Director Rick Rowley recently spoke with “Breakthrough Entertainment” about his new documentary “Dirty Wars.”
In “Dirty Wars,” which opens Friday, June 28 exclusively at Harkins Shea 14, Rowley follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as he is pulled into an unexpected journey chasing down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars.
Q: Before we dig a bit deeper into this subject, let’s start out with something light. How did you and Jeremy conceive this documentary? Can you give me some general background?
A: I had known Jeremy for over a decade. We had worked together very closely since the Iraq war, which we were both covering. We were both covering the war in Afghanistan and we were seeing this process of the conventional war being eclipsed by a covert war. So the two of us decided that we were going to make a film just about Afghanistan but we really had no idea how far this was going to spiral beyond our original plan.
Q: I imagine that there were many roadblocks along the way to uncovering the truth and exposing these secrets. Of course, you share some of said roadblocks in the film. But can you give me a general rundown of them?
A: There is a whole array of roadblocks in the U.S. and overseas. The first one – the obvious one is disembedding from the military. It is made incredibly attractive to stay embedded as a reporter. Your life is made very easy by the military. You are picked up at the airport by an armored convoy, you are fed and housed by the military and every morning the public affairs officer presents you with a dossier full of stories with photographs, soundbites and video clips. You just pick a story, file it and go to lunch. To disembed from that means telling your editor, “I am not going to file stories for 6 weeks and I’m going to be spending a lot of money hiring Afghans to take incredible risks to work with me. And I am going to be taking incredible risks myself. At the end of that time, I might come up with a story and I might not.”
Q: And what other roadblocks were you and Jeremy confronted with after disembedding from the military?
A: Once you are outside, every single day you are feeling out the edges of your life and making calculations about how far it safe to go. There are security obstacles, there are bureaucratic obstacles and then when you are trying to confirm things on the west side, there is a whole myriad of other obstacles. An incredible effort has been spent to prevent the American people from knowing these very carefully guarded secrets. [On top of all of that], Jeremy and I had to build enough trust with our sources so that they would share their stories with us and choose to speak out. We were confronted with obstacles all along the way.
Q: Has there been any backlash now that the film – and therefore the truth and secrets – have come out?
A: What is so remarkable to me is that the backlash hasn’t happened. The film has been embraced and there are a lot of people on inside the military and inside the CIA who have shared their critiques of the global war on terror. It is creating more enemies that it is killing. It is a tactic without a strategy. We are very worried about the way that it is undermining civil liberties back home in the U.S.
Q: And, at least in your opinion, why has there not been any backlash? After all, it seems like there would be given the sensitivity of this subject.
A: I think that part of the reason it hasn’t happened is that there has been a sea change in American public opinion recently. When we started this film, nobody was talking about drones, kill lists or domestic spying. Within just the last few months, those discussions have worked their way from the fringes of American culture onto the editorial pages of “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post.” Twelve years into the war on terror, we are finally beginning to have a national discussion about what it is doing to the world around us and what it is doing to change us as a people as well.
Q: If moviegoers were to walk away from this film with one theme or message, what do you hope that would be?
A: That they have a right to know. We are not political pundits. We are not politicians. We do not have a partisan ax to grind. We do not have a 12-point program for reforming America’s war overseas. We just know that there are dozens of wars being fought in our name but without our knowledge. These wars have been fought in the shadows with very little public knowledge and essentially no congressional oversight for over a decade. The purpose of the film is to take this war out of the shadows and into the light so the American people can begin to have a national discussion about what kind of country we want to be and how this war is going to be fought in the future.
Q: Finally, sum up your experience working on this documentary for me. What is your greatest takeaway?
A: It was a harrowing 3 years. There was a moment in Somalia when Jeremy and I felt totally pointless and empty. The thing that brought us through was the trust that all the families we had filmed that had put in us. When we began knocking on doors of houses in Afghanistan, we were the first Americans these people had seen since American soldiers kicked their doors in and killed their families. They invited us in and shared their painful stories with us because they deeply believed in the power of their stories. They thought that if their stories could be shared with the American people that it would matter, that it would be significant in some way. They trusted us – two military-aged men from the same country as the soldiers who had come into their homes – with their stories and trusted us to do everything in our power to bring their stories home. So we had to – no matter how hopeless and empty we felt at those low moments. We had to bring their stories home.