Muckraking documentarian focuses on Obama administration’s use of drones
By Jeffrey Fleishman | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 14, 2014
LOS ANGELES — In an old, whitewashed motel, where folklore has it studio executives once brought their secretaries for “lunch,” Robert Greenwald, a mercurial man trailed by insults and death threats, leads a small band of filmmakers dedicated to unnerving political and corporate powers with righteous anger and quick-cut editing.
Greenwald embodies the populism of George Bailey and the sly delight of a spy handed a secret dossier. His Brave New Films has skewered Wal-Mart, Fox News (Bill O’Reilly despises him) and the conservative politics of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Greenwald’s narratives have criticized the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and his latest documentary condemns the Obama administration’s drone program for killing civilians in Pakistan and other countries in a misguided strategy to combat terror.
Much of the American public is unaware of what’s going on, “and sadly there’s a bipartisan national security state dedicated to making sure we don’t find out,” said Greenwald. “If you’re losing your house or you don’t have a job or you’re trying to get your kid through school, the global challenges are generally the ones you don’t feel equipped to take on.... That’s one of the pleasures and joys of this work, to get up every day and work on telling these stories.”
Brave New Films is a muckraking voice in a digital age of nano-second consumption. The company produces videos and graphics, time-releasing them on the Internet while also stitching them into full-length documentaries. This guerrilla style is aimed at creating buzz in progressive circles that at times ripples into the mainstream. The trick, said Greenwald, is staying ahead of the political curve to influence national discourse over anxieties as varied as healthcare,Wall Street and prisons for profit.
“Greenwald’s a major advocacy figure on the left,” said Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University’s School of Communication. “Brave New Films is not pretending to be nuanced, and it’s not pretending to make great art ... Greenwald’s intent is to engage people to take some kind of action. He’s relentlessly experimental.”
The son of psychologists, Greenwald, who once made feature and television movies, including “The Burning Bed” with Farrah Fawcett, often mentions “connecting the dots” with human tales spliced with facts. His team of about 25 mostly young disciples, who have the air of vagabond travelers camped behind motel doors, scour the Web for research, scroll Twitter, Vine and Instagram, and figure out how to raise money. Greenwald’s Culver City office is a small universe of movie posters and pictures of Albert Einstein and Abbie Hoffman.
With a mission to upend the conventional narrative, the company’s films are often unabashedly polemical. They have emboldened the already converted but have alienated many conservatives and may be considered too didactic to take hold among wider audiences, especially given limited distribution. The films resemble the brashness and passion of Michael Moore’s documentaries but have limited production flourishes and have yet to penetrate a broader national consciousness.
“Funding is an ongoing cliffhanger,” said Greenwald, adding that he relies on foundations, large individual donations and as many as 40,000 smaller contributors giving between $1 and $300. “Our films are trying to win over the independents and undecideds. We lost serious funding on ‘Rethink Afghanistan.’ A lot of big donors felt we should not have questioned” President Barack Obama’s military plans.
Brave New Films’ new “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars” mixes montages, somber music and interviews with experts and survivors to make a compelling case that America is terrorizing villagers thousands of miles away. There is no question that drones have mistakenly targeted hundreds of civilians, enraging much of the Muslim world and creating new militants. The film does not broaden the context to show that air strikes have also killed high-level al-Qaida operatives.
“I didn’t feel like I was a part of anything good or wholesome or healthy or contributing to the greater good,” Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force drone operator, tells the camera in describing how one of the missiles he guided likely killed a child. “I felt like I was destroying myself.”
Much of Greenwald’s focus is aimed at exposing corporations and politically conservative agendas; his current “Beyond Bars” series examines how companies profit from a multibillion-dollar prison industry. But the drone film is a rebuke of the White House defense strategy, which Greenwald views as a betrayal of the ideals that led millions of liberals to vote for Obama. The director estimates at least 250,000 Americans have seen it.
“Many people,” said Greenwald, “don’t want to grasp that this president who so many people believed in is ... running, implementing, expanding a program which is targeting and killing innocent civilians.”
