Director Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team is an absolutely enthralling tour-de-force documentary that stares unblinkingly down the ugly, dirty face of war, offering a sobering look at its specters. There are no heroes to be found here, only the very banality of extreme violence. As Specialist Adam Winfield says, “There are no good men left here.” The Kill Team is the story of a platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that 5 soldiers in the group had essentially murdered 3 innocent Afghani civilians “for sport.” The film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield who had attempted to alert authorities to the “kills” taking place, only to himself be charged by the Army and face a lengthy prison sentence. The absurd dichotomy of someone being labeled a whistle blower and a murderer in the same breath lies at the crux of The Kill Team’s main argument: the military can be a ruthless machine that often victimizes its own, not just the enemy. The terrible face of the “war on terror” is made poignantly human here: “The constant pressure to having to kill and being shot at is overwhelming. It is impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.”
With the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and under the rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a ghastly, grisly war ravaged Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. The longest running siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare (Sarajevo); the use of systematic mass rape as a tool of genocide; the mass murder of 8000 Bosnian boys and men over the span of two days in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica; mass graves and concentration camps—sights so macabre as to be incomprehensible and recall the Holocaust in a chilling way. This was a well-documented war, watched over by the UN, journalists, and the world at large. The Bosnia List is the raw, honest, and captivating story of boy and his family’s survival of the Bosnian War and escape to the United States.
A compelling, human, and incredibly moving book, it follows the author, Kenan Trebincevic, as he recalls the idyllic days of his childhood where ethnicity and religion was never something that people even thought about until national rhetoric stirred the flames of hatred and created monsters out of ordinary people.
The Bosnia List fits squarely within the category of survival (and survivor) literature—it is as though by remembering and recognizing one can defy genocide in the most powerful way—by refusing to be erased, to disappear, to be forgotten. It is also unique in that the protagonist is able to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and face the very same neighbors who turned on him. Revenge and forgiveness, we find out, are different sides of a coin.
Movingly told with the help of his former teacher Susan Shapiro, Kenan weaves a story that goes back and forth from his childhood to adulthood. 12-year-old Kenan is a karate-loving regular kid living in Brcko, a northern Bosnian town. One day, he hears shelling and gunfire. His world is about to be upended—all of a sudden, he is a Muslim, a “Turk”—words he had never thought would be used to describe him and, even less so, make a target of extermination. “Where we lived was the most religiously mixed,” he writes. “32 percent Christian Serbs; 17 percent Croats, who practiced Roman Catholicism; and 45 percent Muslim, like us.” Brcko is a secular town; his only awareness of being Muslim that “we had Ramadan and no Santa Claus.”
The Bosnia List is filled with the kind of intricate sensory detail that transports the reader back to a place, inhaling this book and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. “The first sacrifice of the war was her (his Mom’s) flowers. We kept our shades closed to avoid being sprayed with bullets. She had to watch, mute, while her plants died one by one.” The youngest in his family, he is the only one who can leave the apartment in search of food. While looking for bread, he runs into his karate teacher, Pero, his hero. Pero presses a gun to Kenan’s head, but it misfires, saving Kenan’s life. All of his former closest friends turn on him. He can’t find food for his family because “balije (ethnic slur for Bosniaks) don’t need bread.” Heart-wrenchingly, he writes, “I was the little shrimp outside on the stairwell who every day was picked on by former friends, spat at, denied food in stores, hit, tripped on the steps, shot at.”
The Serb neighbor starts stealing furniture from his house, ominously telling his Mom, “You won’t be needing that carpet.” Saved by the fact that his father was a well-loved community man, his family avoids going to Partizan Sports Hall, where he used to practice karate—“on the wooden floor where I’d kicked and somersaulted, my people were being gummed down by Pero and his comrades, their bodies left on the ground in pools of blood.”
