Interview: Jeremy Scahill on Becoming a Reluctant Movie Star With “Dirty Wars”

The battle-tested journalist talks about his unexpected turn in the spotlight with this doc about America's covert wars, how making the film changed him and what he might be...
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Jeremy Scahill has earned a reputation for fearing nothing. Except Jay Leno.

“When he said, “Why are you still alive? I remember thinking, “Fuck, my mom is watching this show and she’s going to be horrified by that,” the National Security Correspondent for The Nation recalled of his 2009 appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher” in which “The Tonight Show” host recoiled in horror at what he does for a living. “I’ll sit in a makeup room and be like how on earth did I end up being on this TV show because I don’t think that people like me are often allowed on TV in this country. Every time I’m there, I try to act like it’s the last time they’re going to let me on TV and try to say what I think is missing from our discourse in our society.”

As relaxed as he comes across in person – witty, confident and self-effacing, or in other words, the perfect person to actually get Americans to listen to what atrocities are being committed in other parts of the world on our behalf – Scahill’s still adjusting to the spotlight, which is brighter than ever in “Dirty Wars,” his first foray onto the big screen. Filmed by his longtime friend Richard Rowley, the globetrotting documentary follows Scahill to the frontlines of the war in Afghanistan, the darkened corners of Mogadishu and back home to the States as he does the ground work for his latest book of the same name, tracing three stories – about a murder cover-up in Kabul, America’s ties to Somali warlords and the drone attack on radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki – that reveal a disturbing alternate narrative about the war on terror than the one traditionally presented in Western media, detailing U.S. military action seemingly intent on ensuring a perpetual state of warfare with minimal regard for civilian life.

But although “Dirty Wars” is full of the kinds of revelations about America’s covert operations around the world that one would expect from the man who previously lifted the veil on the private war machine Blackwater, what may hold more intrigue for even the most hardened of news junkies who already hang on Scahill’s every word is watching how the journalist goes about his work, from sneaking off the carefully controlled path the military has laid out for journalists in places such as Afghanistan to touring the press circuit in America to gain traction for stories that would otherwise be swept under the rug. The film infuses in its audience the same kind of adrenaline rush Scahill must feel when he’s chasing a story, but it also reflects the inner conflict of every war reporter who only has words to offer and represent those who have suffered great loss.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles where Scahill voiced his reservations about the star treatment he was receiving for the film, he took the time to talk about how “Dirty Wars” became a film, the limitations of being an embedded reporter, the emotional toll of war coverage and the chance to make another movie.

How did this come about?

I never thought I’d be someone that would make a film, not to mention be in a film. Rick Rowley, the director of our film, and I had worked together for years and years. His wife and I actually spent a couple years going in and out of Iraq together. She’s also a filmmaker. We had wanted to do some kind of project together and when Rick heard that I was starting to work on a new investigation after the Blackwater stuff, he was basically saying, “Why don’t I tag along with you?” It wasn’t necessarily envisioned as the kind of film that we ended up making, but I’m a huge fan of both documentary and fiction films, and I stepped back from it to think what stories resonate the most with me? Film is an incredibly powerful vehicle for telling a story.

We actually made a very different film about a year before it went to Sundance. We had asked this friend of ours, David Riker, who’s a writer and a great storyteller [who directed the recent immigration drama “The Girl”] to come in and help us stitch together our stories and he was the one who really said, “Your theme of your film is about things hidden in plain sight? Well, you buried the fact that you can tell a really powerful story if you agree to open yourself to being in it.”

How did you figure out what stories you actually wanted to concentrate on? There’s plenty to draw upon from the book.

We probably could’ve made our film could’ve been six hours long if we wanted to or we thought anyone would’ve watched it. There were a lot of deadends. Just to give you one example, in Afghanistan, Rick and I had investigated probably four or five different night raids. At one point, we were looking at telling the stories of a couple of those raids and we had to leave them on the cutting room floor just for the sake of having it work as an actual story. The book is not based on the film and the film is not based on the book. What we were doing though with this was Rick was filming an investigation and it was unclear if it was ultimately going to be a book or if it was just going to be that I was going to publish a series of articles. In the book, it’s not so much telling the story of how I investigated these stories as much as telling the stories themselves.

