Interview: Dan Krauss Shoots for Universal Truth in the Compelling Military Justice Doc “The Kill Team”

Even after filmmaker Dan Krauss’ interest was piqued by an article he read in the New York Times Magazine about a group of American soldiers who were brought up on charges of war crimes while patrolling Afghanistan, he couldn’t have possibly imagined that when he embarked on making a film about it that he would learn the war they would fight on American soil was far more intense than the one they were engaged in overseas.

As his film “The Kill Team” demonstrates, that lack of direct combat is perhaps how Army Specialist Adam Winfield found himself accused of a premeditated murder of an Afghan civilian, since his squad, led by an allegedly trigger-happy staff sergeant named Calvin Gibbs, passed their time during long stretches of inactivity on the battlefield by setting up innocent citizens to make use of their guns in some way. What makes Winfield’s story particularly compelling is that he was the one who raised concerns about his squad, reaching out to his parents (seen above) in Facebook chats from the Maiwand district and beyond when his superiors were disinclined to hear of such grievous offenses committed by fellow soldiers if not actually complicit in them directly.

While Gibbs remains a shadowy presence in “The Kill Team,” ironically represented via a single vivid image of him patrolling a poppy field since he chose not to participate in the film Krauss’ documentary does an extraordinary job of bringing everything else into clear view, taking no longer than 80 minutes to illustrate exhaustively the moral quandaries presented by modern warfare, from the moment soldiers first step onto enemy territory to when they come back home. Although the machinations of Winfield’s case take center stage, all the other members of his squad who appear before Krauss’ camera often drift into self-reflection about their actions and how their behavior changed after being deployed as they paint a fuller portrait of what happened in combat, ultimately revealing a provocative look into the responsibilities of being a soldier and the protection they deserve when their command chain is compromised.

Just before the film took home the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Krauss spoke of the unusual way he got his foot in the door to make the film and what impressed (and confounded) him most about the young men he encountered.

How did you get interested in this as a subject?

I had a film [“The Death of Kevin Carter”] completed back in 2005 about a war photographer in South Africa by the name of Kevin Carter, who had taken this photograph of a vulture who was stalking a starving child in the Sudan. It won him the Pulitzer Prize, but he was tormented by this moral question of whether he should take the picture or put down the camera. I was interested in the intersection of morality amidst a violent context and that film really sparked an interest in that topic for me, so when I read about the Kill Team and, in particular, Adam Winfield’s circumstance, it tapped into an existing interest in the question of how people manage to decide between competing moral priorities when they are faced with very violent circumstances.

Was the Winfield family immediately receptive to this?

I think they were so focused on the legal proceedings that they didn’t really even have time to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to participate. When their attorney, with whom I sort of negotiated this arrangement, endorsed the idea and suggested that I come in, they just went along with it because they were in the business of saving their son. Anything their lawyer said that they thought might lead to some good down the road for them, they were onboard with. They accepted me as part of the process and from that initial encounter grew a very deep and warm relationship. But initially, it was just purely functional.

The film is very much impartial, but I understand this film came about in an interesting way since the way you got your foot in the door was by shooting video testimony for the defense. Is it odd to make a documentary with that as a starting point? Did it shape what you wanted to do with the film?

It certainly didn’t shape the film in the final form, but what it did was push me to my ethical boundary. As a filmmaker with a foundation of journalism, it was really pushing me towards the edge of my comfort zone to make this arrangement, but I was myself making a very difficult decision. I felt like getting the access was worth the tradeoff, and what I did to ensure that I stay on the right side of it was to put in writing actually that I retain ownership and control of the material. With that permission in place, I felt comfortable moving forward and they didn’t have any influence on the film at all.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is that while it deals in a specific case and there’s enough to understand the context it took place in, it certainly could’ve applied to any war. How much of a deliberate choice was that?

Because I’m not a political filmmaker, despite appearances to the contrary perhaps, I’m more interested in universal truth. This story is as old as history. War crimes go back to the Greek Wars, the Bible. So this is something that has gone on for ages and will unfortunately continue for some time. Although the context of the Afghanistan war is vital to understanding some of the variables that were in play here, there were far more interesting variables that are more universal that are cogent to any war going into the past or into the future.

Was it easy to get your head around the way the military justice system worked?

It was certainly a learning experience for me to see that. The military justice system does not have any independent authority involved in the process. I can’t confirm this is actually true, but I’ve been told anecdotally that the military prosecutors have upwards of a 90 percent prosecution rate, so when you are brought before a military tribunal, your chances of walking away after an investigation with no punishment are very small because the military justice system was historically built on a foundation of punishment that the convening authority, the very people who bring forward the charges to be considered by the military judge, are in fact the same people that essentially control the entire judicial process, including the jury members. Everything from the criminal investigation on through the judicial process itself in the courtroom is controlled by the military.

It shouldn’t be surprising given that they’re soldiers, but still it was incredible how poised and collected these men were, especially in light of some of the sentences they ultimately received. Were you at all surprised by that?

So much of those interviews surprised me. First of all, I was consistently surprised by just how young these guys are. Every time I was in a room with them, they just feel like kids to me and I’m not that much older. I’m 40. I’m old enough to have some perspective on what is a very young man as opposed to a man who’s seen some of the world and knows of these things. And these guys were the former. They were very young, some of them hadn’t left their hometown before, so Afghanistan was this extraordinarily foreign place for them.

The second thing that surprised me was how articulate and intelligent and thoughtful they were. These were not dumb grunts by any stretch. These are kids who know how to express themselves in a very compelling way. They’re not mindless drones with guns. They’re each individual human beings with a certain intellect and a certain perspective on the world and I found each of their interviews deeply compelling in different ways. So I was consistently surprised by what they could teach me about their experience and about the world. It was quite an extraordinary experience to have a conversation with these guys and in some cases, it was very difficult to reconcile their poise and their good humor with what I had known they had done. It was really unsettling and that taught me a little bit in itself about the difference between young men in the theater of war and young men back here in civilization. It’s a different world and in a different world, you behave differently. You are in some ways different people.

“The Kill Team” will open in New York at Lincoln Center on July 25th and Los Angeles at the Nuart on August 8th. A full list of other theaters and dates is here.

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