Dan Krauss’ riveting, disturbing, morally probing documentary, The Kill Team, celebrated its world premiere this week at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Kill Team tells the story of Specialist Adam Winfield, an American soldier stationed in the Maywand District of Afghanistan in 2010. When Winfield realized that members of his platoon, led by Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, were murdering Afghan civilians, he was appalled. After overcoming fears for his own safety, Winfield alerted his father, Chris, a former Marine, via email and Facebook chat. His father advised Adam to lay low while he attempted to contact a large number of Army officials, few of whom responded, and none of whom provided any support.
Meanwhile, Adam was threatened by other members of his platoon, including Corporal Jeremy Morlock, one of the leaders of the so-called “Kill Team.” Adam, his loyalty to the platoon questioned and his life directly threatened, later half-heartedly joined in the killing of a civilian. Some time later, PFC Justin Stoner reported hashish use by members of the platoon, and the subsequent investigation brought the platoon’s wrongdoings to light. Winfield was court-martialed and charged with murder.
Using interviews with several members of the platoon, The Kill Team tells the story of what happened in Afghanistan, while simultaneously detailing the Winfield family’s efforts to defend Adam against the murder charge.
I spoke with Krauss a few days before The Kill Team premiered at Tribeca.
Movie Maker: Watching the film brings up all these issues about how these young men find themselves in this situation where they’re doing these horrible things, and how challenging it is to stand up to that, and to refuse to participate.
DK: I think that is one of the most astonishing things I learned about making The Kill Team: the strength of that bond between the men in the platoon. I shouldn’t say “men.” The boys. The teenagers. The guys in the platoon have a degree of loyalty to each other that basically supersedes any other moral priority. That explained a lot about how some of these guys got wrapped up in this disaster.
MM: Can you talk a little bit about how you first heard about this story and how you decided this would be a good subject?
DK: I read a New York Times Magazine article in 2011, a fascinating article about the “Kill Team” trials. What really got my attention and startled me was the description of one soldier, Adam Winfield, being both a whistle blower and a murder suspect. I was really intrigued. What was the conflict that he had endured both on the battlefield and inside his own head? That was very rich territory for me to explore. That was the spark. And then it was just the small matter of gaining access to a soldier who was confined on one of the largest military bases in the world. [chuckles] I’d done a film before [The Death of Kevin Carter] that focused on questions of morality amidst the conflict of war. When I read about Adam Winfield’s story, and the predicament he found himself in, it resonated very strongly for me.
DK: My challenge was to do what the media was being prevented from doing, which was to gain access to any of the soldiers and to get onto Fort Lewis to be present for any of the closed door proceedings. It was immediately obvious that there was very little chance of succeeding through the public affairs office on base, so I was really just trying to find a way into the story. An unconventional way. I made contact with the Winfields’ defense attorney [Eric Montalvo] and he expressed a need for some video material, so there was a bit of fortuitousness involved in combination with persistence. Essentially I struck a deal with Adam’s lawyer, where I would work for the defense team pro bono doing video work the lawyer could use in his preparation for trial. In return, I had a foot in the door. I had the opportunity to form a connection with Adam and his family, and indeed, that’s what happened.
MM: Can you talk a little more about forming that connection, about gaining the trust of the Winfield family?
DK: Well, it started off very awkward, because the first time I met them, they were facing a very stressful and emotional pre-trial hearing that very day, so I was thrust into the middle of this very tense moment. I had spoken to Adam’s father very briefly on the phone, but that was the first time I’d met them, and there was no time for us to sit around and get to know each other.
It was fortunate, in a way. They were so focused on the judicial proceeding that what I was doing with my camera was trivial compared to what they were facing with their son, what Adam was facing with his own life. And so, to some degree, they couldn’t help but ignore me.
Subsequent to that, we just formed a connection. In those situations, you’re in a very small, safe zone. During very emotional and stressful conditions, you tend to form a bond more quickly with the people around you, and I was on the inside. Whether they had planned for it or not, I had become one of them, in a sense.
MM: What about the other people?