An interesting aspect of the “hidden in plain sight” idea at the core of the investigation is the implication that other journalists might not be reading between the lines of military press releases or daily briefings as you are. These days, do you think the government just thinks that people won’t bother to do the digging if it’s all actually there?

I definitely think that there are very sophisticated operatives that are structuring how the war is going to be presented to journalists and how it’s going to be presented to the public. The whole embedding system is a carefully managed operation. There’s all sorts of rules when you’re an embedded reporter about what you can and can’t report. There is a degree of censorship that takes place there. In these war zones, particularly in Afghanistan, but also it’s happened in Yemen, I think they just assumed no one’s going to go out and fact-check them. No one’s going to go out and say, “Well, did that really happen in Kunar Province the way that you said it went down?”

It was after the second or third raid we investigated where we compared the press release to what we heard from local people that we really started to feel like this is one big cover-up, like they’re relying on the idea that most journalists are going to sit in the Green Zone. They’ll get a few comments here and there from local people by phone just to give the other side of it, but they’re not going to go there and dig around and see what actually happened. In my experience when journalists do go out and track down people on the ground who witnessed events that the U.S. said happened in a certain way, almost always something fishy is uncovered. There’s a lot of propaganda. All major powers do that, but it’s our job as journalists to do the fact checking and hold them accountable.

There’s a great line at the end of the film where you say “the world’s changed during the time you were making the film” and…

And we were changed too, yeah.

So what was your initial idea going into this and how does it compare to what you ended up with?

As a journalist, I always try to empathize with the people that I’m interviewing or interacting with and what I mean by I didn’t realize how much it changed me is how deeply impacted I was by the stories that I was hearing. I already knew a lot of what was going on, but I didn’t expect to be so deeply moved. It’s not just that the stories that we were telling changed me, but the process of actually making the movie is also what I was referring to.

When we started off, there wasn’t going to be any emotion in it at all. I wasn’t going to say this is how I feel or am I contemplating apologizing to these people for something that my own government did. The way we wrote the script and the narration was through endless hours of conversation with Rick, me and David Riker. David [would] say to me, “How did this feel? What were you thinking at this moment?” Some of that made it into the film from those conversations, but some of it also forced me to confront questions as a journalist that we don’t often confront. I’ve been doing this for almost my entire adult life. What does it do to you as a human being to take in all these stories of suffering and loss? I was moved by the recognition that I hadn’t ever let myself stop to say not just as a journalist, but as a human being, what does it do to you and the way you see the world when you do care about people that you only meet once and you think about them everyday. I was saying to another colleague today, I’m not sure I would do this again. I say that and I’m sure I’ll get tugged back into this kind of journalism, but it really did change me and I feel like I’ve seen things I can’t just erase.

And yet I heard at Sundance you might be considering a follow-up to this film with Rick and David.

David and Rick and I have talked about maybe trying to do something with fiction at some point. You hear a lot of stories as a journalist that you don’t have two sources on or you can’t really back it up, but there’s some really fascinating things you hear in the course of doing this kind of work. I also think it might be therapeutic to do some fiction. I don’t know. [laughs] But I definitely want to work with those guys again. I don’t know what that would be, but yeah, something.

You’ve cultivated a reputation for being a guy who can’t possibly be surprised by anything, but is there anything during the making of this film that shocked you?

I was surprised that it got into Sundance and that people actually went to see it. [laughs] I really thought that Rick and I would be showing this at community centers or something. Honestly, I didn’t think we’re going to be at the Sundance Film Festival with celebrities OD’ing on whippets, but you mean in the film itself?

Yeah.

Surprise may not be the right word. I was stunned at how insane Mogadishu was. A lot of [people] think of Mogadishu and we think of the film “Black Hawk Down,” so you get some sense of how bad it is, but just the incredible hellscape that is that country and these sort of gangster characters that you could not make up in a novel or a fiction film. A guy who’s name is White Eyes who wears these big sunglasses and if you notice in one of the scenes, he’s got this full camouflage outfit on [with] these bizarre brown loafers that are completely out of place with what the rest of his outfit is. The sheer insanity of the violence in Somalia jarred me. It seems to have no actual logic to it. I’ve been doing war reporting for a long time. There was nothing that actually shocked me in that way.

“Dirty Wars” is now open in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand next week into limited release and be available on VOD.

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