From The Sky (2014) is a short film about a humble father (Hakeem) and his son (Abbas) who live in a region frequently targeted by drone strikes. Drawing inspiration from the films of Werner Herzog and Peter Weir, the film tells a minimalist story in an atmosphere that balances eerie tension with ethereal cues. While the story is minimalistic, the questions it opens are of great dimensions, not just concerning the issues of US drone policy, but of an eternal dillema of resistance and what it can turn (a person) into. The director of the film is Ian Ebright (the film is also written by Ebright) and I’ve been lucky enough to ask him some questions about the film and the idea behind it.
How come you decided to make this film, when did it hit you – “let’s make a film about drones”?
I had been following the reporting on drones for years as a blogger on human rights and other topics. The reporting was brave, troubling, but with limitations. Real journalism is an act I hold in the highest regard, but there is a big difference between understanding something and feeling it. I wanted audiences to feel what it would be like to walk in the shoes of ordinary people living underneath drone strikes and surveillance, and the most obvious way to do that was through a fictionalized visual story.
“Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence, in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials. That frightens me.” This is how Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor and former Pentagon official under President Obama, explained the US policy on drone strikes during a congressional hearing last year. The issues of US drone policy are complex and its consequences diverse and major in its forms. In that sense – was it hard for you to tangle with such a topic in a short film?
I don’t want to make it sound like I had it all figured out because I didn’t, but something made sense early on, call it a confirmation of conscience, which helped to focus this film and my contribution to it, and that was the fact that this story was ultimately about a young man dealing with PTSD in the Middle East and how drones impact him and those around him. I think the film illuminates and underscores some of the inherent problems with drone strike warfare, but we steered away from making any explicit commentary on the policy unless it happened to fit the voice of the characters. There are a couple moments in the film where the commentary is more direct, but again the focus was not on addressing issues as much as it was about developing characters and allowing them to say what they would in such a situation. We wanted to take a step towards this issue rather than attempting to solve it.
While making the film, did you have a chance to talk and engage with the people affected by drone strikes? If so, did their perspectives and experiences influence the film or change the direction you first imagined it going in?
I never found access to those people so I did what I thought was the next best thing, by diving into top shelf research and analysis which interviewed survivors in these drone hot spots. I also worked with actors, interpreters, and Middle Eastern advisers who by their generous feedback helped to remove the bias that was in my screenplay as a Westerner, and refine the characterizations into something more grounded and credible. This was a big collaborative effort and the film is much better because of it.
Watch the entire film:
This is a film that was made while the issues it deals with are still very much present and ongoing. In that sense, you are not only a director but an activist, and your activism is not a retroactive one, but a present-day thing. What do you think about that, do you see it that way?
That’s a great question that I haven’t resolved yet. First, I’m a filmmaker and an aspiring writer/director. I want to not only do this again, but hopefully make a living by it, as difficult as that may be. So I want the films I make to primarily speak for themselves, and I’m mindful of the cast and crew who participated in what we were doing first and foremost as a film, as a story. But I’d be lying to act like there was no perspective in the story, and much of that perspective comes from my convictions as a person of faith and someone who is political like most people are political, in that I try to keep informed, have concerns and beliefs, and try to seek positive, peaceful change. So I feel mixed about it. The film has won two awards that are on the more activist/humanitarian end of things, and on one hand I take that as a great honor and compliment, and on the other hand I worry that it will paint me or the film as too pointed or agenda-driven. Maybe the best answer I can give you is the kind of feedback I value the most, which is when people tell me they appreciated the film or mention the performances, cinematography, music, or something along those lines, and then say that it challenged them in some way. If ‘From the Sky’ can stand on its own as a film, and also work as a piece of activism, I’ll learn to accept the tension I feel about it. The problem is I’ve already been told it does this and I’m still over-thinking it.
Talking about activism, an important aspect of your film is the issue of resistance, and what it can turn (you) into. I think that is one of the successes of this film, for it deals with the external enemies (USA government), but also shows the different approaches and internal issues within the attacked community. I think the eternal dilemma is the one of a violent vs. peaceful resistance, and you try to show that here too. Can you tell me something more about that element of the film?
It is absolutely an eternal dilemma, you’re right. My goal is to expand stories to be about bigger, more universal themes than whatever timely setting it happens to have. So ‘From the Sky’ is a film about drones, but it’s also a film about that human question of “what are we going to do when someone hurts us?” That question is a daily one, for all of us, and the way we answer it says a lot about who we are. Am I going to retaliate, or am I going to respond peacefully, lovingly, even if that ends up costing me? The line at the center of the film is loosely based on a C.S. Lewis quote “the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,” which has always spoken loudly to me, because I believe it challenges the status quo, the normal course of business, and comfort in general. It challenges the idea that the things we do automatically are usually the correct thing. So often, the right answer is the counter-intuitive answer. So I’ve spun that quote in the film and re-worked it to talk about true courage in the context of violence and peacemaking. Nowadays, the West associates courage with warfare, with striking back, or hitting harder, and I think this is a fatal flaw in our thinking, and from a pragmatic standpoint, a losing bet. Everyone knows we can’t kill our way to peace or safety, but politically-driven violence continues for many reasons. One of them is that violence makes sense in the moment. It always appears to be the quick solution, and we know how to dress it up to look like the hard, noble path. But like that C.S. Lewis quote, we soon find there is this trauma and damage that seems to grow over time whenever we start with violence as an easy answer. When and how we go to war is too complex for any short film, or at least for this short film, so again we’ve largely focused in on the personal, and how retaliation or peace plays out inside of these four men.
How was the reception of the film so far?
Surprisingly positive. It did really well on the film festival circuit which I’m thrilled about. I love this film and the experience of making it, and I hope the accolades benefit the cast and crew who were amazing to work with. I’ve been waiting for the pushback on the film to come, and so far it hasn’t, but I’m guessing we’ll find some now that the film is online. I like films that are bold while being complicated and thoughtful at the same time, and that was what we attempted to do here.
/all the photos above via From The Sky facebook page, taken by Tony Tibbetts/
/For more on the film and the making of it, visit From The Sky official website/