Opening this Friday, June 21 at the Edina Cinema (and currently available via video-on-demand) is director Richard Rowley’s captivating documentary Dirty Wars, one of the most talked-about documentary films at the halfway point of 2013. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who also serves as producer, co-writer, and the subject of Dirty Wars, is a National Security Correspondent for The Nation magazine and is the author of two books, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army in 2007 and more recently, Dirty Wars, which was released in April, 2013.
In Dirty Wars, Scahill follows the beginnings of American night raids and drone attacks that were happening in Afghanistan, which then led him to the discovery of the Joint Special Operations Command or “JSOC,” our country’s most secret fighting force, comprising men who are virtually unknown in the government and will never appear before Congress. In the production notes, Scahill says, “When we started working on this film, almost no one had heard of JSOC or the now-famous SEAL Team 6. After the bin Laden raid, their names were everywhere,” said Scahill. “Looking back at everything Rick and I witnessed over the years of filming this movie, it is amazing how much of the actual story of JSOC—and the covert wars they fight, in secret, across the globe—remains totally hidden from the public.”
Dirty Wars premiered at the 2013 Sundance film festival in January, winning an award for best cinematography, before opening two weeks ago in New York and Washington D.C. to sell-out crowds. Various television outlets have been discussing the documentary over the past few weeks, and asking numerous questions about our current situation in these “war zones”, but the quote that really stood out to me was one that came over a month ago on CNN when Scahill said, “President Obama declared the world a battlefield.”
The Milwaukee native is especially proud to be from the Midwest. In a brief phone interview last week with the 38 year-old award winning journalist, we discussed how we got involved in journalism, the biggest differences between his book and the film, and what it is like to be deep in a war zone covering a story.
Talk a little about how you got involved in journalism and what got you interested in focusing on issues in different war zones.
I was at school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and I decided I was going to take some time off after three years and move to Washington D.C. My plan was to go back to school, but when I moved to D.C., I started volunteering at a homeless shelter and I spent a lot of time listening to talk radio. I heard Amy Goodman on the air, and I wrote her a letter asking her if I could work with her though I had no journalistic experience whatsoever. I think I think I started stalking her—not in a creepy way, but I said I would walk her dog or feed her cat, and eventually, I think she had to decide to either get a restraining order against me or let me start volunteering for her. So she ended up letting me be a coffee runner on her show and I started to learn journalism under her, almost like an apprentice, and I got really good at the technical side of radio, like editing reel-to-reel tapes and started working with real reporters. I really wanted to start covering international news, which I thought was fascinating, and I had the opportunity in 1998 to go to Iraq with a humanitarian delegation. I did a series of reports from Iraq and I never turned back; I have been working on international reporting ever since. So I really learned journalism as a trade and not as an academic study. I got into it by accident, just from listening to that radio program.
The book came out this past April; why did you decide to make Dirty Wars into a documentary?
The director, Richard, and I had been working together on and off for around a decade and we discussed doing a major project together. Rick had been spending a lot of time in Afghanistan and I started to look into the role of special operations forces within the bigger U.S. military in the context of this new American president, Obama, escalating the war in Afghanistan. So originally, the film was going to be about Obama’s war in Afghanistan and the role of “night raids”: these special outside raids that are shielded or hidden by the bigger conventional war. So we took our initial trip to Afghanistan and once we realized that the force that doing these raids was this elite covert unit that reports directly to the White House, then the journey took us to Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere—but we didn’t know that was going to happen once we started the project.
Watching the documentary, there are some moments where I was scared for you and where your team was going or getting yourself into. How do you go about getting clearance or finding the right contacts to be featured in the doc?
There is a lot of logistics preparation that needs to be done before you make these trips. For instance, going into Somalia, you don’t just fly into Somalia and ask around the airport how you get to a certain street. We spent three to four months preparing to into Somalia and in fact, we couldn’t get an American insurance company that would insure our trip. We had to figure out how to get in safely—and more importantly, how to get out. What kind of security do you need? Who are the translators and are they trustworthy? In each place it’s different. When we went to Afghanistan we didn’t use our own security, we rolled with a very small crew—me, Rick, a translator, and a driver—after years of doing this stuff, vetting people to make sure you can trust the people you work with. Our credit roll in our film is very long because so many people in these all countries took real risks to make this film. No journalist from the United States goes in a country by themselves and emerges with a story. All of us depend on our local colleagues to work with us and to help us make it in and out. The biggest thing is you want to work with people who respect other people. So when you go into a village and someone’s entire family has been wiped out, you don’t just walk into their front gates and their door and stick a camera in their face. You’ve got to meet with them, tell them your intentions, and you have to be respectful.
