At what point does a documentary stop being a documentary and cross over into advocacy, or drama? "Dirty Wars" was thought-provoking, but it blurred the lines between documentary and docudrama.
"Dirty Wars" starts in Afghanistan, where war correspondant Jeremy Scahill learns of a nighttime raid in the village of Gardez, Afghanistan. Stepping well outside the military-certified safe zone, Scahill finds a shadow war. These raids and missile strikes are being conducted by the Joint Specail Operations Command, a special forces unit with no public existence. Scahill travels to Somalia and Yemen to meet with the victims of these attacks, and the film ends by concluding that the whole world has become "America's battlefield," giving us the authority to strike anywhere at any time.
The film was well-shot, playing on screen more like a feature film than a documentary. On-location video blended seamlessly with b-roll, reenactments and file footage. No distinction was made on-screen between them, and I thik that hurt the film.
Part of Scahill's reputation has been his journalistic prowess, but when I met with the film's director, Richard Rowley, afterthe film, he said that they weren't trying to make a documentary. He said (I did not write this down, so I'm paraphrasing) that the film's creative team wanted to create an immersive story, to escape from the traditional stodgy documentary format and create something that would impact people.
The film's storytelling and shooting definitely had an impact on the audience in the Wexner Center auditorium. The auditorium stayed quiet as the credits rolled, waiting for something. The silence broke for a question and answer period with Scahill and Rowley, but the audience's questions drew from the film.
The film's power came from the interviews with the families of the dead, of the photographs and grainy cellphone video that they provided. It came from the archive footage of news anchors speaking with breaking-news urgency. It came from a smiling Afghan girl talking about death and from a greiving grandmother wondering why her grandson was killed.
Would a small "Dramatization" tag on the night-scope clips of helicopters flying into Gardez have hurt that? I don't think so.