Ask most Americans about the U.S.'s foreign wars and they are likely to repeat the official White House position: we are scaling back on foreign war efforts. However, ask Richard Rowley, director of "Dirty Wars," and you will receive a very different answer. "Right now around the world there is a massive covert war being fought in our name," he says, " there is no public discussion of this war, there is no Congressional oversight, media aren't allowed access to this war."
As a war reporter, Rowley has been covering the War on Terror for a decade. He is the co-founder of Big Noise Films and has won several awards for documentary features like "Fourth World War" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like." When the filming for "Dirty Wars," a Sundance selection in this year's U.S. Documentary Competition, began, the film team knew they didn't want it to be a typical documentary. "I've always hated the word documentary," Rowley said, "it makes it sound like there are stenographers and archivists or something and not storytellers."
Though "Dirty Wars" is thoroughly nonfiction, Rowley says that the film has a plotline and narrative more typical to fiction storytelling. "It looks more like a cross between an action film and a detective story. We follow an investigator who is drawn into the investigation of one massacre in Afghanistan and the clues that he discovers that lead him from country to country. They slowly reveal a global picture of a war that has just gone completely out of control," he said.
The investigator in the film is investigative journalist, Jeremy Scahill, known for his bestselling nonfiction book "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." Scahill's personal journey during the making of the film is one of the key elements of the narrative. According to Rowley, the film is half the "external story" - the details of the covert wars being fought around the world - and half an internal story - "the way that the war was changing us; us as a country and us as just people who were witnessing it all."
Scahill and Rowley were shocked by the scale of the U.S.'s covert wars around the globe. Rowley claims there are Special Operations forces active in more than 70 countries, including supposed allies of the U.S.. "When we started filming in Afghanistan, I never thought the story would take us to Somalia or Yemen," he said, "We began filming with Afghan victims of night raids, I never thought we would end up filming stories about Americans that were targeted in this covert war."
The movie's investigation, which began with the raids in Afghanistan, would eventually lead Scahill and Rowley to Yemen and Somalia. Each country they visited demonstrated a different layer of the covert war. "In Yemen, we covered missile strikes. Yemen is off of any stated battlefield, there is technically not a war there. But every week or so, there are missile strikes or drone strikes that kill dozens of people," Rowley said. In Somalia, he asserts that there is a "full-blown proxy war;" warlords are armed by the U.S. and fighting an Al-Qaeda affiliate, making Somalia the most dangerous place he has reported from.
"These wars turn countries like Yemen and Somalia into terrifying places but they also change us as a country. The White House has now, for the first time, assumed the right to wage war covertly around the world without any Congressional oversight, assumed the right to execute foreigners and American citizens without trial."
Rowley found that even those who are active participants in the covert war experience trepidation about the conflicts. "There are definitely debates and splits inside the military intelligence community. People have definite questions and concerns about what they are being asked to do and where," he said, "There are definitely people inside the military establishment who are very troubled by the turn that things have taken in the last 10 years."
When "Dirty Wars" premieres at Sundance on Jan. 18, Rowley believes a number of stories previously unknown to the public will come to light. "It's like there are two wars happening - there is a war that is very open any person can get embedded with the Marines, or whoever, and go see them digging wells and drinking tea with tribal elders.
"But then there is another war going on that just can't be covered. The real war, the bulk of the fighting, is being done by units that don't officially exist. The media can never get embedded with them; they are led by people who never give interviews with the press. So the real war is completely invisible and the war that you're allowed to film almost ends up seeming like a sideshow or distraction."
"Dirty Wars" screens
- Friday, Jan. 18 at 9:00 p.m. at the Temple Theatre, Park City
- Saturday, Jan. 19 at 3:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
- Sunday, Jan. 20 at 12:00 p.m. at the Screening Room at Sundance Resort
- Monday, Jan. 21 at 9:00 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library, Salt Lake City
- Thursday, Jan. 24 at 11:30 a.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
- Saturday, Jan. 26 at 11:45 a.m. at Library Center Theatre, Park City
Jeremy Scahill also wrote a book, "Dirty Wars," during the creation of this film. The book will be published in April of this year.