Director Richard Rowley’s riveting new documentary film, Dirty Wars, tells a complex story about the dark side of U.S. foreign policy and exposes the ugly reality of U.S. counter-terror operations. Rowley follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who is both the film’s narrator and central figure, as he embarks on an unexpected journey to explore the expansion of covert wars and the rise of the secretive, extremely powerful Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The film takes an uncompromising look at the clandestine Global War on Terror, its lack of oversight and accountability, and how it’s being conducted in our names without our knowledge.
In an exclusive interview, Rowley talked to me about the commitment to unembedded journalism he shares with Scahill that often means taking great personal risks to track down a story, why they wanted to make this documentary to try to begin a discussion in the U.S. about what this global war is and how it’s changing the world and us as a people, how they used press releases as a road map to the hidden war, the logistical challenges they encountered getting in and out of dangerous places like Mogadishu, the vital role that the community of war reporters and journalists played in their security, and how the war has affected them personally.
Rick Rowley: I started making documentaries when I was really young. I was 19 when I worked on my first film, and I’ve made four feature documentaries for independent distribution that we travelled around the country screening. But then, the Iraq War happened. I was just appalled that there was no real coverage of it, that there was no one unembedded, that we saw the war filmed amidst the bombs and we heard it narrated to us by generals on cable television. And so, I went to Iraq determined to cover the war as an unembedded cameraman, because I wanted to see Iraqis as more than just little black smudges on the video camera on the nose of a helicopter gunship. I wanted to see them as human beings and try to make a connection with them. I spent the next decade working as a war reporter doing maybe a dozen half-hour films for television from Iraq and Afghanistan.
That’s at the core of what’s powerful about film, what makes it a medium that I’m devoted to. Its power over any other medium is its ability to allow you to feel a vicarious human connection to people who you are separated from by this massive geographic and cultural difference, that in its most trivial way you feel that thrill in escapist films, like you feel a thrill when bombs hit a building or kill a bad guy. In a more profound sense, it’s the ability to feel the human connection to Afghan villagers in a town called Gardez who are the victims of a U.S. night raid or Yemenis who live under the shadow of the drones every day. That’s an amazing power and an amazing thing. And so, that’s what drove us into it in the first place. And it does change you. It’s traumatic, the trauma of seeing all this death and chaos. It weighs you down. In the early years, the first couple years covering Iraq, it really kind of destroys you. Jeremy and I both came back from this very angry and self-destructive and full of this…it’s PTSD, but not… I wouldn’t want to compare it to what soldiers go through because they are implicated in the fighting in a much deeper way than we are as reporters, but you have the same sorts of [experiences].
Why was it important to you to make this documentary film and how did you collaborate with Jeremy?
Rowley: I really feel like the Global War on Terror is our generation’s most important story. I mean, it’s the longest war in American history, a war that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people, that’s cost I don’t even know how many billions of dollars, and yet it’s happening mostly in the shadows. We know almost nothing about it, and all the meaningful decisions about how it’s being waged are being taken in secret, and we don’t know what those decisions are. It’s a war that’s being fought in dozens of countries, and we don’t even know the names of those countries. So, it’s this incredibly important story, but we know next to nothing about it. We set out on this project trying to make that invisible war visible.
I’ve been a war reporter for a long time, and I got very close to Jeremy when we were both covering the Iraq war. I was working in Afghanistan, and Jeremy was working in Afghanistan as well, and we were beginning to see the covert war touching the conventional war on the ground. I’d be imbedded with units there digging wells and going around being a presence in patrols and not really going anywhere, but most of the Islamic operations, most of the violence that was happening in night raids, we were not given any access to. We’d come back to base every night, and we’d hear press releases about how there were a dozen Taliban members killed and captured in raids that were happening across the country, but the PAOs (Public Affairs Officers) couldn’t give us any more information at all. They didn’t know the units that had run them. They couldn’t give anyone to us for interviews. We certainly couldn’t embed with them.
Jeremy and I thought when we began this that we were making a film just about Afghanistan, and it would be a film about how this covert war was approaching the conventional war. So we began by disembedding from the American military there and using these press releases as a road map to the hidden war. We’d take every location that they said there was a raid in, every one that we could reach, and we’d go out and try to do our own investigation to see what was really going on because we weren’t seeing anything important in our imbeds.
