In the documentary Dirty Wars (directed by Rick Rowley), Jeremy Scahill shines a light into the darkness of America’s secret wars, and on the culture of apathy and ignorance that enables it.

During the national anthem at the recent Super Bowl, the television audience got the now customary military component of the pregame presentation: an Army colour guard on the field, live images of troops saluting from some base in Afghanistan followed by the customary fly-by, the strutting of overhead weaponry that Americans somehow find reassuring.

This year’s fly-by, however, was different. No jets. Instead, we got Apache helicopters, which makes sense when you think about it. Given what the US military seems to be up to around the world these days, it’s not really about jets. It’s about close air support.

What would have made even more sense would have been a fly-by of drones. The skies over the stadium in New Jersey should have been filled with pilotless Predators and Reapers. And the video feed shouldn’t have come from Bagram. It should have been from a secret location in Nevada or upstate New York, at one of the many military bases where pilots do their remote control thing.

Drones are the weapons of choice in more and more conflicts these days. This is because they are the perfect tool to fight the new kind of war, the asymmetrical conflicts that confound conventional armies. They also usually confound modern news outlets, which haven’t yet learned how to cover them.

These are the kind of conflicts Jeremy Scahill covers in Dirty Wars, the timely documentary that goes where much of the Western world’s news media does not and tells important stories that usually go untold.

Getting into the shadowy areas around modern warfare is not easy. Doing it with a video camera is harder. And turning it into a watchable, Academy Award-nominated documentary is harder still.

Scahill made his name and learned his way around the nooks and crannies in and around the US military when he wrote Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, his 2008 book on the giant military contracting firm that made billions during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

gizbert img1
Scahill in Somalia, Photo: Richard Rowley

Like drones, Blackwater does most of its work in the dark, off screen (and off the books, as far as Pentagon spending is officially concerned). Scahill’s reporting on Blackwater prepared him well for Dirty Wars and the three telling stories of secret US military warfare that the film focuses on: Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

All three are tales of black ops, where the US military played a central role in acts of war against civilians, by committing them or, in the case of Somalia, facilitating them. As Scahill says, in the opening montage, ”This is a story about the seen and the unseen. And about things hidden in plain sight.”

It seems rather easy nowadays, given what has happened to the news industry, to hide such things. Jingoism still mars a lot of the coverage of foreign policy coming out of the US. Despite the mea culpas (or kinda culpas) we heard after all those anchor people helped cheerlead America, indefensibly, into Iraq, they are basically singing from the same song sheet on Iran.

And with the economics of the news industry collapsing budgets and Justin Bieber running amok and attracting those coveted clicks, what sensible North American news outlet would devote its dwindling resources to chasing stories from which most North Americans would rather avert their eyes?

Dirty Wars gets at those stories through a combination of dogged journalism, thousands of miles travelled, exceptional access and good storytelling, as well as the visual devices born in Hollywood that are becoming more and more common in contemporary documentaries.

The opening sequence could have come out of the Bourne series. The post-production grading of the video creates an effect audiences will recognize as a kind of halfway house between entertainment and documentaries. Call it cinéma (slightly less) verité.

The narrative winds through dusty roads in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa, pauses for breath at the reporter’s apartment in Brooklyn and follows Scahill into a congressional committee room in Washington, DC. There, his shocking findings on an American war crime are presented to a half-empty committee room that just grows more empty as Scahill delivers his evidence.

One of the narrative threads the film relies on is Scahill himself, and he is uncomfortably prominent in the presentation of the film. ”Uncomfortable” is his word, not mine. He told me in an interview that he had to be convinced to front the story for marketing purposes. Scahill despairs at that uncomfortable truth: that the best chance his documentary had to succeed with mostly white, Western audiences would be if he presented it, rather than allowing the participants  —  and victims  —  of the story to tell it themselves.

There are a few moments where the filmmakers do seem to take it a bit too far: the freeze-frames, with a telephoto effect and the machine-gun text across the bottom of the screen capturing a man heading into a meeting in Jalalabad. The technique would have been more effective had the target of the lens been a Bin Laden courier or an American operative, rather than Scahill himself.

But that’s showbiz. And I’m quibbling.

Because journalism, like warfare, has changed. There are techniques filmmakers rely on to attract audiences that were unnecessary just a generation ago. Complaining about that is as pointless as moaning about the technology that has driven the change.

Journalists have always had to fight to get their stories on the air. All that has changed is the rules of the game.

This is a story about things
hidden in plain sight.

So the nomination of Dirty Wars for a best documentary Oscar was welcome. As a story, the War on Terror Inc. and its growing subsidiaries in the shadows will continue to be a tough sell on the evening news and in the papers, let alone with cinema audiences.

But Jeremy Scahill and his production team have succeeded in doing just this. They have bucked some of the disturbing trends in contemporary journalism, such as the devotion to simple narratives of good vs. evil that reduce the struggles in the Middle East and other ”foreign” places to a cartoonish grammar seen through the prism of domestic politics.

Punching through that corrupted vision is the film’s true achievement. It has taken us to the stories we are not shown, or choose not to see, even though those stories lie, as our reluctant narrator tell us, hidden in plain sight.


Richard Gizbert hosts Listening Post, on Al Jazeera English.