News Column

Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind., Mike Leonard column

August 4, 2013


Aug. 04--"Dirty Wars" is a documentary film that unfolds like a thriller and ultimately leaves the viewer with an aching, throbbing feeling in the gut.

The emotional wallop comes from the fact it isn't fiction. No matter how one feels about the war on terror, the terrible consequences of U.S. covert operations in the Middle East can't easily be dismissed as mere collateral damage.

Innocent people are being killed, and the America we want to believe in -- that shining city on the hill -- is losing its luster even among those who previously saw us as the good guys.

One Afghan villager interviewed in the film had this to say about the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command: "We call them the American Taliban."

"We've been joking internally, we wish Twitter had fewer than 140 characters," co-producer Anthony Arnove said last week. "Maybe then people wouldn't be able to add that last sentence, 'I'm so depressed'."

The film will be featured in a special screening at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Indiana University Cinema with Arnove, a Bloomington High School South graduate, on hand for a question-and-answer session after the showing.

Arnove got involved with the film through his friendship, and subsequent work as the literary agent, with journalist Jeremy Scahill, whose investigation into the covert operations of the Joint Special Operations Command provides the focus of the film.

Scahill is widely viewed as one of the country's best investigative journalists and is especially well-versed in the war on terror and goings-on in the Middle East. His book, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," became an international best-seller and winner of the George Polk Book Award.

Scahill, Arnove and others sought to make a documentary film subsequent to the unexpected success of the Blackwater book and ultimately scrapped the idea. "This time, rather than waiting until the book was done, figuring out who the right partners would be and winding up in development hell, we decided to make the film ourselves while Jeremy was reporting," Arnove said. "He knew what project he wanted to take on but he didn't know where his reporting would lead him."

Scahill and co-producers Arnove and Brenda Coughlin (of the nonprofit media company Civic Bakery) assembled a small but top-notch team for the project, enlisting director and cinematographer Richard Rowley and writer and editor David Riker. They later brought on music supervisor David Harrington and the Kronos Quartet, marking the first time the celebrated string quartet composed and performed a film score.

Rowley's cinematography is nothing short of remarkable. "Rick was shooting in very suboptimal conditions but was able to make it look like a film with high production values and a much bigger budget than he had," Arnove said. "He's remarkable working in war zones, traveling very light, with little equipment, no sound people, no lighting people. In terms of security they were much less identifiable that way and it made it safer for them and the people they were talking to."

The film is still chalking up awards from film festivals, but already among its honors are the U.S. documentary cinematography award from the Sundance Film Festival. "We've really been encouraged by the reviews, especially by the entertainment press and places such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter," Arnove said. "They not only gave it very positive reviews but also talked about the substance of the film."

The movie begins with Scahill's investigation into a U.S. night raid in a remote corner of Afghanistan gone wrong, with apparently innocent men, women and children killed. As Scahill tries to learn what happened, he's drawn deeper and deeper into the secretive operations of the Joint Special Operations Command, which reports only to the president of the United States, and its dispassionate mission to "find, fix and finish" off targets on its kill list.

"We are engaged in a global assassination program, including U.S. citizens, which is a novel and frightening development," Arnove said. Aside from the legality and morality of the president commanding a secret army, Scahill, Arnove and others argue that such operations are counterproductive and create many more enemies than they ever can eliminate.

The program has been expanded significantly under President Obama, which not only disappoints many of his supporters, but also establishes "a new normal" in Arnove's view. "So what happens when the next president comes in and has even more aggressive politics?" Arnove asked. "The precedent is now set."

For those who can't attend this week's screening, the film is available through premium pay-for-view channels through carriers such as Comcast cable. On Oct. 15, it will become available on DVD through Netflix, iTunes and other carriers.


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