We covered several night raids, but the one that really horrified us and stuck with us was this raid in Gardez in this small village in Paktia province that was just barely inside the range that it was safe for us to go to. We could drive out there and we could still, we hoped, get back before sunset. There was a day in which the press release said that a combined U.S. and Afghan force had stumbled upon a Taliban honor killing, where the Taliban people had murdered their own daughters in this barbaric act, and the U.S. forces were unfortunately too late to save them. They killed the Taliban commanders and took a couple of prisoners. We went out to investigate that, and we discovered very quickly that that was not the case at all, that the U.S. had probably been given bad intelligence, and what they had rolled up on was not a Taliban gathering but a celebration, a party. It was a naming celebration that happens days after a child is born where the grandparents have chosen a name for the boy, and they have a party and they name the child.
The Americans came in and they killed two men and three women, two of whom were pregnant. It was revealed in further investigation that there had been an internal investigation by the UN and a forensic investigation by the Afghans, and that not only had they been killed, but that the bullets had been dug out of the women’s bodies as a way to cover up who was responsible for it. That cover-up and those killings were what our investigation was turning on. After a series of stories by a bunch of great reporters, including Jerome Starkey, the reporter from The Times of London there, when they finally revealed that the bullets had been dug out of the bodies, we published a piece late at night. Early in the morning, we got a phone call from NATO saying that they were changing the press release and they were changing the version of events. They were admitting that they got it wrong.
We thought our job was done. Case closed, we’ve revealed the truth behind this raid. But, there was a photograph that wasn’t supposed to exist and that really kept the case open for us. After the apology was issued, one morning, early in the morning, a convoy of Afghan army vehicles came up to this house and a U.S. Admiral stepped out of the jeep. The officer sacrificed two sheep at the front door of this house as an apology to the family for killing their family members. The picture was of Admiral William McRaven who at that time nobody knew. We didn’t know who he was and we looked for him to see if he was a member of the conventional command at Kabul which he wasn’t, if he was part of RCD (Royal Canadian Dragoon) which owned that battle space and he wasn’t. Jeremy quickly, through his research, discovered that he was the head of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite covert force that is outside of the normal chain of command, that operates globally, that’s supposed to do the most high level strategic missions like hostage rescue missions, or if a nuclear weapon is stolen out of the Ukraine, to lock it down.
After that, the first step for us was kicking on the doors of farmers in rural Afghanistan. That became the core of this investigation, to figure out what JSOC was doing. We followed them around the world to other places that they had struck outside of stated battlefields. That took us to Yemen and then to Somalia. But when we started in Gardez, I never thought that the story would take us to Mogadishu. And certainly, when we started talking to Afghan victims of U.S. night raids, I never imagined that we would end the film talking to U.S. citizens who had been targeted by the same unit.
Rowley: The places where we went, it was not safe to be any bigger than a two-person crew. In Afghanistan, the only way for us to operate was to try to fly under the radar of everyone. It was Jeremy and me, a translator, and a driver in a car, in a beat-up Toyota. We grew our beards out, and we wore local clothing, and we tried to flip in and out of places before sunset and before the devil knew you were dead, as they say. Adding another person meant adding another car or adding two people in another car. It would increase our footprint and our profile and it would make us targets. There was no other way to shoot it than with just one person. Jeremy was producer, on camera talent and everything else, and I was cameraman, soundman, director and everything else. In a few places, I’d worked on pictures of translators. We were working with local reporters and they helped train them a little bit on camera to get second shots here and there, but almost all of it is just me and Jeremy. We started three years ago, so some of the newer technology wasn’t around then. We used Canon 5D with multiple lenses and then Sony EX1 for the other stuff because we needed something where we could completely trust the sound on it as well.
Can you talk about the film’s cinema verite style and the decision to use Jeremy’s narration to make it more personal and draw the audience in?
Rowley: From the very beginning, we wanted to make a film that was immersive, powerful, and deep, and that would draw you in and make you feel it. We didn’t want what some people think of as the way a documentary should be set up with talking head interviews and viewed over the top with some analysis. We wanted you to feel like you were immersed in the middle of an investigation that was propelling you across places. In the beginning, Jeremy was just a tour guide who was going to navigate this archipelago of American wars for us. And then, we came back. We had a rough cut. Our first rough cut was four hours long. It was far too long, and we were beginning to cut it down to what was an appropriate length.
