The evening of Feb. 12, 2010, had such a happy start for Mohammed Daoud — video footage captured earlier in the night shows Daoud's family laughing and dancing and drumming in celebration of the family's newest member, a baby boy.
By the end of the night five members of the family, including two pregnant woman and Daoud himself, an American-trained Afghan police commander, would be dead.
When members of Daoud's family, who live near Gardez, Afghanistan, recounted the night's events to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and filmmaker Richard Rowley, they told them it was definitely American military who arrived at their home in the middle of the night, shot Daoud and the others, then dug the bullets out of their bodies. But a NATO press release described the deaths as Taliban honor killings.
Unraveling that story and others about the quiet presence of American military in nations around the world is the work of Dirty Wars. The film, in theaters as of last Friday, chronicles the legwork Scahill did while researching many of the stories in his book by the same name.
Scahill, a frequent contributor to The Nation, was batting around the idea of doing another book in 2010 (his first, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, came out in 2007). At the same time, Rowley was making short films for Al-Jazeera and stringing for different outlets with the thought of making a movie. The two of them decided to collaborate.
"We didn't have a film budget, we didn't have any producers, we had nothing set up," Scahill recalled. He had just received a grant to do some reporting, though. "I'm like, 'Well, listen, I'll buy you a plane ticket, and we'll just crash in the same hotel room, and we can see how it goes.'"
That trip took them to Gardez, where they spoke to Daoud's family and watched a grainy cell phone video captured that night.
"I think we knew as soon as we got done shooting in Gardez, and how we were both really altered by it, that we wanted to work on something that would not just tell the story in word and print, but would show this hidden side of these wars."
The film follows Scahill across Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia as he investigates the stories and chronicles the collateral damage of American military intervention, including that of the the targeted killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, and two weeks later, the targeted killing of his teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and stories like that of the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider, who reported on American drone strikes in the country, and was later detained, tried, and sentenced on terrorism-related charges in a trial that was disputed by human rights groups. In the film, Scahill describes how his sentence was set to be vacated by President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen before he received a personal phone call from President Obama.
"Every single speech I give, or interview, I always bring him up because he's still in prison. I just got an email from his brother the other day saying he's losing his mind," Scahill said of Abdulelah Haider.
Viewers will be disappointed, though, if they expect the film to build to a profound and satisfying conclusion — and Scahill says that is by design. "When we were deciding how to end the film, every ending that we had that was going to proclaim some greater truth felt like bullshit," he said. "We decided to end it on a series of questions."
They are questions that Scahill hopes people will consider after leaving the theater. "I would consider the film an achievement if people who wouldn't be inclined to discuss what's being done in our name and its potential impact on our security or who we are as a nation," he said, "if they'll discuss that in their ordinary, everyday lives, that would be a tremendous achievement."
The film does leave the audience with one indelible image — of a small Yemeni girl playing near the site of a drone strike.
"I don't think anyone would ever notice it, but if you were to freeze that frame in the film and blow it up, what you see in her eyes, it's one of the moments in the film where I get choked up watching it. In her eyes, you see me standing in front of her in this desert, and Rick with his camera," Scahill said. "You can actually see that in her eyes."