Today: May 22, 2024

Drone

Often known by such euphemistic monikers as ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ (UAV) and ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’ (RPA), drones are rapidly emerging as the iconic representation of 21st Century state power.

First developed by the American and Israeli militaries in the 1970s, drones began life as large remote-controlled aircraft used to disrupt enemy radar and take photographs of areas deemed too dangerous to risk a human pilot. As industrial miniaturisation and communications technologies improved, drones gradually began to carry more weaponry and operate at longer distances until it finally became possible to fly combat missions in real time from the opposite side of the world. By the time the American War on Terror hit its stride, drones had become a vital component in the American war machine and while the number of troops on the ground may have shrunk, the number of people being killed by drones all over the Middle-East and Asia continues to grow. Ever happy to diversify and open up new profit-streams, drone manufacturers have begun approaching Western police forces thus raising the very real possibility that all of humanity will soon be watched over by robots with the power to destroy entire neighbourhoods. While politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have tended to down-play the significance of drone technology, many academics and writers have latched onto the issue and used it as a means of talking about the future of humanity. Tonje Hessen Schei’s short documentary Drone is an engaging but ultimately frustrating addition to this growing cultural conversation.

Drone is a documentary built around three main strands:

The first is centred on the Peshawar region of Pakistan where drone strikes have killed so many innocent people that an entire generation of children has learned to fear blue skies. The action in this strand revolves around attempts by the activists Clive Stafford Smith and Noor Behram to sue the CIA’s representatives in Pakistan and force the Pakistani military to begin shooting down American drones.

The second strand involves interviews with former drone operators Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas who talk about the US Air Force’s institutional indifference to the suffering their drone strikes cause and the feelings of guilt and alienation that the one-time operators are now forced to live with.

The third finds Schei visiting the workshop of a drone manufacturer who chuckles as he explains how he first developed the technology to help fishermen find tuna. He now sees his drones as part of a benign mission to shut down any and all forms of armed resistance before said resistance can escalate into something resembling a war.

Like many contemporary political documentaries, Schei begins by focusing on the human dimension of her chosen subject in an effort to engage the audience’s sympathies and make them care about the innocent victims of America’s network of robotic death squads.

Her first strand provides some rich pickings as a decidedly uncomfortable-looking British activist is confronted by a bottomless ocean of Pakistani rage that he tries to channel into something that might actually get noticed by Western opinion-formers. In fact, the film’s enduring image is that of truckloads of Pakistani people demonstrating on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere as drone strikes continue.

The second strand is indicative of Schei’s somewhat erratic use of resources as while the drone operators speak at length about the US Air Force’s crass indifference to human suffering, Schei glosses over this testimony and chooses instead to focus on the drone operators’ pain and suffering. Drone operators looking sad and isolated in shots that recall those of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation evoke little sympathy when placed opposite images of people whose entire families were wiped out in poorly-targeted drone strikes.

Schei’s failure to make the most of the interviews she managed to garner is also evident in the third strand when the drone manufacturer’s suggestion that America has a right to shut down any and all forms of armed resistance goes not only unchallenged but also unconnected to the broader question of how American politicians can justify an un-ending, un-limited and un-accountable campaign of almost indiscriminate murder.

Schei’s greatest sin is the failure to corral her ideas and feelings into a single coherent train of thought. Rather than presenting us with arguments or linking up data-points in a manner that encourages further reflection, Schei moves almost at random from complex analysis to footage of angry Peshawaris and then onto footage that could just as easily have been defence industry PR as images culled from the latest generation of video games. The frustrating thing about this documentary is that while it says many interesting things about an absolutely fascinating subject, it feels less like a sustained piece of cinematic argument than a load of raw documentary footage cut together at random.

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