We brought in a screenwriter and fiction film director, David Riker, who was a very good friend of ours. He made two really good features: The Girl came out last year, and La Ciudad (The City) (1998), this great film from [over] ten years ago that really was an important film for us about Mexican immigrants in New York. He helped us over the next months and realized that we needed to make Jeremy more than just a tour guide. He needed to be an actual character, that there were two halves to this story. One half was the external expose about the war spinning out of control overseas, and the other was about how we were being changed as Americans and as a people, and that Jeremy was the vehicle through which to experience that. It was the right idea. It changed it and it made everything click and we felt that it really worked.
It’s often frustrating when you’re a war reporter and you’re covering these places that far away. You’re frustrated by making stories that people can’t connect to in any way. It’s hard for Americans to connect to Arabic-speaking Iraqis in refugee camps or Pashto-speaking Afghans in the countryside, and having a character who is a vehicle through which you’re allowed to make these relationships really allowed us to gain in an emotional weight that was difficult for us to do any other way to make it all human.
A lot of people took risks with you to make this film. Did you have any concerns while you were shooting it about your personal safety or the safety of your sources?
Rowley: Yes. Anytime you step out of an embedded reporting situation, you’re always making calculations about what’s safe and what’s not safe, feeling out the edges of your life, of what’s possible, and what risks you’re putting everyone else to. We definitely felt the risks because there isn’t any more dangerous city than Mogadishu. But it’s kind of embarrassing for us to even talk about the risks that we take because of the people we worked with — the Afghans and the Yemenis and Somalis who kept us alive and took us places, did interviews with us and translations for us, and who took the biggest risks. As a reporter, you stay in a country for a month or a year and then you leave, but people’s lives are there forever.
Yemen is the perfect example. We reported on al-Majalah, this settlement encampment that was wiped out with a cruise missile in Obama’s first missile strike in Yemen. The only reason why we knew about al-Majalah was because a very brave Yemeni reporter (Abdulelah Haider Shaye) went out there the day after the attack and took photographs of the victims and the bomb parts and proved that it wasn’t an Al Qaeda training camp. It was a Bedouin village. And that it wasn’t the Yemeni Air Force that did it. It was a U.S. cruise missile, a weapon that the Yemenis don’t have access to. So, he broke the story open, created a national outrage in Yemen, and then was seized off the streets by a Yemeni American-trained counter-terrorism unit who told him to stop talking about al-Majalah, and then he was released back on the streets.
That day, he goes straight to Al Jazeera’s broadcast outlet there, goes on the air, and describes exactly what happened, that the bruises are still on him, and describes his beating and says he’s not going to stop talking. A few weeks later, his house is surrounded by the same forces and he disappears. He disappeared for 30 days before he shows up in this kangaroo court that Yemen’s dictator (Ali Abdullah Saleh) had set up to punish journalists for crimes against the state, and he’s sentenced for five years. Now there’s more public outcry and there’s these tribal Sheikhs intervening who force Saleh to agree to pardon him and release him. That’s leaked to the press that he can be released that day.
The same day, Yemen’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, gets a phone call from the White House, but not from an aide or a spokesperson. It’s a phone call from President Obama himself who tells him, “We’re very nervous about you releasing Abdulelah Haider Shaye. He should stay in jail.” And he’s kept in jail. When we heard this story, it was sort of shocking, and we thought it might be a conspiracy theory, but there’s a read out from that phone call on the White House’s website. We called the State Department and asked them to confirm it, and they said they stand by what the President said. So you have a respected Yemeni journalist kept in prison by the U.S. President himself in Yemen. I mean, those are the guys who take the real risks and everything that we do pales by comparison.
What was the biggest logistical challenge you encountered in terms of trying to make your film safely?
Rowley: By far, the most difficult place to work in was Mogadishu in Somalia. It’s the most dangerous city in the world. It’s a city that’s just been butchered to bloody pieces by decades of warlord rule and covert war. It was this beautiful, old colonial capitol with these marble clad buildings along the Indian Ocean that have just been plundered and ripped up with pummels, and then we arrived at the height of the fighting between the Shabaab and the African Union. The Shabaab had dug into these positions that had tunnel escape routes that were a mile long, going through the Bakaara market all the way down to the sea. It was impossible for us to work under the radar there like we had in Yemen and Afghanistan, and so the only way that we could work was by rolling around in this massive troop. We had twelve guys with [inaudible] and machine guns in a pick-up truck. We had a decoy car and motorcycle outriders, and we had an intelligence network of guys at every checkpoint in the city who would radio in if they saw something moving.
