Doxa Film Festival Interview: Tonje Hessen Schei (Drone)

DRONE‘ takes you inside the secret CIA drone war with intimate stories from the war on terror. People living under drones in Pakistan and drone pilots struggling with killing through joysticks in the US.

Drone_PosterThe film covers diverse and integral ground from the recruitment of young pilots at gaming conventions and the re-definition of “going to war”, to the moral stance of engineers behind the technology, the world leaders giving the secret “green light” to engage in the biggest targeted killing program in history, and the people willing to stand up against the violations of civil liberties and fight for transparency, accountability and justice.

This is just the beginning. In the midst of fast advancement of technology and lagging international legislation the film shows how drones change wars and possibly our future.

Anticipating the film’s 2015 DOXA Documentary Film Festival screening on May 9, 2015, we spoke with the film’s Director Tonje Hessen Schei in Oslo, about her approach to constructing documentary narratives, President Obama’s failed promises, the drone war’s relation to gaming, and more.

The 2015 DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs April 30 – May 10, 2015 at various venues in Vancouver, Canada.

Find more information & tickets to ‘Drone’ at the 215 DOXA Documentary Film FestivalHERE

What is your philosophy towards constructing a documentary narrative?
The most important thing is to tell human stories.  Also, to tell stories that are not getting covered properly in the mainstream media.  I usually like to find stories that touch on issues I feel are important and to put them in the perspective of the day, as well as the future.

Would you say you go into a film with a “fly on the wall” approach, or with an activist approach?
The notion of objectivity left us a long time ago.  I think it is completely impossible to be objective.  To me, it is important to build contact with the audience early so they understand the films is a subjective take on the issue at hand.  A documentary is an argument in a bigger picture. It has always been important to tell as many sides of the story as possible, rather than pointing fingers we make films for people who think for themselves.

IMG002When you decided to take on the subject of drone warfare at the feature length level, was there a specific instance where you thought the film had to get made or was it more a result of the overall environment of unmanned killing we seem to have been living in for the past decade or so?
I started thinking about this film in 2010 when I was working on my last one.  That film looked at how kids in the US live their lives behind screens and are stuck in the virtual world.  I came across a story about a gamer who dropped out of high school and joined the military.  Very quickly, he was sent to be a drone pilot because of the skills he had acquired gaming.  To me, the thought of kids going from getting points per kill to actually killing people on the other side of the world is very terrifying.

I lived in the US during Obama’s election campaign and to see him go from the promise of closing down Guantanamo Bay and ending torture to literally killing thousands of people on the other side of the world based on suspicion is disconcerting.  The lack of criticism or demand for accountability and transparency from the rest of the world also made me feel like this film needed get be made.

What are your impressions on Obama’s role in all this?  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Oslo, which was a move seemed to represent more of a “well, you’re not George W Bush” sentiment rather than one of any substantive accomplishment.  As the Nobel Prize is an Oslo institution, what are the impressions in Norway toward the committee’s decision?
Obama getting the Nobel Prize was thought as a preemptive award.  One of him taking on a different role than George W Bush.  It has definitely sparked a lot of controversy and debate in Norway.  It is a decision, at least looking back, that does not fit with the Nobel legacy.  I have been very surprised as to how Obama has become the drone president.

As the Norwegian Film Fund was prominent in getting ‘Drone’ made, what is the country’s interest in this subject?
In Europe overall, there has been a great silence on this issue, which comes from several places.  The US is a very important ally for European countries, making it hard for countries like Norway to criticize them.  Then, I also think, there is a shared responsibility in what is going on.  Definitely a lot of shared intelligence and interests.  A lot of European countries have, or are looking into, drone technology. Finally, there is a lot of investment interest.  The Norwegian military, for example, provides fuel for the Hellfire missiles.

Then, I also think there is shared responsibility.  Definitely a lot of shared intelligence and interests.  A lot of European countries have, or are looking into, drone technology. Finally, there is a lot of investment interest.  The Norwegian military, for example, provides fuel for the Hellfire missiles.

Finally, there is a lot of investment interest.  The Norwegian military, for example, provides fuel for the Hellfire missiles.

IMG007To your knowledge, what is Norway’s role in the overall “War on Terror”?
Norway, as most European countries, has an active role in it. The way it is being fought allows us to have this constant conflict far in the distance that not a lot of people are directly influenced by.  One of the things which concerns me is how the public is told these are surgically precise weapons, built to take out top level militants. In reality, there is very little knowledge of the long-term consequences; the thousands of innocent people who have been killed.  If you look at Pakistan alone, which is our film’s focus, we have numbers that say around 4% of drone related fatalities are militants. Who are the other 96%?

I was reading an article the other day on a drone strike ordered by Obama, where an American and Italian hostage were killed…
The recent revelations that Americans were killed in drone strikes is very interesting.  The amount of attention it has been getting is also very interesting and goes along with what we have been saying this whole time, which is that drone strikes are not as precise as we are being told.  [Ret.] Cnl. Wilkerson says, in the film: “how can we win this war if, when we kill four, we create ten more”.

Precision is relative, I suppose.  When you’re dealing with such high-powered weaponry, there is a blast radius that cannot be the diameter of a single militant.  This seems obvious even to the war layman.  I don’t know why the powers that be continue to assert such a bizarre claim as there might not be…

Photographer: Lucian Muntean Copyright @ Flimmer Film 2014. All rights reserved

Photographer: Lucian Muntean Copyright @ Flimmer Film 2014. All rights reserved

Was there a particular interview or story you heard while conducting interviews that, on a personal level, was particularly impactful?
Working with the stories on the ground was particularly impactful.  Hearing stories from children who are afraid to go outside because they are scared of the blue sky.

Also, working closely with drone pilots who have had their lives devastated by participating in the program.  They are having a very hard time coming to terms with killing in this way.

On the current trajectory, where do you see the future of unmanned air technology?
What concerns me the most is the incredibly fast way the technology is developing.  The spread of it is particularly alarming.  When we started the film, only a handful of countries were interested in this technology. Now, around a hundred are.  The standard the US and CIA have set in their use of drones is particularly devastating in this picture.  What are we going to say when, for example, Russia uses it in the name of “imminent threat.”  The future of this is very dangerous and frightening.

As far as drone technology goes though, I am not anti-civilian technology.  I have my own drone.  I haven’t had time to learn how to use it but I have one.

– Interview conducted, edited and transcribed by Steve Rickinson
Twitter: @DroneDoc



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