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Kill Team: Tribeca Review

Kill Team Tribeca Film Still - H 2013
"Kill Team"

The Bottom Line

Doc offers new perspectives on infuriating story.

Venue:

Tribeca Film Festival, World Documentary Competition

Director:

Dan Krauss

Dan Krauss looks at sport-killings in Afghanistan through the eyes of a soldier who tried and failed to stop the spree.

NEW YORK — A blood-boiling documentary whose constrained viewpoint on its subject -- U.S. soldiers' sport-killing of Afghan civilians in 2010, and the prosecutions that followed -- doesn't prevent it from moving viewers to the point of despair, Dan Krauss's Kill Team focuses on questions of whistleblowing and culpability in situations where it seems impossible to stop a crime. Though it doesn't achieve the degree of impartiality it aspires to, the film will be much-discussed here and merits exposure beyond the fest circuit.

Alternating between two strands of the story, Krauss builds the narrative of the killings themselves (using soldier-shot material from Afghanistan and later interviews with some participants) and that of the prosecution of Specialist Adam Winfield, who attempted to expose the conspirators for weeks before being coerced (under threat of death) into participating.

By offering his video services to Winfield's defense team, Krauss got a surprising level of access -- shooting debates over plea bargains, intimate moments between Winfield and his parents, even psychiatric evaluations. Though Krauss says his film isn't meant to advocate for any side, some structural choices make it inevitable that viewers (at least those who come in with little knowledge of the events) will see Winfield's prosecution as the act of a vindictive Army angry at having its sins exposed: The film waits until near the end to show the soldier admitting the role he played in the last of the three murder cases; it spends much more time emphasizing his agonized efforts -- in cooperation with his father, a retired Marine, back home -- to alert Army officials to the crimes his comrades were committing.

It's no surprise that some of those soldiers refused to participate in this film. Others, astonishingly, did -- with the most shocking testimony coming from Jeremy Morlock, a corporal who matter-of-factly recounts how he embraced the suggestion of his superior, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, that he "get some kills" by shooting civilians and planting weapons on them to make them look like combatants. (Gibbs, infamously, cut fingers off his victims and planned to make a necklace from them.) Morlock's account is made more horrific with photos of the men posing beside just-killed victims and video of them mutilating the corpses.

Morlock's voice betrays little remorse; when he speaks of guilt, he claims to have "buried it -- just fuckin' powered through it" before returning to kill again. He spoke with Krauss on the condition that he be filmed in his dress uniform instead of a prison jumpsuit, and viewers unfamiliar with each participant's sentence may well be distracted by the worry that this cold-blooded killer made a plea to escape jail time while Winfield, who is shown throughout the film in shackles, was imprisoned. (The film acknowledges Morlock's life sentence, reduced to 24 years in exchange for cooperation in the case, only at the end.)

Other soldiers contribute to our understanding of the chronology and offer familiar observations about war's dehumanizing nature. But the most compelling supporting characters are Christopher and Emma Winfield, who wrestle with the feeling that there was a moment at which they could have helped their son, and they failed: In February 2010, after the first killing but before the one he participated in, Adam told his father what was going on and debated ways of stopping it. (The transcript of their online chat makes Adam's intentions clear.) But when the elder Winfield set out to contact officials in the States -- the two had concluded that Adam didn't have access to superiors he could trust -- he was unable to find anyone who would take the story seriously.

If Winfield's account is accurate, and if we're to believe the interviewees' claim that killings like this are far from isolated, Kill Team suggests something even more terrible than the three murders it describes explicitly: A willful ignorance on the part of commanders who'd rather not know if some of their men kill for fun as well as duty. Krauss doesn't find anyone to speak to that implication, but his presentation of Adam Winfield's experience makes it a hard idea to shake.

Production Company: f/8 Filmworks, Ltd.

Director: Dan Krauss

Screenwriters: Dan Krauss, Lawrence Lerew, Linda Davis

Producers: Linda Davis, Dan Krauss

Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Deborah Hoffmann

Director of photography: Dan Krauss

Music: Justin Melland

Editor: Lawrence Lerew

Sales: Julie Goldman, Motto Pictures

No rating, 78 minutes