Documentary filmmaker Daniel Krauss was reading a story in 2011 about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan accused of killing unarmed civilians for sport the previous year, when it dawned on him that the news accounts were missing a key question.
How could a soldier who was being called a whistle-blower in the case be accused of committing the same crimes as those he was exposing?
The question led the former Oakland Tribune photographer and Berkeley native to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where a handful of interned Army infantrymen men were awaiting trial for murder. Among them was the whistle-blower, Pvt. Adam Winfield, whose parents in Florida were flying back and forth to Washington, trying to exonerate their son.
Krauss, already an Oscar nominee for the documentary short "The Death of Kevin Carter," officially embedded himself with Winfield's defense team to film their strategy sessions. He spent time in Florida with the Winfield family. He spoke with Winfield's fellow Bravo Company soldiers, some of whom made startling admissions on camera.
The result was "The Kill Team," an eye-opening documentary that explores everything from the Winfields' fight for justice to military culture and the jarring experiences of young men -- some barely out of high school -- thrown into a war where there's no clear line between those they're supposed to fight and those they're supposed to help. Krauss talked to this newspaper about his filming experience.
Q Why did you choose to get involved with this story?
AThe impulse was a story I read in the New York Times magazine in 2011. I stumbled upon a photograph of (Winfield) and its caption, the gist of which said he was both a whistle-blower and a murderer. Instantly, I thought it encapsulated a whole story. Those (terms) are such polar opposites. He looked like he was a good kid from a good family, bookish ... everyone (in his family) looked happy. He certainly didn't look like the poster boy for the U.S. Army.
QHow did you get so much access to soldiers accused of murder?
AThat was the trickiest part. I made an agreement with the defense team. They needed material (for trial). I joined the defense team and allowed them to use my film, as long as I kept ownership. It's a risky proposition for a journalist. Our goals were parallel. The defense wanted to humanize the Winfields.
QSo the Army didn't know you were planning the documentary?
AI didn't really seek the permission of the Army. But there was always an uncomfortable feeling going onto the base. I hope they'll be relieved to see the film.
QHave you heard the Army's reaction to it?
ANo. I would love (the Army) to see the film not as a challenge to their culture. I would love the military to use the film as a learning tool. Like putting a plane back together after a crash. My intent is not to cast stones at the Army. I'm not a political filmmaker. I'm interested in the human psyche.
QI saw film clips of the case when the story broke. Then it sort of went away. Certainly, one would think more would be made of a story like this. Why didn't that happen?
A There's a tremendous amount of war fatigue in this country right now, and understandably so, after the longest war in our history. Adam is a case study in moral injury. We're not doing enough about the moral sacrifices these soldiers have to make. These guys, we've turned them loose in a foreign country, then we act surprised when calamities result.
QWhat was the biggest eye-opener for you while making "Kill Team?"
AI learned that the drive to be part of the group supersedes any individual moral decisions. It's almost unimaginable circumstances. We're nation-building over there. It runs counter to everything they've been trained to do.
QHave you heard from soldiers at any of the film festival screenings so far?
AI've had veterans come up to me and say they were glad this was being brought to light. I'm not anti-military or anti-soldier. It's encouraging when soldiers validate (the film).
QOne hears stories of soldiers targeting civilians in just about every war. Why does it keep happening?
AIt's the incredible magnetism of the group that keeps soldiers in lock-step. It's like in "Band of Brothers." It supersedes any other moral impulse. Betraying the group is the greatest moral mistake a soldier can make. These kids are 18, 19 and are still developing their moral direction. They're open to more influence. And the desert of Afghanistan is about as foreign as Mars. Their moral direction can still be influenced, and it's a recipe for moral disaster. It's become clear to me why this keeps happening.
Rating: Not rated
When: Opens Friday
Where: Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas, San Francisco; Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley. Director Daniel Krauss will be on hand to answer questions at 7:20 p.m. Friday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday at at Opera Plaza; and 7:35 p.m. Saturday at the Shattuck.
Running time: 1 hour,