The "War on Terror" has raged for 12 bloody years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and taken a bite out of the Constitution. And yet, many Americans have long since retreated into the easy routines of American life: morning latte, evening beer, and no time in between for worrying about world affairs.
If there is a movie that can shake us out of our stupor, however, it's Dirty Wars. The documentary traces investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as he tries to figure out who, exactly, is killing thousands of innocents overseas in our name and with our tax dollars.
"We tried to tell the story in a way that would resonate with people, but also that would be accessible to people that are not just political junkies," says Scahill, who will appear at O Cinema tonight for a special screening of the movie. "I think a lot of people are waking up from a decade-long slumber on how far we've come in the name of security, with the roll-back of civil liberties, with the expansion of these covert and overt wars."
Dirty Wars is an unusually gripping documentary because it's told like a detective story, director Rick Rowley's camera following Scahill as he sojourns to Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen in search of answers.
But Scahill tells New Times that the movie almost didn't end up that way. In fact, it almost fell apart completely.
At first "we considered having me in the film as this sort of tour guide through this archipelago of covert war sites," Scahill says. But the straight-forward news approach just produced four hours of "bullshit."
"For people who watched it and know me, they said: 'This isn't who you are. This isn't the way that you are as a person. It just looks fake. It looks like you are trying to be some weird cable news guy who doesn't actually care about any of this or have an opinion about it. It rings really hollow.'"
So Scahill, Rowley, and screenwriter David Riker changed tack. "We ended up going back onto the cutting room floor and putting back all this footage that I had said I didn't want in it," Scahill says. "Rick was filming me constantly. It was some kind of a weird Truman show."
The result is a noir documentary narrated by Scahill himself as investigates the mysterious killings of men, women, and children in far flung countries. The movie provokes uncomfortable questions about what we Americans have allowed our government to do in our name. The most haunting scenes center around the 16-year-old, American-born son of Anwar Al-Awlaki. Two weeks after Al-Awlaki himself was killed by a U.S. drone strike, his son was incinerated in a similar attack.
"The idea that a popular Democratic president who won the Nobel Peace Prize and is a constitutional lawyer by training would go so far as to say 'You know what, we're not going to bother indicting this American citizen. We are just going to fast-forward to the death penalty phase of his process and order his assassination,'" Scahill says. "To me, that was a moment where we sort of crossed a line as a society."
Is there any way back? Certainly not as long as our cowardly Congress refuses to ask questions of power-hungry presidents, Democrat or Republican. But the recent revelations by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have at least started a dialogue, Scahill says.
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"I think a lot of people are waking up from a decade-long slumber on how far we've come in the name of security, with the roll-back of civil liberties, with the expansion of these covert and overt wars," he says. "The vast majority of Americans are not motivated by partisan dingbattery and actually are concerned with what is being done in their name, or what is being done to them, whether it's surveillance or assertions that Americans can be killed without trial."
Let's hope so.
Dirty Wars screens tonight at 7 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Shores with a special discussion with Jeremy Scahill at 8:30 p.m. The movie will also be showing at both O Cinema locations all week. Check its website for showtimes.