Two filmmakers at the Toronto International Film Festival delved into the ethical and legal quagmire that surrounds the use of drones by the United States to kill enemies overseas from a base in the Nevada desert.
Eye in the Sky stars Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren as a colonel who hunts the world's most-wanted terror suspects from an underground bunker in London, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul as a drone pilot at Creech Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi as Jama Farah.
The tense action thriller shows how a drone strike risks becoming a flashpoint when a civilian wanders into the kill zone.
The film, by Tsotsi director Gavin Hood, follows British and US drone authorities and political leaders as they debate the legal, moral and military merits and consequences of a strike on terror suspects hiding in a friendly nation.
The attack would eliminate three of the allies’ most wanted, including an American and a Briton who travelled abroad to join the terror group, but would almost certainly kill an innocent child selling bread at a market near their compound.
But not launching the attack on a safe house in a Shabab militia-controlled neighbourhood in Eastleigh, Nairobi, risks allowing the targets to escape to carry out imminent deadly attacks that could kill more than 80 civilians.
Hood says the film raises “timely and complex questions about the role of armed drones as tools for the extrajudicial execution of anyone suspected of terrorism or extremism”.
He adds: “The propaganda cost to western moral credibility as a result of drone attacks – given the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians – is already the subject of heated debate.”
The remotely targeted killings also take a psychological toll on young pilots, sensor operators and image analysts, he says. In the film, the pilot balks at the order to attack, which he knows will result in the child’s death.
The loss of innocent lives or collateral damage, Hood says, is “unspeakably tragic – and arguably illegal under international law.
“Indeed, those involved in targeted killings may even be guilty of war crimes,” he says.
Effectively picking up where Eye in the Sky leaves off, Dutch director David Verbeek's psychological thriller Full Contact explores the aftermath of an air strike gone wrong and a pilot's post-traumatic stress.
Whereas Eye in the Sky showcases the latest remote surveillance technologies that allow for precision strikes from thousands of kilometres away, Verbeek focuses on the guilt of a drone navigator (Gregoire Colin) who conducted a surgical strike on a boarding school for boys that was mistaken for a militant training camp.
“All my films are about alienation and about virtuality, and they always ask the question whether people are still in touch with a sense of reality,” Verbeek says.
The director met former US Air Force pilot Brandon Bryant, who said he is tormented by his killing of hundreds of people as a sensor operator for the Predator programme between 2007 and 2011.
The film, Verbeek explains, is not intended to be anti-drone. “War is always ugly,” he adds.
Rather, the filmmaker says he hopes to highlight the growing physical disconnect of people from one another as we rely increasingly on virtual tools such as social media.
“The act of killing has become something that has a screen in between, and the killer is actually removed from danger and makes life-and-death decisions with a joystick, without even being in the same time zone as his victims,” he said.
“It’s just something I want people to think about.”