'Drone': Bergen Review

Courtesy of Bergen International Film Festival
A persuasive argument for limiting the use of remote-controlled assassinations

Exploring the downsides of drone-enabled "surgical strikes"

Politicians are fond of describing the killings carried out by unmanned drone aircraft in medical terms. They're "surgical strikes" in which, according to one speaker here, a "cancer" is removed with minimal loss to "surrounding tissue." But in the operating room, healthy tissue doesn't have relatives to grieve it; the destruction of unoffending cells does not inspire other tissue to turn against the surgeon. Both metaphors and methods are examined in Tonje Hessen Schei's Drone, an important contribution to debates over a means of warfare that is just in its infancy. If it contains little information that's unavailable to a well-informed citizen, the doc's presentation is effective and clear-headed, taking a position without stacking the deck. It will engage viewers at fests and merits exposure beyond the circuit, whether in theaters or on TV.

Aiming to present multiple sides of the debate, the film offers the USAF's Bryan Callahan, who makes an important point that sometimes gets lost in the military technophilia of political speeches: Where a conventional manned aircraft mission has only split seconds to make life-and-death decisions, those controlling a drone can take their time, watching long enough to know who they're killing.

Whether that's how things work in practice, of course, is an open question. We hear that a common practice is to make an initial strike, wait for rescuers to come to the scene, and strike again. Presumably, anyone who doesn't know that the initial victims deserve to die of their wounds in the street is also a legitimate target.

Everyone knows that children and innocent civilians are killed by our bombs; the film argues convincingly that they represent a vastly larger percentage of the death toll than officials will admit. We meet lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who used to work for the US government and was startled to learn that decisionmakers didn't understand the extent to which ordinary Pakistanis were upset about the drones that fill their skies. Working with the parents of children who've been killed by the US, Akbar is busy suing those responsible, attempting to force a chain of events that would legally obligate Pakistan's government to shoot down US drones. (Akbar revealed his backstory in a Q&A; it's not mentioned in the film.)

The doc's other main subject is Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator who has become a vocal opponent. He convincingly describes a workplace that both trivializes the taking of human life and takes an immense toll on those who push the button. When he looked into seeing a mental health professional for what he suspected was PTSD, he was told he'd lose his security clearance if he did.

While Bryant speaks to the personal experience of videogame-like killing, others — including Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell — critique the practice in general. Wilkerson argues that taking a soldier so far out of harm's way makes him not a "warrior" but a "murderer." (One might argue that this isn't the first time a technological imbalance has invited that distinction.)

For viewers with unlimited faith in our government's ability to choose deserving targets and assassinate them efficiently, Drone takes a quick look at realities of the warfare industry and asks the obvious question: How will Americans feel when another government (or non-governmental entity) has remote-controlled death hovering constantly over our heads?


Production company: Flimmer Film

Director: Tonje Hessen Schei

Producer: Lars Loge

Directors of photography: Steven Moore, Anna Myking

Editor: Joakim Schager


No rating, 78 minutes