Robert Greenwald makes documentaries. He also makes waves. And enemies. In the capital of this country there are doubtless lots of seriously powerful people who’d like to see him come to harm. Or be ruined. And they’re the kind of folks who can make this happen. They eliminate people and destroy reputations for a living. Robert Greenwald makes documentaries about them.
He made two this past year alone guaranteed to land him a spot high up on many a pentagon or White House enemies list. First, in April, came War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State featuring analysis from and interviews with figures such as David Carr, Daniel Ellsberg, Glenn Greenwald and Thomas Drake.
The film examined the president’s surprisingly sinister campaign of intimidation against journalists and anyone else whose conscience might compel them to spill the beans on government wrongdoing. For example Drake, a former senior NSA official whose concerns about secret surveillance cost him not only his job and pension but his life savings (which is the price you pay these days when the government decides to tie you up in court until you’ve learned your lesson). Today he reports for duty at an Apple Store. Edward Snowden is said to have been inspired to take the actions he did by Drake. If so, it certainly explain why he also took a powder.
On its heels comes Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, an excoriating meditation on the “implications of killing hundreds of people ordered by the president, or worse, unelected and unidentifiable bureaucrats within the Department of Defense without any declaration of war.” Those aren’t the words of a film critic but of Representative Alan Grayson (D-Fla), one of the organizers of the October 29 Congressional Briefing on Drone Strikes. The briefing provided the first opportunity ever for US lawmakers to hear directly from the victims of America’s drone program. Exactly five elected officials took the time.
One of the people who testified that day figures prominently in the film. Rafiq ur Rehman is a Pakistani school teacher and father of two who lives in the remote region of North Waziristan. On the afternoon of October 24, 2012 his son (13), daughter (9) and mother (67) were picking okra in the field behind their home when they heard a buzzing overhead. “I could see the drone,” his son testified, “but I wasn’t worried because we’re not militants.” Seconds later, the woman was dead and both children gravely injured. Like a good dog, the media rolled over and reported five terrorists had been killed. Mission Accomplished!
Unmanned contains all too many stories like that, first-hand accounts of innocent men, women and children winding up on the wrong end of a Hellfire missile, making you wonder how CIA Director John Brennan keeps a straight face when claiming “There hasn’t been a single collateral death,” as he’s shown doing in one scene (while sources as reputable as the International Policy Digest in November reported in contrast that “drone strikes are killing nearly 100% innocent people”).
At the same time, the filmmaker offers a credible sense of the damage that can be sustained on the opposite end of the process. We hear at length from a haunted 27 year old Air Force vet named Brandon Bryant, who describes in graphic detail his experience as a remote control executioner operating out of a secluded Nevada base. Playing real life “Call of Duty,” let’s just say, hasn’t done this dude’s psychology any favors.
One of the things I love about Greenwald’s work is the way he gets to the point. His films are surgical strikes. As with Whistleblowers, he’s in and out in an hour and doesn’t leave a base uncovered. The bottom line: The present administration is basically the previous administration on steroids.
Instead of learning from Dubya’s mistakes in the Middle East, Obama’s making them himself all over again only in a bigger, more bizarro way. If the Iraq debacle taught us anything, it was that American foreign policy can be the most effective terrorist recruitment tool ever devised. The secret escalation of drone warfare, the director has told interviewers, is “breeding anti-American sentiment at a rate that would make Al-Qaeda jealous.”
Rather than make this country safer-the ostensible purpose of the program-Greenwald’s latest makes clear that the slaughter of civilians has radicalized alarmingly large numbers of Pakistanis who once considered the US a valued ally. “Yes, there were 100, maybe 200 fanatics in tribal areas,” explains Imran Khan, chairman of the influential Pakistan Movement for Justice party. “Now you have 80,000 people who hate you. How will that make you more secure?”
Here’s our Nobel Peace Prize-winning chief executive’s one line answer to that question from his recent State of the Union Address. “That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones-for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”
That, no doubt, will prove of enormous comfort to the hundreds of Rafiq ur Rehmans out there.
A Few Words With Robert Greenwald:
Your career arc must rank with the most unusual in all of moviemaking. What propelled you to make the creative journey from Xanadu and The Burning Bed to the documentaries you’re making today?
I have produced/directed over 50 television films, mini-series and feature films. The best ones were often based on true stories… from Burning Bed to Shattered Spirits to Amnesty Files etc. so, in retrospect, transitioning from narrative films based on real life stories to actual documentaries made perfect sense. Additionally, many of the films I made did have a very strong social element to them.
You directed Gene Kelly in his final screen role. What was that like?
He was a man with an amazing career and talent.
Were you as surprised as everybody else when Obama was elected based on promises to curtail Bush’s surveillance of US citizens and then expanded it instead?
What’s your theory as to why the Obama White House is so secretive and security-obsessed? As you point out in War on Whistleblowers, his administration has indicted more people for violating secrecy than all previous administrations put together.
I believe that he has been influenced by the security state bubble as Col. Wilkerson calls it. Inside the bubble, it is one based on fear of the enemy, constant threats and a bi-partisan belief that security is obtained by military means.
What was your role in organizing the October 29 Congressional Briefing on Drone Strikes? And what was your reaction to the turn out, the coverage, its success overall?
We at Brave New Films initiated the idea for the briefing, asked Congressman Grayson to lead it and arranged to bring over Rafiq and his family. When I met Rafiq and his children in Pakistan and interviewed them, I was struck at that very moment how important and meaningful it would be if we could get them to the US to personalize the drone issue, to make clear and obvious that we we’re not in fact only killing high value targets, but also innocent children. The coverage was really off the charts. We had over 369 mentions of the briefing and the film in print and over 104 mentions on tv/radio so a very major success by combining the release of the film, the briefing and the family coming over.
What’s the mission of your Brave New Foundation and how can you you afford to do things like offer viewers free copies of your films if they promise to watch them with friends? I love that by the way.
Our mission is to make media that matters, that will get people not just to see and understand an issue but to also take action. Thanks to our amazing supporters, donors and foundations, over 7 million people world wide have already been exposed to Unmanned with more to come. We are working hard on a college screening program. Please contact Laurie@bravenewfims.org if you are interested in having a screening, study guide or speaker.
Unmanned, your new documentary on the drone program is heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time. How did you happen to connect with Brandon Bryant, the haunted 27 year old veteran drone sensor operator?
There is an amazing team that works on the films. Jeff Cole, who is the executive producer, and the associate producers Natalie Kotte, Charles Tenret and Jeffrey Kanjanapangka did an outstanding job of finding, tracking down and arranging or interviewing people in Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Washington DC and around the country.
When you interviewed victims of drone violence did you ever personally feel threatened?
It was a profound experience to meet and interview those who had relatives or friends killed by our drones. The sense of responsibility to tell their story is one that has stayed with me and continues to. After almost every interview, they would turn to me and through the translator they would say, “Can you please tell Mr. Obama I am not a terrorist?” as if I could walk into the president’s office.