Tonje Hessen Schei’s Drone takes a detailed look at the growing, and disturbing, use of drone technology to fight the war on terror. The documentary offers a shocking, but well-rounded, examination of the personnel controlling the drones, the people who endure daily attacks, and those who are critics of the technology.
Focusing her camera on Waziristan, Pakistan, a favourite hunting ground for the U.S. Drone Program, Hessen Schei paints a picture of program drunk with power. The buzzing sounds of drones are so prevalent in the Waziristan sky that local children now beg for cloudy days so they can play outside without fear of being bombed. Since the U.S.’s position is that terrorists often seek easy refuge in the territory, they have given their pilots permission to engage any males of a certain age seen carrying firearms. These orders are to be followed regardless if the target is amongst family or at a crowded event such as a wedding.
Gathering accounts from former drone pilots, Drone uncovers a rather murky chain of command within the program. The pilots are members of the U.S. Air Force, but they receive their orders from the C.I.A. As if playing a video game with real-life consequences – the film touches on how the military actually uses video games as a recruitment tool – the drone pilots sit in an unassuming room in Nevada and toggle joysticks while looking at video screens showing their targeting area. Former pilot Brandon Bryant gives detailed accounts of both the strikes and the jubilant response from his colleagues after each “successful” mission. The latter of which is a direct contrast to his own feelings about having just ended a human life that may or not have been a real threat to his country.
Hessen Schei’s film also highlights three voices fighting for the end of the strikes in Waziristan. Human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar, activist and founder of “Reprieve” Clive Stafford Smith and investigative photographer Noor Behram have been working towards raising awareness of the horrors of drone strikes. Akbar brought a case against the CIA station chiefs on behalf of the families of drone victims. Stafford Smith organized a western media caravan into Waziristan to show the world the real situation on the ground. He also worked with Noor Behram to blow up his photos of children orphaned or abandoned in the strike zone. These photos were placed on the roofs of the houses in the target area to counteract the detachment that most drone pilots have sitting in their box in Nevada.
It is this detachment that is most troubling in Drone. History has shown that the greater the distance between opposing forces, through the use of technology, the military casualties decrease but the civilian casualties increase. Drone is a comprehensive and fascinating look into the secretive technology that is reshaping warfare.
Saturday, May 2, 10:30 AM, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.