Interview with Sebastian Doggart, Director of American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi
This past February, we were involved with putting on an event on the DU Campus featuring a screening of the excellent and hilarious film Courting Condi, along with an audience Q and A with Director Sebastian Doggart and a debate on the topic “Should Condoleezza Rice be indicted for war crimes?” It was a smashing success (for footage of the debate go here).
Doggart is back with a full-length documentary entitled American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi. The film will be making its world premiere right here in Denver, at the Starz Denver Film Festival, where it has been nominated for the Maysles Brothers Award for Best Documentary.
Many thanks to Sebastian for agreeing to the following wide-ranging interview regarding American Faust. Expect a review of the film within the next week or so, and be sure to see the film when it’s in Denver. You can find the trailer for the film here.
CPV: Why did you choose to make a film about Condi? What was unique or interesting about her story as compared to someone like Bush or Cheney, who are arguably more ‘obvious’ subjects for a fllm?
SD: Bush and Cheney have been popular whipping boys for filmmakers like Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald and Oliver Stone. But Rice’s story has not been properly told. She has been very good at flying beneath the radar. She once said, “I want to leave office without anyone knowing where I stand on any of the issues.” That was reason enough to make the film. Her background, her motivations, and her dreams and demons are far more complex than Bush and Cheney’s. Her life story, from an only child in segregated Alabama to becoming the most powerful woman of the world, is a great American Dream story, and the tragic way it has unfolded makes her the dark side of the Obama narrative.
CPV: Why did Faust appeal to you as an analogy for Rice?
SD: We use the story of Faust, the man who traded his soul to the devil for personal gain, as a framing device for telling Rice’s story. Faust is the most famous over-achiever in literature, and Rice is the greatest over-achiever in modern US politics. Like Faust in the face of Mephistopheles, Rice confronted and succumbed to a number of temptations which pitched her personal ambition against the values she had learned from her father and her Christian faith. She switched from Democrat to Republican when senior Hoover Institution conservatives promised her that, as an African American woman, she could go all the way to the White House. While on the Board of Directors at Chevron, she could have stood up against the human rights abuses of the Ogoni people with which the company was complicit, but she didn’t. She could have chosen not to have supported the war in Iraq, but chose instead to endorse the faulty reasoning behind it and fulfill her ambition of being Secretary of State. She could have drawn the line at using torture, but, in the words of one of our commentators, she “made a pact with the devil to protect the American people.” The missing chapter of this Faustian tale is: what happens to her soul in the end? She’s only 55, and in fine health, so it’s premature to end the story. But here too the myth gives clues. Marlowe and Berlioz send their Fausts to hell. Thomas Mann makes Faust die an agonizing death of madness and syphilis. But Goethe saves Faust when the Lord intervenes to reward Faust’s unending striving. Whether or not God surprises us all by appointing Rice as an angel, the Faust myth has a richly ambiguous parallel that I feel is appropriate.
CPV: What was your thinking behind using the timeline as a way to structure the film and forgo the use of a narrator?
SD: I wanted to tell the story as truthfully as possible. I feel that the use of a narrator can undermine a documentary’s objectivity. Who is this know-it-all voice telling us what to think? Why should I listen to a film director’s words? Voice-over narration can represent lazy storytelling, and is one of the things that alienate people from Michael Moore films, or Frontline documentaries. So I took on the challenge of telling the story solely through the expert testimony of her friends, family, colleagues and biographers, and through her own voice. The timeline, which is made up of historically verified events, links together these testimonies.
CPV: What do you think is the widest misperception or misunderstanding people have in relation to Rice?
SD: The widest misperception of Rice is that she is a yes-woman. This portrait of an ineffective and weak woman is the image we see of her in the movie W, for example. Our film reveals that Rice was Bush’s chief confidante, with deeper and more enduring influence even than Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove – and thus responsible for much of the Bush legacy.
