Dirty Wars [2013]

This is an illuminating documentary about the way that the USA conducts its foreign adventures. Like most documentaries, the audience responds on a number of different levels, broadly based around their engagement with the content and representation of that content. The more interesting or important the content, the less “work” is required of the filmmaker. Well, the importance of Dirty Wars‘ content can hardly be over-stated.

As the title suggests, this is a documentary about the unlawful and unmoral aspects of the so-called War on Terror that is ongoing in the Middle East since 2001. It explores the use of drones, and illustrates some instances where strikes have not been directed at military targets, but at civilians. In rough outline, in conceptual terms, this is not news – these problems have been a consistent strand of reporting for the past decade, and most of the news and analysis sites I follow have been pointing out escalations and problems for some time (Reuters, Naked Capitalism, Fisk, Dan Carlin, etc). Nevertheless, collating these strands into a central and continuous story is enormously useful.

The problem, in short, is that there has been a break-down in accountability over military action, a situation which the White House seems happy with and seems to be seeking to extend. This is a problem beyond my ability to influence in even the most tiny way. About the best I can do is note the problems that NZ is having locally with our government’s perspective on Journalists and their desire to expand the capabilities of our intelligence agences. I get the feeling that Jeremy Scahill is feeling similarly powerless, and so this documentary has an almost overwhelming sense of hopelessness. We can’t even seem to vote the problem leaders out of office, as Charlie Stross summed up eloquently when he theorized the UK as having a One-Party System. Or, as seems like the motto of this generation of political leaders, 1984 isn’t a dire warning so much as an operational manual.

The documentary tentatively explores how trying to kill your way out of political dissention creates political dissension; characterized by Terrorism in our world. I have nothing more to say about that – I read the Oresteia when I was receiving my classical education, a point made by Scahill. There are vast, structural, problems with the arrangement of the world economy and the US political system. Problems that aren’t going to get sorted out by tinkering with interest rates or trade tarrifs, which seem to be main political/economic tools available to the people tasked with the solutions.

This connects with a lot of the points made by The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology; but that was an entirely more optimistic film. What both films make clear, I think, is that the misbehaviour of “our society” originates ideologically, rather than as a practical response to problems. That is to say, there is no practical threat to “us” in the way there arguably was during the Cold War, and there are not the kinds of frequent attacks as there were during the heyday of the anarchist movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially we should be living in a golden age of peace, but because of the ideology of our leadership, we are perpetually preparing for war, using the rhetoric of war to justify things that have no apparent existence.

As far as I can tell, the kinds of changes to the rules of engagement that are being implemented right now can only make sense if we think that Al Qaeda is a more serious, imminent and well-organized threat to “us” than the USSR was at the height of the Cold War. It just doesn’t stand any level of scrutiny whatsoever – “we” have become simple paranoiacs.

So much for the subject matter.

The film, as a film, is deeply flawed, because it tries to interpose a narrative relating to the journalist as a mediation between the audience and the content; but it doesn’t present or represent the journalist in a compelling way as a human being. In some ways, it tries to make him the story, which is impossible because the story is so much more compelling than the process of his investigation ever could be. This is the kind of documentary approach favoured by “personality” documentary makers, such as Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. It is a strategy that works in their films because they are larger than life figures, and they frame even their bigger stories in a very personal way. And to be honest, I also feel like they both labour their stories less: they try and cover a lot of ground, where Dirty Wars felt very leisurely in pace, so that it’s 86 minutes felt like a long time for the story they were telling.

I was also perpetually irritated by the cinematography. The director favoured ultra-close-ups, which is a very televisual approach; the benefit of a close-up is that you get to see things in extreme detail, but a huge number of shots had only a very small part of the frame in focus. Consequently, this film is one of the ugliest that I’ve seen in a long time. It tries too hard to be edgy and interesting, and so just becomes annoying. The intersplicing of pseudo-surveillance footage and blatantly self-indulgent re-enactments of moments of revelation added insult to injury.

As a film, it was really not very good. And yet, and yet, I find that I must recommend it for the content. These kinds of stories are crucially important, and investigative journalists undertaking this work need to be encouraged and protected to the greatest possible degree.

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