When Rick Rowley '94 was filming Dirty Wars, a documentary about U.S. drone warfare, he expected to be showing the finished movie in church basements. To his happy surprise, that hasn't been the case.
Dirty Wars was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. While it didn't win, just being nominated was a huge victory for Rick and his team. The film previously garnered a Sundance Film Festival award for cinematography, as well as national media attention.
The accolades mean one thing to Rick: More people will see this film, and his goal of giving a human face to what largely has been a faceless war comes closer to being achieved.
"The global war on terror is one of the most important stories of our generation," says Rick, a Pulitzer Fellow, Rockefeller Fellow, a Jerome Foundation Fellow, and a Sundance Documentary Film Program Fellow. "But it's a story that hasn't been completely covered."
The film, described by The New York Times as "pessimistically, grimly outraged and utterly riveting," follows reporter Jeremy Scahill as he seeks to expose actions of the Joint Special Operations Command, a largely unknown government agency that carries out strikes against those deemed a threat to U.S. security. Rick and Jeremy traveled to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to document the devastating impact these strikes have had on families and civilians.
Was it dangerous? Absolutely. Rick and Jeremy took huge personal risks, but for Rick, the dangers they faced paled in comparison to the risks those he interviewed took in meeting with the American reporters.
"The families who lost loved ones to the American war still invited us into their homes," Rick says. "I've been humbled by the fact that people risked their lives to help us make this film. They believe deeply that the American people will hear their stories and demand change."
Rick has been documenting social movements and conflict almost since the day he graduated from UWC-USA in 1994. After graduation, he and two close friends—Ståle Sandberg '94 and Ben Eichert '94—traveled to Central America, where they worked on a Sandinista farming collective in Nicaragua. From there, they traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, and joined the Zapatista movement. Struck by the idea that "our word is our weapon," Rick began documenting the Zapatistas with the belief that "stories could become a weapon for social change."
It was a learn-as-you-go experience; at that point, Rick had no formal training in filmmaking. But he had the passion, and in 1995 he and Ståle founded Big Noise Productions. The company has produced four films, including Dirty Wars, and several other projects. In addition, Rick has worked as a war reporter, and his stories have been featured on Al Jazeera, BBC, CBC, CNN International, Democracy Now!, PBS, and others.
Rick's film on the Zapatistas had another significant impact on his life: It led him to meet his wife, Jacqueline (Soohen) Rowley, a 1993 UWC-Adriatic graduate. Rick was in Boston to interview Noam Chomsky for the film, and Jacque was a student at Harvard. They met and had the instant "UWC connection" that resulted in Rick missing five flights out of Boston. They married a year later and are now the proud parents of a 14-month-old daughter.
Jacque is the co-producer of Dirty Wars, and, according to Rick, "much more hardcore than I am" when it comes to war journalism. She was in Iraq when the first bombs fell, and recently completed a film project on the Arab Spring.
Expectedly, parenthood has affected the pair of globe-trotting reporters. "Being a parent really changes my risk calculation," Rick says. "I chose not to work in Syria because the war is unclear and [the U.S. role] isn't as direct as it is in Afghanistan."
Now based in New York, Rick is working on fiction and non-fiction projects. He still travels to Afghanistan, though. "One of the tragic things I've experienced is how many of the people Jeremy and I worked with or knew are not with us now. They are either dead or in exile. "
Indeed, Rick's work has exposed him to horrors few people can fathom. Nonetheless, he considers himself an optimist. "Wars end," he says. "They are brought to an end by people who create enough pressure to demand that they stop."
And Rick is happy to help apply that pressure.