CPV: Given that you are now some sort of Condi expert, what do you predict for her future? Everything from Presidential run to NFL commissioner has been thrown out there.
SD: There are three paths for her future. First, is the Kissinger Condi scenario. Just as Dr. Kissinger left office in 1977 to take up an endowed chair at Columbia University, so Condi will enjoy a few years at Stanford, until student opposition makes her employment a liability for the university, leading to her quiet departure. She will then move to a gated estate in Virginia, where she will found Rice Associates consultancy, and advise oil companies and conservative governments in the Middle-East and Russia. She will find refuge in a neo-con corner of Princeton University, and answer her critics by writing books on global security, peace and human rights. Like Napoleon in exile, or Robert McNamara in his job at the World Bank, she will not sleep peacefully at night, and will die a lonely but very wealthy woman.
Second is the Comeback Condi scenario. Eight years being a long time in politics, she will emerge as the Republican Party’s savior in 2016. A black woman in a post-Obama era, with significant experience in government, she will galvanize the conservative base, reach out to a newly enfranchised African American and female electorate disappointed at Obama’s failure to deliver on all his promises, and realize the dream that she first expressed aged 10 of taking up residence in the White House. She will have learned from her time in the Bush Administration, and her one-term presidency will be generally praised by historians for its military restraint, and economic prudence.
Third is the Criminal Condi scenario. The Attorney General’s current investigation into CIA torture practices will lead to various agents protesting that they were acting under orders, and growing calls, under the principle of command responsibility, for their senior officers to be prosecuted. Eight such senior officials are identified: former President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice (as NSA and chair of the Group of Principals who authorized the torture techniques), Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney, CIA boss George Tenet, General Geoffrey Miller (commander at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), and Attorney Generals John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. The UN warns President Obama that, unless he prosecutes those responsible, he too could be indicted for breaches of the Convention against Torture, of which the US is a signatory. Reluctantly, Obama agrees not to stand in the way of the Attorney General, who indicts the eight men. In the most sensational trial in US legal history, they are tried in a federal court for war crimes and torture, and sentenced to one of the two statutory punishments for war criminals: life in prison or to death by lethal injection.
CPV: What do you see as the role of your film in pushing the Obama administration to fully investigate the torture and extraordinary rendition carried out under Bush?
SD: I have two voices, one as a documentary filmmaker; the other as a private citizen. As a film-maker, my purpose is to shine light on an extraordinary woman who has changed our world, and to tell her story in as truthful and balanced a way as possible. The film credits Rice with many triumphs and achievements, but it also reveals that she was responsible for ordering torture (aka enhanced interrogation techniques) and kidnappings (aka extraordinary rendition). She may have been complicit in the orders to destroy evidence of these practices. These are all crimes under US and international law. Congress and the Supreme Court, the two agencies of government that should have held her accountable for these crimes, have done nothing. The mainstream media have also failed to press elected officials to investigate these crimes. And President Obama, anxious not to see his own presidency swamped by a war crimes trial of his predecessors, has done little to see justice done here either. CIA black sites continue in operation under his presidency; he is likely to renege on his promise to close Guantanamo by February 2010; and he has authorized the assassinations of hundreds of alleged ‘enemy combatants’ using drones in Pakistan. All of which suggests that this pattern of inflammatory and illegal activity by the US government is likely to continue. It is this failure of democratic institutions that calls on all of us to exercise our voice as private citizens. My grandfather was tortured by the Luftwaffe in World War II. He never spoke of exactly what happened in the Scheveningen prison – the same prison now used to house war criminals like Milosevic and Karadzic. But I glimpsed the dark places in his heart left by his torturers. I heard him when he expressed his hopes that the war for which he had given so much would be the War that ends all Wars, and that the torture he had experienced would never happen again. So part of this film is following in that ‘never again’ tradition that the ACLU, and Amnesty International and investigative reporters like Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersch also comprise. All of the team who have produced the film, without pay, share Senator Patrick Leahy’s belief that “we cannot turn the page of history until we have read it.” Just as the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials to demonstrate its belief in truth and justice, or just as Rwanda is moving on from its genocidal past with the help of an International Criminal Tribunal, so the USA will be strengthened in the long term by holding accountable those who have perverted its principles, and spat on the rule of law.
