“If they kill innocent children and call them al Qaeda,
then we are all al Qaeda.
If children are terrorists,
then we are all terrorists.”
The above is spoken by a Yemeni man, who arrived at the scene of a U.S. drone strike, and it encapsulates much of what makes the Rick Rowley directed, Jeremy Scahill driven Dirty Wars (2013) such an important film. It is a film that Scahill remarks at the beginning is “about the seen, and the unseen”. But most of what it is doing is bringing the unseen to the light where it should be viewed.
Dirty Wars focuses on how the U.S. led ‘War on Terror’ has spiralled out of control, into a worldwide style war. A war that America wages on many fronts, in many different countries. But war has not been declared in a vast majority of them. The film really sheds a light on the clinical coldness of American operations and the overwhelming secrecy in which they are allowed to be carried out. Aspects of the war that on the surface are so surreal they must be conspiracy theories – Obama calling the Yemeni President to ensure a journalist stays imprisoned – are easily shown to be true by Rowley and Scahill. Through some really horrific personal stories, the filmmakers very simply outline the horrors being perpetuated in the ongoing American War on Terror. They talk to people, initially at one site in Afghanistan far from Kabul, where the media rarely roams. The film picks the thread of this secretive American raid with a number of innocent victims, until the whole larger story falls wide open. This is the approach that the film takes in a number of different countries, gaining personal stories into the wrongheadedness of American undertakings.
Scahill’s voiceover is pretty much ever-present and gets the balance right between providing a lot of information, without having it feel like a uni lecture. At times, the imagery onscreen is exceptionally confronting, we see dead children, the acceptable ‘collateral’ damage that the war is bringing. The filmmaking duo, combine to invoke a Michael Moore style approach in some ways, though without a lot of his gimmickry and histrionics (note: I love Michael Moore and his films). But the incendiary passion and determination is there. Rowley is unseen, guiding the film from behind the camera. He leaves the in front of camera work to the charismatic Scahill. Together, the two of them shine a harsh, often embarrassing light on the inadequacy of the American military approach – see for example the commander who can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce the name of the tribe he is working with on a daily basis. Or the manner in which Scahill is totally fobbed off when he presents damning evidence to congress. Scahill is a great frontman for the material – captivating without ever threatening to overwhelm the material. It is not the most cinematic doco you will ever see. The editing is pretty good, but at times there is a struggle weave together the great info. To find interesting images to match the exceptional story being told through the voiceover. So we are occasionally left with pretty contrived imagery, poignant close-ups of nothing in particular, while Scahill lays down some truths.
Verdict: Jeremy Scahill is a fuckin brave badass, and the film kind of reflects that. It may not be all that cinematic. But it is informative, challenging and a ‘call to arms’ of sorts. Just not the sort depicted repeatedly in this film. Pint of Kilkenny