DK: Morlock is sort of the most interesting, in terms of access, because he’d already been confined. He’d already been sentenced to 25 years behind bars. So getting him was a big deal, and he was a key player in the Winfield trial. He was brought up a number of times to be essentially deposed by Adam’s attorney, and during those discussions, I had the opportunity to approach Morlock myself and ask him if he wanted to participate in the film. And he was quite eager, actually. His one condition was that he wanted to be filmed wearing his Class A uniform, his dress uniform, so sure enough I show up the next day at the Trial Defense Services building, and there’s Morlock with two guards behind him, and he’s wearing his class As and ready to go. It was a big moment for me as a filmmaker to get him, because he was such a key player in all of this. I was just astonished after speaking with him, at how articulate and reflective he was. In a certain way. In a certain disturbing way. There were moments when I felt quite moved, speaking with him.
MM: In a weird way it almost seems like Justin Stoner is the most reticent of the interviewees. I don’t quite understand why that would be the case.
DK: I don’t know if “reticent” is the word, but he finds himself in a very interesting position, because he is in a sense responsible for the downfall of the platoon. His actions led to the investigation that brought down the eleven soldiers that were charged, and I think he feels a great deal of regret about that. He wants to make amends. He’s in a weird position where he feels he could be the victim of retribution, in the worst case, but he also has something to say. He wants to disavow the characterization that he’s been given by the media, as the shining knight whistleblower. To the contrary, he’s a very resistant whistleblower. He was almost an accidental whistleblower. He didn’t feel good about his role in all this.
MM: That comes across. You would think with the perspective they have now, maybe he would feel differently about it. I guess that speaks to that strong bond you were talking about.
DK: Yes, that’s exactly what I was talking about. Their loyalty to the other guys above all else. That is exactly what is coming into play with Stoner. He feels remorse for violating that loyalty.
MM: Were you ever able to speak with Sergeant Gibbs?
DK: I did manage to speak with his attorney once, and he promised to speak with Gibbs on my behalf, but I never heard back. I tried every form of communication with the Gibbs family, short of carrier pigeon. It was clear to me that there was nothing I could do to compel them to talk, and I can understand that. What could they say?
MM: I think it works in a way that he’s sort of—
DK: Yeah, I’m glad you say that. I have the same feeling. Initially, I really felt like the film couldn’t stand on its own without Gibbs. As more and more came together, and it was clear we weren’t going to get Gibbs, it was either because I was convincing myself that it was making it a better film, so I would feel better, or in fact it was a better film for not having him. One or both of those things were happening. [laughs] In the end, I feel okay about it. I feel like he takes on kind of a mythic… He becomes more than Gibbs. He represents something else that goes beyond the individual soldier, that goes beyond this one guy, and represents something larger, and I think that actually is to the film’s benefit.
MM: How did you determine the structure of the film, telling these stories simultaneously?
DK: Yeah, the structure was really complicated, because we were working with two timelines that were forward-moving: the past-tense story of the events in Afghanistan and the present-tense story of Adam’s trial. And then we had one more where we start with him as a teenager and move backward to him as a boy, and you get this painful reconstruction of his All-American childhood and his family’s deep belief in their country. I discovered early on that by juxtaposing the events of these timelines in an interesting way I could create an emotional and thematic resonance between the different timelines.
MM: I also think the film is very effective in putting the viewer in the position of trying to understand what Winfield did and how we might act in that situation, and what an impossible situation he was in, where he’d already made an effort to report what was going on and nothing had happened. It was just impossible, really.
DK: I’m glad you felt that way because part of the goal was to force the audience to ask themselves “What would I do?” And I think the silence that usually follows that question is indicative of the complexity of The Kill Team.
MM: What does it mean to have the World Premiere at Tribeca?
DK: It’s incredibly exciting, obviously. I had a very positive experience here with my first film. It actually won an award [Best Short Documentary, 2005], so I have a lot of positive feelings. I feel like New York is a great city in which to premiere this because it is the media capital of the world, and this is a story that the media had an intense interest in covering, and were to some degree unsuccessful in gettiing the inside story.
MM: Can you talk a little bit about how the film was funded?
DK: The initial development funding was provided through a grant from Cinereach Project at Sundance, and then a foundation called the Catapult Film Fund that helps films that are early in production and need sort of a boost. And then I was fortunate enough to get ITVS funding, which took care of the majority of the budget. In addition to that, an option from Independent Lens, which added even a little more funding. We still had a small gap remaining, and Sundance and Catapult came in close to the end to help us close it.
MM: So The Kill Team will air on PBS?
DK: Yes, The Kill Team has already been approved for Independent Lens. The option has been exercised. In the meantime, we’re very keen to secure theatrical, and we still have all the ancillary rights, including VOD, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and everything else. Like every filmmaker out there, my hope is that we will get theatrical distribution.
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