His 2004 documentary “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” a blistering attack on Fox News, has been mimicked by other videographers and Internet activists for quick-cut editing that laid bare the news organization’s conservative fervor and the contradictions of its personalities. Mining hundreds of hours of footage, company memos, and relying on volunteer researchers across the country, Greenwald said, “We showed Fox is completely biased and slanted.”
O’Reilly responded on air by calling Greenwald “absurdly dishonest” and a “fanatical leftist who is obsessed with Fox News.” He added that the director has plenty of time to attack Fox because “it seems the man cannot get a job. ... He presided over one of the biggest bombs in motion picture history: the legendary ‘Xanadu’ starring Olivia Newton-John.”
Greenwald grew up on 168th Street in Manhattan. His accent has been tempered by his years in Los Angeles, but he carries the aura of a pugilist bobbing beneath a veneer of calm. Hands stuffed in pockets, glasses perched like tiny headlights on his bald pate, he roamed his offices in sneakers, glimpsing raw video, checking on donations.
He directs all the company’s films, measuring their success in part by how often they’re watched and forwarded and by their rank on Google’s search pages. He has a keen sense of timing, theatrics and socially attuned special interest groups. He attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan and has directed plays. His uncle Michael Kidd was a Tony Award-winning choreographer for Broadway shows including “Guys and Dolls.”
Greenwald’s feature and TV films, including “Steal This Movie,” an Abbie Hoffman biopic, and “How to Murder a Millionaire,” were hardly classics. His fascination with documentaries was born in 2001 when he helped friends produce a film on voting irregularities that clouded the election of President George W. Bush. That was followed by “Uncovered: The War on Iraq,” which documented the Bush administration’s misleading the U.S. into a war that cost an estimated $2 trillion and damaged America’s international stature.
“People kept coming up to me and thanking me,” he said, recalling the line that stretched around the block at the premiere in Santa Monica. “In my previous life, people had liked the films or hated the films and everything in-between. But the notion to be thanked for doing a film, and that it was impacting people in this way, was heroin.... That is when I said this (documentaries) is what I want to do.”
He laughed: “You don’t have stars to get out of the motor home. You don’t have hair and makeup,” he said. “We don’t have a budget, so we can’t buy our way into awareness.” He later added: “We don’t get to certain people, but that’s more about distribution than tone.... I’m a neurotic Jew from New York. I could do five hours on where we’ve failed.”
Making movies with Greenwald “is exciting,” said Caty Borum Chattoo, a documentary filmmaker and a producer on his 2005 “Walmart: The High Price of Low Cost.” “It feels as if you’re advocating. A lot of filmmakers have picked up on this model. ... It’s about luck, opportunity and picking up on the social zeitgeist.”
“Koch Brothers Exposed” called Charles and David Koch, whose interests include oil, chemical and wood processing corporations, the “poster boys” for the 1 percent of wealthiest Americans. It portrayed the brothers’ conservatism and political contributions as threats to voting rights, public schools and environmental regulations.
“Robert Greenwald continues to be dishonest about Koch,” Mark Holden, general counsel, Koch Industries Inc., posted on the corporation’s website. He accused Greenwald and his team of “harassing behavior” and said the producer’s video attacks are “outright smears” that consist “of the derivative rehashing of distortions and fabrications made by far-left bloggers.”
The director is in constant search of injustices. To coincide with the release of his drone film last year, he arranged for visas for a Pakistani village family to travel to the U.S. and testify before Congress — only a handful of lawmakers attended — about the missile that killed their grandmother.
“I no longer love blue skies,” Zubair Rehman, 13, who was picking okra with his grandmother on the day she died, testified through an interpreter. “In fact, I prefer gray skies. The drones cannot fly when the skies are gray.”
“The thing that keeps me sleepless many nights is the sense of responsibility,” said Greenwald, who plans to show the film on 150 college campuses this year. “It’s literally people’s lives ... and people are investing their beliefs in your ability to tell a story that will make a difference.”