Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei says the United States government has been “very silent” about her latest documentary. It’s no wonder: Drone examines the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles in the covert war being waged in Pakistan by the Central Intelligence Agency.
According to estimates presented in the 78-minute film, missile strikes launched by U.S. drones killed around 3,000 and injured more than 1,100 people in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013. Meanwhile, Schei told the Georgia Straight, the latest figures suggest that fewer than 70 “high-profile militants” have died in these attacks.
“I am extremely worried that the U.S. is setting a very dangerous standard for warfare—killing thousands of people outside of declared war zones with no transparency and no accountability,” Drone’s director said during a Skype call from Oslo, Norway. “And while they’re selling the drones as this perfect weapon in the war on terror—that’s surgical, precise, that can pinpoint terrorists—thousands of civilians have been killed. The anger that this is fuelling on the ground, I think, is a very dangerous long-term effect of drone strikes.”
Drone will be shown at Vancouver’s 2015 DOXA Documentary Film Festival as part of its Justice Forum. The film features interviews with former Air Force personnel who piloted armed drones, survivors of attacks, human-rights activists, journalists, and former secretary of state Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who says the U.S. has created a self-perpetuating “terrorist-industrial complex”.
One former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, participated in missions that killed over 1,600 people. In chilling detail, he recounts his first strike, and how he watched remotely from Nevada as a man bled to death.
“The first time was horrible,” Bryant says in the film. “The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But, of course, the first time sticks with you the longest.”
On April 23, President Barack Obama apologized for a January drone attack in Pakistan that accidentally killed two aid workers—an American and an Italian—being held hostage by al-Qaeda.
Drone also shines a light on how the military uses video games and gaming conventions to recruit soldiers. Schei asserted that the public is largely unaware of the “very close relationship” between the video-game industry and the military.
“For me, the increasingly thinning line between virtual war and real war, especially when it comes to drone warfare, where you go from getting points per kill to all of a sudden just pressing the button and killing real people on the other side of the world, it’s extremely alarming,” the filmmaker said.
Schei remarked that she also finds the rapid development of drone technology “pretty terrifying”. Drone looks ahead to the day when algorithms decide who is targeted for death.
“As soon as you take the human out of the kill loop, I think we are facing a very, very dangerous and scary future, where accountability in warfare is all of a sudden maybe being totally removed,” Schei said. “I mean, who’s going to be responsible for software gone wrong?”
The filmmaker noted she hopes the documentary will raise awareness of the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes and provoke public debate about the “new normal” in warfare. Fittingly, DOXA will host a discussion after the film screening.
Carmen Cheung, senior counsel for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, will be one of the panellists. The lawyer told the Straight she wants to talk about American use of combat drones in “extraterritorial and, in some ways, extrajudicial killings” targeting citizens of other countries and how that relates to amendments made last year to Canada’s Citizenship Act.
Speaking by phone from the BCCLA’s office in downtown Vancouver, Cheung noted that the Conservative government’s Bill C-24 allows officials to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens on certain grounds, such as criminal convictions outside of the country. She pointed out that dual citizens stripped of their U.K. citizenship have been killed in attacks by U.S. drones.
“One of the concerns that academics and human-rights lawyers have raised is that we might see something similar where governments will declaim responsibility over their citizens or say, ‘They’re no longer our citizens,’ and then not have to be responsible if the U.S. decides to target them for a drone strike,” Cheung said.
Drone screens at the Cinematheque at 2 p.m. on May 9 as part of the DOXA festival.