Morality during wartime has the power to unite and to segregate. Dan Krauss's documentary The Kill Team depicts this duality through one individual, Adam Winfield, a U.S. soldier serving as a whistleblower who was subsequently charged with the murder of innocent Afghani civilians along with some of his army brothers. Using the impending trial as a point by which to contemplate past and present events, Krauss's doc travels back in time through the stories of Winfield, his comrades, and his parents to dissect the event and the forces that prevented Adam from speaking out amid comrade pressure. What could simply be a critique of the politics and responsibility of those involved in the heirarchy of battle, The Kill Team instead strives to provide a moral compass for its subjects.
FilmLinc spoke with director Dan Krauss about his approach to the film's form, his initial interest in the subject, and moral abyss during wartime. The doc begins its theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Friday.
FilmLinc: How did this film come together? I believe you initially wrote an article in The New York Times about The Kill Team...
Dan Krauss: That was my first exposure to the story. Within that article there was a description of Adam Winfield, who’s one of a number of soldiers that were being charged and tried with war crimes. In that article, there was a description of Adam as being a whistleblower and a murder suspect. That caused a massive double take. I immediately thought, “Well how could he be both of these things? He’s being accused of acting in the moral wrong and also credited with acting in the moral right, how can both of those impulses exist in the same person?” Clearly there had been some sort of journey that was worth understanding more fully and I wanted to understand the pressures exerted on him in Afghanistan that pulled him from one moral pole to the other, torn between two things simultaneously.
FL: So when you approached him, were they already well underway with his legal proceedings? Did they see this as an outlet to get their story told? It seemed they felt maligned by the press.
DK: I think there was a general feeling among all the soldiers that they were being silenced and that they weren’t afforded an opportunity to explain the [turn of events] from their point of view. Of course there’s no explanation that will excuse what they did, but it’s certainly worth understanding the broader context in which these crimes occurred. I think that’s how I connected with Adam and the rest of the soldiers: this goal of trying to understand everything that occurred before the crimes that caused this sort of psychological thunderstorm. What were the pressures that pushed them toward this moral abyss? We were all interested. I was interested, going into making the film, to address that idea and I think the other guys could sense that and were on board with it.
FL: I’ve seen some consistent themes in other documentaries on the war in the Middle East like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib—different situation of course, but similar phenomenon. There seems to be this moral abyss that exists with some people who have taken the fall and have been punished when it is in fact systemic.
DK: This is something that goes back to the beginning of reported history. If you go back to Homer and The Iliad, you can read about war crimes. You can read about all sorts of moral transgressions and their after effects going back thousands of years. So this is nothing new. We’re not discovering war crimes for the first time in Afghanistan. The interesting thing that I discovered in making this film is that the morality of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old human beings is not yet completely cemented. This is something I learned from a psychiatrist in an analysis of these occurrences. I was surprised to learn that. So you’re sending in very young men and women who are still in the stage of development in which their moral bearings are still finding their permanent direction.
What does it mean to place those young people into situations where they have to make the most complex and profound decisions, balancing moral priorities with no clear answer? What does that do, in the moment where the decision is made and a life if taken or not, and in the months afterward when the soldier has to live with the decision they made in that split-second? That was something that, in the making of the film, weighed heavily in my mind, particularly with Adam Winfield, who was forced in a matter of seconds to decide whether he was going to participate in this murder or try to stop the people who were carrying it out. To me, that crisis, that center of moral crisis, was the center of the film. That was my entry point.
FL: It was almost like a Lord of the Flies situation: this gang mentality and group psyche.
DK: That’s come up before and that’s an apt analogy in certain ways because this forward-operating base in Afghanistan was, in a sense, an island. They were divorced from every familiar bit of civilization. This was completely foreign to them. Some of these guys had never left their hometown before. To go to a place like Southern Afghanistan, they might as well have gone to the moon or Mars. I think when you’re in an environment that’s so dramatically, vastly different than what you’re accustomed to in civilization, perhaps it allows for a reset of your moral values. Things aren’t the same here as they are at home. The rules aren’t the same. Nothing looks the same. We are facing danger and death every time we leave this base. The rules are different here and I think you have to remember that the one thing that they’re all convinced of is they will come home if they remain part of the group. Their brothers are going to keep them safe and watch their back.
