Filmmaker Dan Krauss, who was nominated for an Academy Award and two Emmys for his first feature, The Death of Kevin Carter, was on the Oscar shortlist for his latest documentary The Kill Team, which also received a Director’s Guild of America (DGA) Award nomination. The film, which is about a soldier who got caught in a moral conundrum during the war in Afghanistan when fellow soldiers were committing war crimes, was called a “terrifying example of how easily basic human decency and morality can melt away in the fog of war” by Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir and an “inconsolably moving documentary” by NPR and New York magazine’s David Edelstein, “an essential film no matter what your political convictions.” The Kill Team has its television premiere this Monday, January 19th, at 10pm on Independent Lens on PBS [check local listings].
Krauss is now developing both a fiction film and a new documentary — though he can’t discuss either publicly yet, he tells us — and checked in to talk a bit about this memorable film.
What led you to make The Kill Team?
In 2011, I opened The New York Times magazine to find a deeply engrossing article about U.S. soldiers accused of atrocities in Afghanistan. I was particularly drawn to a photograph of a beaming young man with his arms slung over the shoulders of his parents. The caption underneath read: “Specialist Adam Winfield…who tried to alert the military…and who is accused of murder himself.”
In that one sentence, there was a story of Shakespearean dimension— of morality, war, and tragic failures. A young man who had attempted to act in the moral right, and who instead found himself confronting a moral abyss. How had this happened? The question haunted me.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I would like this film to help illuminate the concept of “moral injury.” The term refers to a psychological wound that comes from having taken an action – or failed to prevent an action – that is a betrayal of one’s core moral values.
Often, soldiers do not have the luxury of choosing between clear right or wrong. Rather, they are forced to weigh competing moral priorities, which is profoundly challenging, especially for young people with limited life experience. Soldiers often have only a split second to make a decision, but the consequences of that decision last their entire lives.
As a country, we bear a collective responsibility to acknowledge and better understand the tensions that tear at soldiers’ psyches as they replay in their minds over and over again the choices they made or failed to make.
There must have been a lot of challenges in making a film like this.
Access was an enormous challenge. The story was largely impenetrable to the media. All official channels were on lockdown.
I managed to get my foot in the door with Adam Winfield’s defense attorney and was given permission to film trial preparations in exchange for granting limited access to interview footage of the Winfield family. Things took off from there.
And how did you gain the trust of the soldiers involved and the Winfields?
When it comes to gaining trust, the two most important things to demonstrate to your subjects are empathy and commitment. I made it clear to everyone involved that I didn’t intend to simply parachute into their lives for a fleeting interaction. Rather, I wished to engage with them on a deeper level, to reach a level of understanding that transcended questions of individual culpability.
The Winfield family has seen the film and is very supportive, even though it is a difficult chapter to relive. They understand that telling this story in all its moral intricacies and contradictions serves a greater purpose.
Could you talk a little about the difficulty of telling SSgt. Gibbs’ story? (Gibbs is currently in prison.)
We tried very hard to make contact with SSgt. Gibbs while he was in pre-trial confinement but were unsuccessful. At first, we feared this might make it impossible to complete the film. But as we began to assemble the material, an interesting thing happened: in his absence, Gibbs grew to mythic proportion. His shadow became a powerful presence in the film, representing a culture, a psyche, a mindset.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you. [slight spoiler ahead]
I find the scene in which Jeremy Morlock describes the experience of coming home on leave utterly tragic. He knows he is being drawn into a moral abyss and considers asking his family for help, but he’s unable to summon the emotional strength. I look at him in that scene and I glimpse just for a moment his vulnerability. I can’t reconcile that very human picture of Jeremy with the brutal killing he carried out in Afghanistan. It’s almost as if he exists in two worlds. And I can’t help but wonder if there was a different future for the bright, charismatic, young guy that left for Afghanistan in 2009.
Another scene I find particularly poignant occurs at the beginning of the third act, when Adam is about to be court-martialed. There is a sequence, brilliantly constructed by editor Lawrence Lerew, that powerfully contrasts Adam’s acceptance of responsibility with his father’s refusal to accept the government’s charges. To me, that scene is very much about a father clinging to his son. And a son who recognizes he must walk a very difficult path alone. As a father myself, I can’t watch this scene without feeling a deep sense of pathos.
How do you keep going when you’re making an independent film, much of it on your own?
There is a moment in the construction of a film where the disparate fragments start to meld so that the clunkiness of the filmmaking process suddenly disappears. The scenes come together in a way that feels almost inevitable. And the experience of watching the film takes on a level of depth that transcends all the individual elements of the story. I live for that moment.
Why did you want to present your film on public TV?
This is a moment for Americans to reflect on the longest war in our country’s history. To ask weighty questions about what was accomplished and what was lost. To attempt to understand the experience of very young men and women that we delivered into a devastating environment.
To the extent that this film plays a meaningful role in that discussion, it demands to be seen by a public audience. PBS has the capability to put this film in the living rooms of more Americans than any other television outlet, and we’re grateful for that opportunity.
Are there any documentary films or filmmakers who were especially influential in your work?
The Times of Harvey Milk was a seminal film for me. It was the first time I had seen an interview-driven film truly rooted in character. And I’ve since become a student of the documentary interview. When it’s done right, it can take you deep inside the human psyche, an exhilarating place to be. I still become intensely frustrated when critics dismiss a film just because they employ “talking head” interviews. Harvey Milk proves that talking heads are only boring when they say boring things.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
I have been fortunate to have had extraordinary mentors in my career, namely Deborah Hoffmann and Jon Else. In my opinion, you cannot make great work without first sitting at the feet of others who have made great work.
Bonus: Dan Krauss interviewed on NPR’s On the Media program: