At the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, we were happy to welcome back photojournalist-turned-documentarian Dan Krauss with his feature length documentary, The Kill Team. Dan won the Best Documentary Short prize back at TFF 2005 for The Death of Kevin Carter, so we expected great things from him, and we were not disappointed.
Krauss’s debut feature-length documentary explores the prosecution of would-be whistleblower Adam Winfield, who tried, along with his father, to alert the military of the heinous war crimes his platoon was committing in Afghanistan. Alone and scared, Winfield made a decision that has had unthinkable consequences.
Featuring interviews with Winfield, his family and the others soldiers on trial, The Kill Team is a gripping exploration of the corrupting effects that the American military machine has on individual soldiers. We talked to Dan Krauss about his process, issues of access and why the length of the film matters to the story being told.
Tribeca: Your Oscar-nominated short doc, The Death of Kevin Carter, explored moral choices faced by a war photographer in South Africa. Has the subject of war and morality always interested you?
Dan Krauss: I think the groundwork for The Kill Team was the work I had done on that prior film. What drew me to the Kevin Carter’s story was his background in photojournalism. I was a photojournalist for a decade or so before I got into making documentaries. In the making of the short film, I developed a deeper respect and appreciation for the moral crises that are inherent in these kinds of conflicts.
So with that thematic groundwork, Adam Winfield’s story resonated with me immediately because, in a way, his crisis is not completely dissimilar from the moral crisis that Kevin Carter faced. They both dealt with impossible decisions brought on by wars that had no clear outcomes. So how do you make a choice? How do you make a choice when there is no absolute right or wrong path that you can distinguish?
Tribeca: You have a master’s degree in Journalism from Berkeley. How has that shaped your approach to filmmaking?
DK: I think there’s still an ongoing debate about whether documentary filmmakers are journalists. Are we required to adhere to the same journalistic rigor that reporters are? For me, journalism instilled an ethical rigor and a respect for the voices of my subjects. Objective distance is very important to me.
Many documentary filmmakers, including ones for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, specialize in advocacy filmmaking. As someone with a foundation in journalism, I identify myself strictly as a non-advocacy filmmaker. Maybe that’s what was instilled in me by a field that aims for strict adherence to the political middle ground.
I think there’s still an ongoing debate about whether documentary filmmakers are journalists.
Tribeca: Even though you say that you are not a “political filmmaker,” your films explore political subjects like the moral abyss of war and the abuses within our military system.
DK: The reason I stress my objectivity so much is that this film could be easily mistaken for anti-military advocacy. I hail from a liberal part of the country. I teach at Berkeley in California. I sense a danger that people are going to assume that this film has certain political ambitions that I don’t aspire to as a filmmaker.
People say very incendiary things in the film. It’s hard not to draw a line between what they’re saying and some sort of political leaning. I don’t want people to mistake what the guys in my film are saying for what my personal opinions as a filmmaker may or may not be.
Tribeca: Do you remember how you first came upon Adam Winfield’s story?
DK: I remember it very clearly. I opened The New York Times Magazine in April of 2011 and found an article about the Kill Team. One of the first images in that article was a picture of Adam with his arms around his parents. I saw this beaming young skinny guy, but the caption under the photo said that he was both a whistle blower and a murder suspect. I looked at the picture and wondered if this kid was capable of committing murder. I was also intrigued by the fact that he attempted to do the right thing and was accused of doing the wrong thing.
How had his experience in Afghanistan situated him firmly in the middle of these two moral poles? Like Kevin Carter, this was another kind of young, good looking guy in war faced with a crisis, a moral crisis that was unresolved and that could have no good outcome.
Tribeca: I understand that you became involved with the Winfield family by shooting video for the defense team at Adam’s trial. How open were they to your making a film about Adam’s experience?
DK: I’m not like a court videographer or anything like that, but the defense needed some material of their own. They told me I could film some footage that they could use, and I would be able to make into a basis for a documentary, should I proceed. That was the deal we made.
To film all of that pre-trial process, I needed to make an agreement with the defense team because I could not get into that room without the understanding that I would be hearing privileged conversations. I had to be there for a legitimate reason. The filming gave me my first opportunity to sit down with Adam Winfield and his family face-to-face to describe my vision for the film and get a feeling from them whether they’d want to partner with me in the project.
Tribeca: Were you familiar with the ways that the military justice system works before starting this film?
DK: Not really. I think the most interesting thing I learned about the military justice system is that it is designed to dole out punishment rather than to seek truth. The predicate is the idea that a soldier needs to be punished, and what is being decided is the appropriate punishment rather than guilt or innocence. The civilian attorneys who practice in military court made clear to me that there is a presumption of guilt in the military justice system. The prosecutorial success rate is staggering—something like 95%. So the idea that you will be able to fight for truth or establish your innocence is not realistic for most soldiers.
These guys are not secondary or tertiary sources—they are the primary sources.
Tribeca: In my view, people watching the documentary inevitably will feel angry on behalf of Adam and his family.
