully we have more humility now. The global war on terror is the most important story of our generation, and it’s almost entirely happened in the shadows. Right now, around the world, wars are being fought in our name that we know nothing about, and over which there’s no effective oversight. There’s no public discussion about them. So wars are being fought in our name, but without our knowledge or permission. With the film, it’s our goal, more than anything, to simply take that war out of the shadows and bring it into the light of public discussion — to make those wars visible, and to make the victims of those wars visible, too. And these are difficult questions we need to decide how to answer moving forward. How do we deal with international terrorism? How are we going to deal with the changing world? But they’re questions that we should be talking about, and that shouldn’t just be made by fiat by an administration behind closed doors without any discussion. And those answers don’t come from film directors and journalists; they come from the American people.