Rick Rowley cleans the record on DIRTY WARS

I spoke with director Rick Rowley about his feature documentary Dirty Wars for a piece in Grolsch FilmWorks; 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), Black & Gold (2001) and The Fourth World War (2003), as well as a series of shorter documentaries.

GFW: You co-founded Big Noise Films, the New York-based independent media group behind Dirty Wars. What are the aims and intentions of Big Noise?

Rick Rowley: We’ve gone through an evolution. We began when I was 19 years old with two of my friends from high school. We started Big Noise and we made a film about the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico – the rebel group in Chiapas. At that time we were media activists and we were making movement films about social movements and uprisings around the world, and we spent almost 10 years making rogue films about social movements. Then the Iraq War happened, and it was just the most appalling moment in American journalism in my life – the way that war was covered from the echo-chamber drumbeats of war that happened before the war was launched, to the embedded coverage of what was happening on the ground. So we stopped doing that and we stopped being movement activist filmmakers, and we became journalists – war reporters – to cover the war there, because we wanted to show what was happening on the other side of the military and media machine. You know, we saw the war there, it was filmed from the nose of the bombs, or from the turrets of tanks, it was narrated to us by retired generals on cable news.

We went there as unembedded reporters to film the way the war was being lived by civilians on the ground. So it dramatically changed after that and we became journalists, and from 2004 until 2010 we made a dozen half-hour films from wars in the region – that were not activist works, they were works of journalism. Dirty Wars is the first feature documentary for theatrical release that we’ve made in a decade. We made it because, well, Jeremy in his reporting and us on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan were seeing the conventional wars there change radically and very quickly. We were seeing this conventional war being eclipsed by a covert war, and it seemed to us like the most important global story for Americans at the moment, and something that needed more than a 30-minute TV piece to really deal with, so we set off on this endeavour. But yeah, Big Noise has gone through an arc, based on the changing politics of our time.

GFW: You have already worked before with Jeremy Scahill on the short documentary Blackwater‘s Youngest Victim (2010). How did you two meet? Did you actually meet in Iraq?

RR: We actually probably met first in 1999 at the WTO protest in Seattle, when Jeremy was a young radio reporter working for Democracy Now, and I was a videomaker helping to set up independent media centres there. We met then, but we really became close when we were covering Iraq. In fact Jeremy and my wife, Jacqueline, were two of the only reporters who were in Baghdad in the last months and weeks leading up to the bombing in 2003. They were filing daily television reports that I was helping to reassemble on the US side of things. It was sort of an amazing project. Iraq was just so traumatic an experience for all the journalists who covered it seriously that the people who I know who managed to survive that, both emotionally and physically, we really became a tight-knit group who relied on each other to make it through it all, so yeah, we became really close covering Iraq.

GFW: Dirty Wars is being released at the same time as Scahill’s book of the same name. What is the precise relationship between the book and the film?

RR: It was really interesting, actually. One of the things that’s special about this project is that it’s not a film about a book or a book about a film. Normally, you would expect that about a year after the book is finished, you go back and you reshoot the most important interviews, and you know the little soundbites you want to get, and you reassemble the argument of the book in a more digestible film format, but that’s absolutely not what happened. It’s an actual film investigation where everything that’s happening on camera is happening for the first time.

When we started, Jeremy and I, three years ago, we thought that this would just be a film that was based in Afghanistan. We were seeing this war transformed on the ground. I was embedded with Marines or the Army, and we’d be doing meaningless things, we’d go on these meaningless presence patrols where we were just trying to get shot at so that we could return fire, or doing development projects like building schools or digging wells that people were too afraid to use. So nothing was happening on the ground, and then at night we’d hear press releases about these night raids where dozens of Taliban were killed and captured, so we knew that there was a covert war that was eclipsing the conventional war, and we imagined that the entire film would happen just in Afghanistan.

We had no idea when we knocked on the door of that house in Gardez, that the story of that family would take us to Yemen or Somalia. And we surely didn’t imagine that [following] the stories of Afghans whose family members had been killed by these covert units, we’d end up talking to Americans who were victims of the same units. But in terms of the book, it was a much more complicated provenance than the investigation that had been written. All of the dead ends, all of the parts of the investigation that ended up going nowhere, we ended up filming. The interviews – you know, a lot of them are four hours long because we didn’t know what a Somali warlord knew or didn’t know, or what angle he’s end up taking. It was a much more cumbresome process actually in terms of filmmaking, but I think, and I hope, that it leaves you, the viewer, feeling that when something happens on screen it’s being discovered, because it is happening for the first time, this is the first time that these people are being interviewed.

GFW: At first it seemed that Scahill is exposing the covert workings of the Joint Special Operations Command, but as you were in the process of making your film, this secretive organisation suddenly came out of the shadows and into the public eye, both because of its role in the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden, and to a degree because of the revelations of Wikileaks. Did you regard JSOC’s public emergence as complementary to what you were doing, or as stealing your project’s thunder to a degree? And how did it affect the ultimate shape of your work?

RR: At the moment that it happened we were just stunned. This was the covert unit we were tracking, and then all of a sudden they were on national television being celebrated as heroes. If it was a noir crime show, it was the moment where the lead suspect in your case was suddenly named police commissioner. It just turned everything we were doing on its head. In the end, there’s two different ways that things are hidden from the American people. One way is that they’re censored and they end up classified and suppressed, and they’re denied, and the whistleblowers who try to talk about them are prosecuted and put in prison. But the other way is that they’re just hidden in plain sight – we’re drowned in the details of other things.

So when the Bin Laden raid happened, the American people got to know everything about that raid. I mean, at first all the details were wrong, but we were flooded in details. We knew how many men were on the raid; we 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 H&K carbines; we 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 Hollywood film.

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 exposé of 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