Dirty Wars is a film you have been working on for a few years now and it has played a few festivals before opening in New York and Washington D.C. the first weekend of June. How has initial response toward the film been?
It has been overwhelming. The theaters were packed with people and many of these people follow this issue and would come to see this film no matter what. What I have been blown away by is how many people outside of this circle of people that follow this have been showing up. For example, I was in Washington D.C. attending a few of the screenings and doing Q&A’s; there were people from Capitol Hill, the C.I.A., the U.S. military, and other Intelligence agencies that came up to me after the screenings and they wanted to talk to me about it. That has been really fascinating. But I think part of it, too, is look what’s happened in the past month. President Obama gave this major address, the most significant speech of his career on counterterrorism issues. The NSA whistleblower story has broken wide out into the open. You have John Brennan being confirmed as the CIA director and people are finally talking about this issue. What we have noticed at the screenings is that discussions break out in the lobby afterwards—even quite a few arguments—and people are hungry to have this discussion right now in this country. We’ve been in the state of perpetual war for 12 years now and I think collectively as a country, I think we’re all sick of it and we’re trying to make sense of what we’ve been through and where we’re going to go from here. And if the film contributes to that kind of discussion or debate, then it will have been a success. But purely on a consult level, I wasn’t sure how many people were going to come to the screenings at all. I was writing e-mails to every person I knew to get them to come and then we walk up opening night in the theater in New York and there is a line around the block in the pouring rain and I was like, “Holy shit, people are actually choosing to come see the movie.” I thought it would just be my mom and a few of her friends that were going to see it.
The documentary is around 90 minutes and the book is around 680 pages. How did you decide what should stay in documentary and what should only be in the book?
I don’t think of myself as a filmmaker, but the editing process for this was painful. I was very happy with our four-hour “rough cut” and we told all these awesome stories, but it’s four hours long and nobody will want to watch it. So cutting it down to 90 minutes was painful. In the original cut, Somalia was 40 minutes long and we told the whole history of Somalia from 1990 to the present, and there were three night raids that we covered in Afghanistan instead of driving down to the one. There was a lot of in-depth biography on Anwar Al Awlaki, this American that was killed in a drone strike in September 2011. I’m a detail-oriented reporter and I like to tell the whole story, making a film like this is frustrating because you have to distill it down to the basics. Having said that, the film has its own existence from the book because it’s a more personal story. The book isn’t written in the first person, and the film is a personal journey. What we wanted to do was to create a narrative structure for the film that would make it accessible to people, even if you don’t pay attention to these issues, and that it would stand on its own as a film. If people are really interested in these subjects, they can read more about it in the book, but we wanted it to exist in its own world. It was really important for me for the film to play in the Midwest. I live in New York right now, but I am a Midwesterner at heart, and when the theaters in the Midwest started picking it up, then I knew we would really have a real discussion in this country, because this isn’t just about New York, D.C., or Los Angeles—what’s more important is that it plays in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago, to be honest with you. If folks in the Midwest start taking it on as an issue and pay attention to and confront some of their elected officials with the facts, then I feel like it can be a success.
Would you ever go through this process again of documenting another issue in the war zones?
I think I’m going to have a hard time staying away from this reporting. It is all I’ve pretty much done my entire adult life and I would have trouble imagining something else for myself. These are the kind of stories I’m dedicated to telling. As much as I think I would want to tell something else, I’m sure I’ll get pulled back into it.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
For too many years now, military families are the only people that have to think about these wars on any given day; to me, it’s not right and it’s not fair. So [I hope] people come out of the screening, like they have just been taking on a journey into a part of U.S. policy and areas of the globe they have never been before. On a deeper level, I want people to realize all of these actions are being taken in our name and in our tax dollars and it shouldn’t just be military families that have to think about the implications of our policies because it is going to affect all of us. At the end of the day, I’d like it to be a jumping-off point for people to have a discussion at a bar, over a meal, or at their workplace about the wars being conducted under their names and whether they are making us safer or are degrading our national security. That’s a discussion we should all be having.