DK: Well it’s an interesting thing. You do feel angry for Adam, especially at first. But as the film progresses, the audience starts to understand that he had a larger role than they were first led to believe. That was very intentional on our part; we were sort of peeling that back. Ultimately, the anger the audience comes away with arises from the fact that Adam was put in that situation in the first place.
He had some responsibility in what happened, but he should have never been there. That’s the thing that really riles people, but their sympathy is also tempered by the fact that Adam had options—and this is something that he has a deep regret about. He’s living with the idea that he could’ve done more, and that he should’ve done more. He has a huge amount of guilt that he didn’t do enough to stop these guys.
Tribeca: I think many people consider men who volunteer for the military as meatheads with no options. The fact that Jeremy Morlock, Andrew Holmes and Adam were all so articulate seems to dispel that impression. Did their ability to express themselves surprise you? Did that make their actions all the more horrifying?
DK: Yes and yes. I think everyone has perhaps a preconception of infantry soldiers as being grunts, not capable of reflection. I think that’s a mistake. I’ve been guilty of that mistake, but I’ve learned. These guys were anything but dumb grunts.
The reason we included so many interviews is that I think this film is very much about the human face and all the subtleties of expression and language coming from each of these four young guys. I think the topography of the human face, particularly with these four guys, is incredibly engrossing. That’s why in many instances we didn’t cut away or cover our jumps. We wanted to stay with those human faces because these guys are very compelling storytellers.
These guys are not secondary or tertiary sources—they are the primary sources. In some cases, they were the ones who carried out the horrific crimes that are the subject of the film. This film highlights the close up and all of its power. As you can see, I’m a big admirer of The Times of Harvey Milk and other interview driven films.
Tribeca: I did notice that many times you had your camera stay with the interview subjects long after they stopped speaking.
DK: I’m very moved by the silence. In some cases, the silence is far more powerful than the sound of someone’s voice. There are moments when Adam is talking with the psychiatrist and you can hear him swallowing. To me, those are some of the most moving moments of the film.
Tribeca: I think some filmmakers are afraid to keep the cameras rolling after the initial questions have been answered.
DK: When I interview subjects, I always intentionally remain silent after someone has ostensibly ended their answer. While it gives me a longer tail to work with in the editing room, I also do it because you never know whether that tension that comes from silence will cause someone to blurt out or spontaneously confess something that they would have withheld otherwise.
I am a strict adherent of discipline in the edit room.
Tribeca: I love how you structured The Kill Team. You make Adam’s impending trial the main focus while using interviews and archival photos to retell Adam’s and his squad’s story throughout the film. How difficult was the editing process? Can you explain your thought process?
DK: First of all, I had an amazingly talented, brilliant editor named Lawrence Lerew and my producer Linda Davis to collaborate with. We had this kind of three-person intellectual cabal, and I have to say that working with them was an extremely gratifying and intellectually stimulating creative experiences.
Early on, I decided to structure this film with two forward moving timelines intertwined. I wanted to use the present day timeline to show the drama of Adam facing charges of premeditated murder, and I wanted to use the past tense timeline to slowly reveal everything that happened in Afghanistan that led to those murder charges.
Lawrence and Linda helped me figure out how to make transitions from one timeline to the other and how to find moments of resonance between the present and the past. For example, when the retrospective part of the story focuses on Adam’s squad mates threatening him in Afghanistan, the current story has Chris Winfield receiving anonymous threats in the present day. When in the past Adam faces the decision of whether he’s going to stop these guys or go along with the murder, in the present day Adam and his family are deciding whether they should take the plea deal or fight in court. In both timelines, Adam is facing impossible decisions.
To add even more to our plate-spinning act, we decided to add a third backward moving timeline by having Adam regress to his childhood self. He’s not exactly the poster boy for the US military, so we wanted to reveal why this kid—this smart, skinny, kid from this solidly middle class supportive family—decided to go to war. The audience needs to understand Adam’s idealistic and somewhat naïve motives for joining up to really sense the tragedy of his fall. The distance between those youthful ideals and their violent dismantling is just so affecting. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.
Tribeca: The Kill Team is also your first feature length documentary. What lessons did you apply from your past experience to craft a feature-length non-fiction narrative?
DK: Like anything, when you’re learning how to tell a story, you have to take steps. So The Death of Kevin Carter was the step that led me to longer form. Some filmmakers are able to go right into their first feature and do a fantastic job and more power to them, but I took a different path. In journalism school, I started making 2-minute pieces, then 5 minute pieces and eventually made a 30 minute thesis film. One of my real pet peeves as a filmmaker is seeing films that are unnecessarily feature length—ones that could have easily been 45 minutes or 30 minutes shorter.
I am a strict adherent of discipline in the edit room. I’m not particularly precious with my material. There’s something exhilarating and liberating about editing material and seeing what happens. For me, the short film taught me that I can tell a really powerful story in 30 minutes. Essentially, every minute has to count. So with this film which is 79-minutes,I wanted to make sure that every one of those 79 minutes counts. I wanted to make it feature length only because the story requires it.