'Dirty Wars'

Jeremy Scahill in Yemen in the movie "Dirty Wars." (Jacqueline Soohen / IFC Films)

Riker was impressed with the material but felt something was lacking. "Each story was devastating," he said, "but at the same time, it was like watching a catalog of horrors; the meaning wasn't evident."

Immediately, Riker said, he thought of weaving Scahill's personal tale into the other stories. "I knew it wouldn't be a popular suggestion. They never put themselves into the story — it goes against the very essence of the work they do, which is to work as reporters and tell other people's stories."

Rowley, who had filmed a good deal of footage of Scahill but left much of it on the cutting room floor, was energized by the idea. "David helped us realize there were two parts to the story: the external story, the exposé of how the war is being fought, the covert war eclipsing the conventional war. And then the inside story, a reporter going through this and being changed by it … and the country being changed by it, who we are as a people."

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Scahill was reluctant but eventually was persuaded that if viewers couldn't relate to their guide, he would be failing as a storyteller. After agreeing, though, "I started referring to myself in the third person when we would talk about the film. Or I'd say 'the character,' because it was too embarrassing," he said. "I would cringe."

Riker spent hours upon hours just talking to Scahill, writing down phrases and anecdotes, asking him his reactions to certain encounters and moments. "As a reporter, you don't learn everything at once; you struggle to make sense of things. Jeremy's character is like a detective, who is being told different things by different players — some are telling the truth, some are lying. It doesn't come to you all at the same time."

Riker would then send Scahill suggestions for the narration using the reporter's own words.

Documentarians, said Riker, "have this concrete knowledge, but the storytelling skills are not always as developed," he said. "In the fiction world, it's the reverse. I tried to bring those together, in a way that was completely true to the story."

Political realities

Scahill has strong opinions on the politics and policy questions related to his work. While he may be cut from progressive cloth, he takes a withering view of both Republicans and Democrats over their lock-step support for what he sees as the fundamental fallacy of U.S. counterterrorism policy: the notion that America can kill its way to victory. He is particularly frustrated by Democrats who criticized Bush administration policies but support identical drone strikes carried out under Obama.

"A lot of liberals have bought into the idea that President Obama is waging a smarter war than his predecessors and that he actually has been a transformational figure on a foreign policy level," said Scahill, who's stayed in touch with a number of his subjects. "I think that's selling a lot of people a bill of goods."

As for the president's speech last month, he's skeptical that it heralds any major change. "Obama's saying that he doesn't want perpetual war, but in reality the infrastructure is still very much in place, and he's still asserting that the U.S. has the right to conduct these operations anywhere it deems necessary around the world. I feel like in this debate I'm always the wet towel, but I take it very seriously."

At least, Rowley says, the speech was a starting point. "The war on terror is over a decade old, and when we began working on this film three years ago, it was not being talked about; it was nowhere," he said. "I was worried when we began this film that it would be ignored, that it would fall on deaf ears.

"Now I'm hopeful that we're beginning to have this conversation. We need to decide as a country how we want to be waging this war. I hope our film will be part of it."

julie.makinen@latimes.com