Directed by Rick Rowley
Starring Jeremy Scahill, Nasser Al Aulaqi and Saleha Al Aulaqi.
While investigating a devastating raid on an innocent Afghan family by US military, Jeremy Scahill discovers that this incident is far from isolated and begins his search for those responsible.
The goal of the BBC is to inform, educate and entertain, and it’s a mission statement that most documentaries aspire to, but one which very few successfully balance. The principle of uncertainty looms large over many documentaries, with director influencing subject and subject responding in kind, resulting in something very different than a disembodied camera simply capturing reality before it is packaged and presented to us for our edification. This, however, is not a negative. In fact the best documentaries are so because they could not work as anything else, meaning they go beyond an audio/visual depiction of events - they would not work (or at best be severely compromised) as articles or essays. Dirty Wars would, and has, worked as a book.
Opening with Jeremy Scahill driving at night as he narrates just how dangerous his surrounding area (Kabul) is, and accompanied by the low thrum of an electronic beat it seems that the film has skewed its priorities and endeavours to entertain just as much, if not more, than informing or educating. The initial focus of the film is that of a raid which took place in Gardez, Afghanistan, with four supposed Taliban killed in the process and another three having been detained for questioning. After speaking with the family of those killed (two of whom were pregnant women) it soon becomes clear that this was anything but a Taliban stronghold, and that the US military made a grave mistake. Scahill’s inherent journalistic tendencies lead him to seek out those responsible, and the remainder of the film is one big rabbit hole as he discovers the existence, reach and seeming immunity of an elite American special forces unit called JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). JSOC are shown to be a military without borders, operating in areas far from the accepted conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and doing so at the behest of the White House (the only branch of the military to do so).
The story is one that needed to be told, but the execution is somewhat problematic as format meets subject and the tragic events of Gardez are gently herded into a narrative, with shots of Scahill placing pins into a map on a corkboard and circling events in red marker à la conspiracy theories of the 1970s. Rather than an interesting utilisation of the medium this comes across as an unnecessary artifice, one that splits focus and creates two narratives; one of JSOC’s activities and one of a man who goes, in his own words, “through the looking glass.” Time spent with Scahill telling us that after the tension of operating in a war zone he finds regular life boring is time wasted - it also serves to make Scahill look like somewhat more of a thrill-seeker than a truth-seeker. This impression is at odds with the actions of the man himself; Scahill previously helped served to expose private military company Blackwater, and his reporting here has helped to highlight another series of injustices obscured by the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The problem is -again- in execution, such as a scene in which upon hearing of a bomb blast nearby we are rushed to the hospital to gaze upon the mangled corpse of a woman. With this scene coming after having already been shown the lifeless body of a child it comes across as unnecessary, especially since the film’s biggest impact comes from those alive to tell their tales, with Sheikh Saleh Bin Fareed’s interview being a particular highlight.
Scahill’s instincts are sharp, and any problems to be found are not in misinformation but in misjudgement. The existence of Dirty Wars as a book further undermines the impact of the film as its own beast, but while it may simply serve as one arm of a multimedia exposé, forced to fit the corresponding media, it is a message worth hearing.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★