Review – Dirty Wars (Documentary)

There is a thin line between investigative journalism and self-indulgence.

Jeremy Scahill treads very close to that line in Richard Rowley’s hard-hitting and beautifully shot documentary, Dirty Wars.

It is based on the book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield by Scahill and the script is co-written by him as well (along with David Riker). The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and had its theatrical release on June 7, 2013 in USA.

JSOC or Joint Special Operations Command first became know to the wider public after the Navy SEALS (under the command on JSOC) killed Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad in 2011. JSOC existed before 9/11, but in the decade or so since the World Trade Center attack JSOC has become a global killing machine. Troops from some of America’s top military units are now part of JSOC and the total number of troops exceeds 25,000. Read more about the formation and expansion of JSOC in this Business Insider article.

Dirty Wars - Jeremy Scahill

“This is a story about the seen and the unseen and about things hidden in plain sight.”

This is how Jeremy Scahill introduces us to Dirty Wars and he is right, but sometimes it does border self-indulgence. Whether it was a conscious decision or something that took shape on the edit table we do not know. Either way it is an engaging and engrossing watch.

The film’s focus initially was on the sudden spike in night raids in Afghanistan. The idea was to investigate these killings and compile information. But once it became clear that JSOC was primarily behind these raids the scope of the film became more global. Scahill, who had worked as a war reporter for quite some time, even he knew next to nothing about JSOC and that is what further egged him to follow the leads down the rabbit hole. Scahill talks more about his experience of making Dirty Wars in this interview with BI.

Dirty Wars is structured like a thriller. In fact the camera work on many occasions (especially the close-up shots) reminded me of the camera work on the Bourne series. The film has been beautifully shot and I doubt you would have seen Yemen the way it has been portrayed in Dirty Wars ever earlier. Dirty Wars won the Cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Beginning with Afghanistan the leads took Scahill to Yemen and Somalia. He interviewed aggrieved family members of victims of night raids, drone attacks and also Anwar al-Awlaki’s father. And this is where the narrative gets more interesting. Awlaki was an American citizen and was eventually assassinated by JSOC without even proving his crime. All he had done was create a few hate-spewing videos against America.

Dirty Wars Film Still

The problem with Dirty War is that Scahill and Rowley present a very simplistic version of the events without delving deeper into the implications. Why has the American administration given JSOC such a free reign? Is it just a war on terror? How has similar ‘Dirty Wars’ been used earlier and are there any similarities? Maybe it is the time limit. How much can you include in a 90 minute film? The 600+ pages long book written by Scahill presents a much broader perspective and he admits the same in the interview link mentioned earlier. This article on Dissident Voice points out this problem and then becomes a bit too harsh on Scahill just because there were too close-ups of his face.

Here is another excellent interview with Scahill conducted by The Economist.

What really works for the film is that it points out the repercussions that America could face because of this flawed approach to fighting terrorism beyond its border. America managed to eventually kill Anwar al-Awlaki (at least a dozen drone attacks were targeted towards him before he was killed and a number of innocent people died, including Awlaki’s 16-year old son) because it has the money and resources at its disposal. If India had the money maybe we would have conducted a similar operation against Dawood. He is an Indian citizen, wanted for terror attacks and currently in hiding outside our borders. Similarly, every country that has been at the brunt of terror attacks will most likely have such targets. This way the whole world is likely to explode. Also, in the process of killing one person hundreds are dying as collateral damage. What about the rights of these people?

Irrespective of your opinion, I would recommend that you watch Dirty Wars. Whether you share the same view as Jeremy Scahill or not and whether you think the film was too self-indulgent or not you will still enjoy watching it.


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