CPV: The question is raised in the film as to whether or not Condi thinks she lied during the run-up to invading Iraq, with different interviewees providing varied answers. What are your thoughts?
SD: When Rice’s biographer, Marcus Mabry, first said this to me – “I believe that Rice doesn’t believe she lied” – I thought this was a fascinating riddle. All of her colleagues and biographers had stated that she had told untruths, yet she was not only denying their versions, she genuinely believed those denials.
The film contains allegations that Rice lied about three issues. First, on the nature of the warnings she received in the months before 9/11. She said that this information was ‘historical’ when CIA Chief George Tenet and Counter-Terrorism chief Richard Clarke affirm they told her that the warnings were urgent and concerned imminent, serious danger. The second alleged deceit concerns the reasons for going for war in Iraq. Rice states that she received evidence that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. That led her to warn the American people of a Saddam-created ‘mushroom cloud’. Yet the evidence she cited was flawed and inconclusive, and, as a scholar trained in checking her sources, she should have checked these allegations before reporting them as fact. The third area of deceit involved her statements on whether or not the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that she had authorized on ‘illegal combatant’ prisoners constituted torture. She stated on numerous occasions that ‘The United States does not and cannot torture.’ Yet she is on the record as having authorized water torture (for which the US executed Japanese POWs after World War II), and stress positions (including the strappado technique invented in medieval times, and used by Josef Stalin, in whose history she was an expert). Rice defends herself by citing the definition of torture concocted by John Yoo that if a technique doesn’t lead to “organ failure or death”, then it is not torture. She has also affirmed her belief that the methods are legal, by stating that “if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture” – a Nixonian contradiction that some legal experts have pinpointed as a confession of guilt.
So why did she distort the truth so blatantly? The main reason is the same reason we all tell porkies: self-interest. We lie to a traffic cop about our speed to protect our driving license. We under-report income to the IRS to reduce our tax bills. To a lover with whom we’re keen to maintain a relationship, we’re economical with the truth about our fantasies. That applies to Rice too – she has a future to consider, and a legacy to preserve, so why not do some spinning of the truth? While Rice was in power, however, she wove such a web of deceit around herself, that her relationship with objective truth became a pathology. Like Bernard Madoff with his Ponzi scheme, Rice had to build a psychological construct that allows her to believe that what she is doing is right and truthful. There are three corners to this pyramid of self-delusion: first, is her Christian faith. She believes she is on a mission from Jesus to protect and exalt the American people. On this mission, she is above the Law, and the means justifies the ends, even if those means involve genital mutilation of evil-doers. Second, she is an academic, and is thus well trained in using information selectively to promote a particular thesis. This helped her greatly in ignoring inconvenient caveats in the reports on Saddam Hussein’s threat capacity in the lead up to the Iraq war. Thirdly, she is a pragmatic politician with a strong legal team behind her to coach her in how to use rhetorical techniques to avoid providing straight answers. Witness her extraordinary bout of amnesia when in front of the 9/11 Commission, where she also showed herself a master of the filibuster. She is also a virtuoso of wordplay, especially in her response to accusations that she is guilty of authorizing torture. By using the John Yoo definition of torture as a method which induces organ failure or death, she is free to authorize water torture, fingernail extraction, and genital mutilation, at the same time as stating that she has never condoned torture.
Does she really believe all this when faced with her own bathroom mirror? She answers that clearly: “I have never believed in self-reflection… I have no regrets”. How long she can convince herself that her conscience is clear is dependent on how many people see Condoleezza Rice for who she truly is, and whether America’s legal institutions are strong enough to hold to account those who have broken the law.