That was how we could work safely, but then it limited what we were capable of filming, too. We couldn’t go and have a normal interaction with the man on the street. We rolled up and we looked like we were warlords ourselves which posed problems for us. So we were left to film with warlords. We embedded with the U.S. backed and funded warlords who now are working their way down the kill list as proxy forces for the U.S. – crazy guys like Indha Adde who fought on every side of every war that’s happened in Somalia. He now happens to be our ally who boasted to us about executing his enemies on the battlefield. There are three other warlords who are in the film. The last one told us that the Americans are the masters of war, that the Americans were his teachers and taught him how war should be fought, and that he learned a lot from them about the way this operates. So we couldn’t film the human side of the war. We could only film this monstrous side of this kill machine that had gone on and on for so long that the country was unrecognizable.
How do you find local people who are trustworthy to work with on the ground in those countries? If you’re trying to get actionable intelligence, how does your knowledge of local customs play a role in terms of opening doors and doing business?
Rowley: In every country, it’s different, and you have to be flexible and slow and careful, and in the end rely on the experience of others who have gone before you and have begun to figure these things out. And then, there’s a great community of war reporters and correspondents who help each other out and try to keep each other safe in these places that comes from the extremities of their experience. In Afghanistan, when I first went there, I was assigned to international reporters who were doing unembedded coverage. I learned as much as I could from them and began to work with local people first on safe stories and then more and more technical position stories until I got a feel for myself of what the rhythms and cadence and all was. You can only trust your instincts so far. You make mistakes all the time. We got things wrong in terms of our security and got ourselves involved in things that ended up being sort of insane. I mean like the night when there was a Taliban ambush on the highway, we got trapped overnight hiding out in this little house until dawn when it was safe for us to drive back into Kabul. It was a risk that in hindsight we probably shouldn’t have taken. And so, you have to build on whatever local knowledge you can acquire, and in the end, there’s a lot of trust amongst the community of war reporters and journalists who have covered this kind of thing.
This film shows we’ve crossed a line that I don’t think the average American yet realizes or fully understands. Where do we go from here? How are you going to get today’s Washington to look at this and examine these issues?
Rowley: The change doesn’t come from Washington ever. Change comes from below. It comes from the pressure building amongst the American people. When we started this film three years ago, there was no discussion of drones or targeted killing or any of this in mainstream culture. And there was no pressure felt by any administration to think about it or address it or try to do anything. In the last six months, we’ve seen that change. I think we’ve been seeing a huge change, and now there are editorials on the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post about this. I mean, Rand Paul is someone who I disagree with on almost everything, but he filibustered in the Senate and raised the issue of the killing of Anwar Al-Aulaqi and others and the drone strike execution killings by the President. Two weeks ago, for the first time since the launch of the Global War on Terror, the President himself addressed it in a public speech. He talked about drone strikes and executions of American citizens without trials and raised some of the issues publicly for the first time. That happens because there’s a change in public opinion and they feel like they need to get out ahead of these issues. Hopefully, that pressure will grow and continue to the point where those words about ending this war, those words about bringing due process back into this process will become actions, but change comes from below.
Do you have plans for international distribution? Will Dirty Wars get a pretty wide global distribution? Also, is it important that it’s also seen in the Muslim world in Arabic?
Rowley: Definitely. We have international distributors. It already has a theatrical deal in Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, and we’re working on the rest of Europe. Of course, we want it to be translated into Arabic and seen everywhere. But honestly, the film was made for America. I mean, these wars are being fought in our name but without our knowledge, partially because I think if they were visible to the American people, if they knew what was really happening, there would be outrage about a lot of things that are being done in our name. We made this film to try to begin that discussion in the U.S. about what this global war is and how it’s changing the world and us as a people.
How did you feel about winning the cinematography prize at Sundance for this film and having your work recognized on that level?
Rowley: It was amazing. The whole process was amazing of going out to Sundance and to now finally see this film come to theaters. You make this promise to the people who you film with, either implicitly or explicitly. You knock on someone’s door and you ask them to share with you the most painful moment in their life, and then you tell them that in exchange you’ll do everything in your power to make their story heard. And then, so often, you fail to fulfill that promise. Your story is cut or ignored. An editor doesn’t want it or a broadcaster isn’t interested, and it just ends up on the cutting room floor somewhere, and then you broke your promise. Jeremy and I were terrified that we would not be able to keep the promises we made to these families in Yemen and Afghanistan and the people we worked with in Somalia. To be able to see this film finally recognized and embraced by critics and audiences is incredible, not just because it feels good in your career, but also because it makes you not a liar. It allows you to keep your promise to people that some part of the American people are going to see their story and know the name of their town and know what happened to them on that night.