Bizarre, shocking, yet filled with truth, Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing continues to gather acclaim. This Oscar-nominated record of routine killings of Communists in Indonesia during 1965-66 haunts viewers. As a filmed document about memory – the paramilitary gangsters (“free men”) discuss on camera how they kidnapped and murdered – and performance – they act out the killings for the camera, hence the film’s eerie title – the film “takes the documentary to another level,” in the words of filmmaker Robert Greenwald. While Killing has the support and involvement of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris (an inspiration for Greenwald), Americans can’t forget that the film magnifies overseas, historical horrors while the US has more recent blood on its owns hands (though the Indonesian slaughter was supported by the American embassy).
Greenwald has documented the social injustices of Walmart (The High Cost of Low Price, 2005), the Koch Brothers (Exposed, 2012), and several others – his early career in television includes directing NBC’s 1984 sensation, The Burning Bed. He recently visited Pakistan to gain a first-hand account of the casualties of US drone strikes in Unmanned, which is now available on DVD with extra scenes and director’s commentary. To the American military, these campaigns are deemed “safer,” since robot planes are deployed sans personnel. Yet, the major impact of missiles shot from drones, and the aircraft’s distant control (they are manned by bases within the States) leave countless casualties. I caught up with Greenwald over email to discuss his interests and approach to a challenging subject.
With an impressive filmography, Greenwald seems to be in tune with various topics. He begins with obvious sources: “I am a reader, a constant reader,” he says. “And a number of potential projects jump out at me every day. So, they find me, and so many important ones. Each time we (i.e., Brave New Films) say yes to one project it means that many others can’t get done. I had read (about drone strikes) as much as possible, and looked to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as Shahzad Akbar (of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights) for related dates, people, and other information. I read all the available journalism on the topic, which was essential once I was in Pakistan.”
After taking in all he could, reaching the location of his interviewing and shooting brought the film to life. “My trip to Pakistan was really the turning point – meeting, interviewing, investigating, and filming the people. I felt the responsibility to tell the stories of so many innocent people killed by our drones, a daunting and haunting responsibility.” Though he would keep learning, and reaching dead ends, about how America orders drone strikes: “It is a very complex process [for America to order a drone strike], and very hidden. There is a Kill List for some strikes. But there are ‘signature strikes’ which are not covered by Kill Lists. And then the process depends on whether it is in the CIA’s wheelhouse or the Pentagon’s.”
Greenwald threads his story with three subjects: two Pakistani; a 16-year-old casualty named Tariq and a schoolteacher, Rafiq ur Rehman, who lost family members; along with a 30-something American ex-drone operator who shared his story. Greenwald was drawn to Tariq for many reasons: “Initially, it was his age, how young he was and still a target for a strike. Then it was the fact that many people knew him, met him, and interacted with him. He was such a clear example of kill first, ask questions later, in direct opposition to the official line.” As for the drone operator, Greenwald was more practical: “His story was the strongest of any drone operator who would go public.”
Unmanned leaves the drones a mysterious presence – terrifying but largely unexplored, in a technical sense. “Our job is to tell stories that move the heart, and then affect the brain,” Greenwald said, explaining his choice to avoid in-depth analysis of the technological aspects. “Drones are a new level of technology. They make war and killing very easy, without American casualties but with the suffering remaining.”
The filmmaker wants his viewers moved to action, part of the reason he chose a running time just over an hour: “[T]he goal with the film is to engage people. An hour running time allows groups to talk, organize, and hopefully do something further after screenings. The running time also makes it easier to reach a younger audience, which has a shorter attention span.” He wants to convey the emotions that he encountered while filming a topic so disturbing, that involves innocents deaths, many of them children: “Nightmares, and pain” of his subjects and, seemingly, his own. “And all the while, I was driven to tell the truth and reach decision makers.
“This project has reminded me and reaffirmed the fact that we need personal, human stories first. Then the rest – data, information, etc. – will follow.”
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He has chapters forthcoming in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film (on service comedies), The New Western (on Alex Cox), and Film, Law, Crime (on the documentary).