Through a series of miraculous events, his family escapes to Vienna and finally the United States. But as his Dad ages, he longs to return to Bosnia. Reluctantly and apprehensively, Kenan returns to what was once his home…with an agenda, a list. Revenge, closure, resentment, understanding are all stirred up in one. When they leave Brcko, they are literally the last Muslim family there, escaping a tragic fate that does not spare the rest. By the end of the war, Brcko is a skeleton of what was once a beautiful community. As they return back home, he hears the sounds of Muslim prayers over loudspeakers — “the sound reassured me we were no longer the only Muslims in Brcko. Now they say prayers five times a day. For spite. Most of the town is secular.”
Is there healing or closure to be found for Kenan? There is no patois, forced reconciliation, nor are there lugubrious theatrics. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy—that everyone is dumbfounded by what happened, unable to explain, wanting to forget, yet unable to move on. No one seems to understand how they could get swept up in the horrors of war. “Milos looked horrified that I’d ever thought of him as a murderer. He wasn’t angry at all. His eyes caught mine. They seemed to plead for my understanding, my mercy.”
Yet, he is also able to see that many Serb people also chose to help his family. Conciliation and peace are, nevertheless, hard to come by. “Everyone we knew in this country was more twisted in knots than I was. I was fortunate to have an American life to go back to.”
If I could summarize Point and Shoot in one sentence, it would be “Indulgent, self-absorbed man-child fights a war he has no stake in, and comes out the same, unchanged man-child.” Director Marshall Curry pieces together this documentary on Matthew VanDyke, a twenty-something Baltimorean who sets out on a “crash course in manhood” journey to North Africa and the Middle East, eventually ending up as a fighter in the war to oust Gaddafi from Libyan rule.
Any hopes the viewer might have of learning something about that region or that conflict are dashed at the altar of VanDyke’s ego. This is not a travelogue; it’s the VanDyke show, which would be fine if our protagonist was moderately more engaging.
Psychological insights are hard to come by in this film. We meet VanDyke, a self-professed spoiled only child (his mother still does his laundry and buys his groceries for him), who upon finishing a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies at Georgetown without having ever visited the region, decides to fashion himself into a different person by going on a motorcycle trip to MENA. Seeking to emulate an Australian adventurer he saw on TV (yes, seriously) and not speaking a word of Arabic, he sets out on this journey of self-realization and discovery (it’s OK to groan). There’s one minor detail: VanDyke suffers from OCD, so dirty toilets and spilled sugar send him into paroxysms of ritualistic hand-washing. Yet, even this revelation does not, again, offer us any insight into that illness or into VanDyke. It seems like there are a lot of these “meh” moments in the film, and there is no rhyme or reason for their inclusion.
It is not so much his quixotic quest in and of itself that is the issue of this documentary; it is that in the entire film, we literally learn next to nothing about Middle Eastern culture. While in Afghanistan, VanDyke becomes a war reporter of sorts, making films of the U.S. soldiers there and learning how to shoot a rifle in the process. He makes friends with a Libyan “hippie” named Nuri whom he later joins in Libya during the war.
In Libya, VanDyke is captured by Gaddafi’s forces and sits in a prison for five and a half months. There, too, we are left with the maddening lack of details and insight. Five months is a long time, you would think there would be something more revelatory about the experience than the gloss-over of “it changed me forever.” Instead of returning home after he is released from the jail, VanDyke stays on to fight with the rebel forces in Libya.
This is the part of the film that offers probably the only semi-interesting commentary for the viewer, as it’s a glimpse at what modern warfare really looks like. Shooting rifles aimlessly, incessant shelling, total chaos…at times, it appears sadly cartoonish, like a deadlier version of grown men playing at war and taking photos of themselves with guns. It feels oddly surreal and video-gamish. People die, but they are taken by an unseen enemy.
We also see snippets of news coverage of VanDyke who appears interesting only when posited as “an American fighting with Libyan rebels.” Sadly enough, VanDyke’s nationality is probably the only interesting thing about him.
Ultimately, this is an incredibly disappointing film with a dearth of a message or emotion. It is a glorified selfie slideshow.