Imagine the strength it requires to stand up and distance yourself from the group, to raise your hand and say, “I object to the moral direction the group is taking. I object to the decisions that my leader is making.” It’s very difficult to imagine doing that when you’re a young, frightened soldier in a very foreign land with danger all around you. You want to remain close to the people who are going to keep you safe and that moral impulse overrides almost everything else in that environment and that is something that I learned in making the film. That cohesiveness is so important to the soldiers, beyond anything that people back home can even understand. To to divorce yourself from the group and become an individual is almost an impossible thing to do.
FL: When you dove into the project, what were you thinking of in terms of structure? How did it evolve?
DK: I’m happy to say that early on I conceived of this as a film with two timelines: a past and a present tense that would be intertwined. The present-tense timeline would be the Winfield trial and all the preparation leading up to his court-martial, and then a past-tense where we would, piece by piece, reveal what happened in Afghanistan that led us to present day. Very early on, I had a vision of the film to have these two, forward-moving, intertwined timelines and I had a fantastic editor, Lawrence Lerew, who helped me make that all work. It was very had to cut between past and present without the transitions being jarring or confusing; we needed to orient people in some way. We also needed to choose the right time to, because part of the whole conceit in doing this was that we would find moments of residence between the past and the present.
For example, when Adam is being threatened by his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in the past-tense timeline, we cut to a scene in the present-day where Chris Winfield is threatened by anonymous people and the public who have read about this story. So we find those moments, particularly between father and son, in the past and present timelines and time those close to each other and cut between them. You understand the parallel journey the father and son are taking. That was the thing that really drew me to attempting this complicated structure.
In the course of making the film we added one more timeline that I hadn't preconceived, which was a backward-moving timeline: Adam regressing into childhood. There were a lot of questions about why he would join the army. The guy’s barely 100 pounds, very bookish, good family, smart kid: he’s not the army poster boy. I think it was important for us to establish that this is someone who is very driven by a somewhat naïve ideal. He had a great admiration for history and he thought this was a way that he could overcome some of his physical limitations of being slight of build and things like that, and he wanted to prove himself. I think it’s important to show that he had that ambition that he succeeded at and the other soldiers respected him. He held his own. So we added that backward-moving timeline against the larger forward-moving timelines to give a sense of Adam’s character before he was deployed, so that you understood how he had arrived there. It makes it all the more tragic because we learn about his early impulses at the moment when he’s considering killing himself in Afghanistan, so that was another example of conscious timing. When he tells the story to a psychiatrist of almost pulling the trigger one night, we then go to Adam as a very young boy, and his parents talking about how he would read books about the American patriot and how he wanted to prove to himself that he wanted to be someone like that.
Lawrence, the editor, my producer, Linda Davis, and I all huddled and had tremendously productive and exciting conversations about structure. Where do we put these little pieces? It was one of the best experiences of my life, in terms of creative collaboration. To me, the film is about structure, in terms of its craft, not content. The film derives its power from structure.
FL: About the parents: by nature they would want to protect their child, but they were in a situation where they didn’t have control. They try to keep their composure, but at the same time you can feel they're frantic.
DK: He still had suicidal ideations through that entire process. He was on medical watch and came close to killing himself, both in Afghanistan and back home when he had been charged and was facing life in prison. Lets face it, the idea of spending the rest of your life in a military prison would draw any of us to consider that option. It was a real concern. I’m a parent, and the thing that was so heartbreaking about their story is the feeling of helplessness that they were enduring. When Adam was overseas and Christopher received his call for help, he was 8,000 miles away from his son. There’s nothing you can do. You cannot get on a plane and go help him. You cannot go over there and take him home. You’re completely powerless. Then he did what he thought would result in some sort of action or solution, he started calling people who were in a position of authority. When those people didn’t return his calls, that feeling of helplessness was compounded infinitely. That was one moment of trauma.
The other thing that I think weighed heavily on both Christopher and Emma was whether or not they had done enough. I think they still have a lot of regret about not having done more, or not having called more people, or not tried to have their voices heard at the time when this was all happening. They made a strategic decision, because they were scared for Adam’s life, that they would quiet down and hope he would survive it, stay out of the way, and then report it when he gets home. That decision obviously did not work out the way that they had hoped. I talked with Emma [Winfield] the other day and she expressed that same feeling. They’re still feeling like they should have done more. That’s a very hard thing to live with. Going back to the structural conversation, we tried to highlight the parallel there: Adam was also inhibited by his own fear, which prevented him from stopping the other guys from carrying out this murder, while his parents were inhibited by a similar fear that Adam would be hurt. They didn’t do as much as they felt they could, so they’re both living with this profound regret that they didn’t take enough action to stop this from happening. There’s that parallel from past to present.
The Kill Team now screens daily at the Film Society for a one-week theatrical run.