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Collateral Damage: Drones on the screen at Toronto International Film Festival

Written by Andreas Immanuel Graae, Ph.D. Candidate at Department for the study of Culture

It must have been every general’s worst nightmare when an American airstrike last Saturday accidentally hit a Médicins sans Frontiers (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan causing 22 civilian deaths including staff, patients, and children. And it is far from the first time US airstrikes have caused civilian casualties. In January, three hostages in Afghanistan were killed in a drone attack – not to speak of the fifteen people who were killed in Yemen in December 2013 when a drone strike hit a wedding ceremony, which was mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy.

Even though it was a manned aircraft, not a drone, that struck the MSF hospital last Saturday, the tragic incident nevertheless resembles – and nourishes – an increasing uneasiness associated with drone warfare that is enforced by popular culture. For instance, the TV-series ‘Homeland’ circles on a drone attack gone wrong. And last year The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) presented the film ‘Good Kill’ (2014) starring Ethan Hawke as a drone pilot haunted by his remote killings. To his wife he describes his job like this:

‘Well, yesterday, I was flying over a house in South Waziristan. Well, it was night when I started flying over their house, but they couldn't see me. Even if it was day. It was a house of a Taliban commander. He wasn't home. Inside, his wife and family were sleeping. When he did come back around dawn, the family was still inside but I wasn't sure when I'd get this chance again so I blew the house up anyway. And I watched as the neighbors started pulling the bodies out. Another one of my jobs is damage assessment... which is our way of saying counting the dead. Which is not as easy as it sounds because a lot of times the bodies are in such small pieces. But this time I knew for sure it was 7. I watched all morning as these locals cleaned up the mess; got ready for the funeral. They like to bury their dead within 24 hours, which is a happy coincidence for me, because that's how long I can stay in the air. I watched them carry the bodies up the hill to the grave site. I had information that the Taliban commander's brother would attend the funeral. So I waited until they were all there, saying their prayers... and then I blew them up too. That's my job.’

This fall, the Toronto festival adds two new drone films to the growing pile of drone fiction. In the psychological drama ‘Full Contact’ (premiered September 15) the director David Verbeek captures the robotic, depersonalized perspective of a drone pilot killing from the safe distance of 12.000 kilometers. One day his surgical missile attack hits the wrong location unleashing a psychic odyssey of guilt and post-traumatic stress.

Still from the film Full Contact by David Verbeek (world premiere September 15, 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Platform section).

The second drone film at the festival, ‘Eye in the Sky’ by Gavin Hood (premiered September 11), presents a similar critical view on the cost of drone warfare. Once again, we are taken into the air-conditioned control room of the drone operator targeting a well-known Al Shabab-terrorist leader planning a suicide attack. When a nine-year-old girl suddenly walks into the killing zone obstructing the entire operation, the main characters are left in the classic ticking-bomb-dilemma: Should they protect the girl or the potential victims of the suicide attack? Could she be chalked up to collateral damage considering the value of the target?

 These questions seem more imperative than ever with the growing number of films, books, documentaries, art and TV-series negotiating the highly complex matter how drones have changed the way we are to understand modern warfare.

Watch the trailer and read about ‘Full Contact’ by David Verbeek here. Read about ‘Eye in the Sky’ by Gavin Hood here. For background on the US Hospital Airstrike, see this webpage.