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Hot Docs 2015 Women Directors: Meet Tonje Hessen Schei – ‘Drone’

Hot Docs 2015 Women Directors: Meet Tonje Hessen Schei - 'Drone'

Tonje Hessen Schei
is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has worked with independent
documentary productions since 1996. Her films focus on human rights, the
environment and social justice. Hessen Schei directed and produced “Play Again” and “Independent Intervention,” which have won
several international awards. Her films have been screened on all continents in
over 100 countries and are used by schools and universities globally. Hessen Schei started
Ground Productions in 2005, an international documentary production company
based in Portland, Oregon, and Oslo, Norway. (Press materials) 

Drone” will premiere at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto on April 24. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

THS: “Drone” takes us inside CIA drone warfare. The film features powerful stories from the frontlines of the war on terror. We meet people who have survived drone attacks and live under the drones in Pakistan, as well as drone pilots who struggle with the consequences of killing with joysticks from the other side of the world. Their stories are put in perspective by prominent experts who give new insights on the future of warfare. Should robots decide who, when and where to kill? Does the new technology make it too easy to kill, or is it saving lives by making war more humane? At this crucial time, “Drone” asks where we are headed.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

THS: I got the idea for the film when I was working on my last film, “Play Again,” which looks at the consequences of children growing up behind screens. I came across the story of a gamer who dropped out of high school and joined the military, where he quickly became a drone pilot. To me, the thought of going from points per kill to killing real people on the other side of the world is alarming, and I’m concerned about the constant thinning line between the virtual world and war. Then Obama went from the promise of closing Guantanamo to simply assassinating people outside of declared war zones, without transparency and accountability, based on suspicions of imminent threats. Thousands of people have been killed by the CIA drones, and that’s why we decided to make this movie.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

THS: It was important to us to give the full picture, to tell the story from as many sides of the issue as possible. To get access to the US Air Force took a lot of time and effort and countless phone calls to the Pentagon. Also, getting footage out of Waziristan to tell the stories of the people on the ground under the drones was a great challenge, as this is an incredibly dangerous and difficult area to work in.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

THS: I believe drones have changed warfare and possibly our future. The US is setting a very dangerous precedent with the CIA’s use of drones — and people need to understand the consequences of this [kind] of warfare. Thousands of civilians have been killed by drones, and the drones are not the surgically precise weapons they are sold as by the Obama administration and the mainstream media.

The spread of military drones is incredibly fast: around 100 countries now have this capability or are developing one. To me, it is just a question of time before Russia, China or Iran start taking out people around the world they see as imminent threats.

So I really hope that people get engaged after seeing the film, as we really need to know what is going on in order to understand the real consequences of CIA drone warfare — as well as the war on terror.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

THS: Dare to dream, aim high and run as fast and hard as you can towards your goal. And have fun in the process! Most importantly, build a strong team of people that you love working with. Documentary filmmaking is hard work, and it’s incredibly important to have a strong team, and of course it is so much more fun [to collaborate with them]. 

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

THS: A lot of journalists that have written about “Drone” have assumed that I’m a man, which I think is rather funny. Otherwise, I’ve often found that being a female director on this issue has given me a lot of leverage and respect. I rarely think of myself in terms of being a woman when I work, which also is probably due to the fact that here in Norway, equality between women and men is far advanced compared to the States.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

THS: “Drone” is funded by several European broadcasters, like ARTE, DR and TV2 Norway. The Norwegian Film Institute and the Freedom of Speech Foundation are our biggest funders. We developed the film internationally and built a strong network around the film from idea through post-production, which has been incredibly important in funding and realizing the film.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

THS: “Citizenfour,” because Laura Poitras is an incredibly courageous and hardcore-brilliant director who speaks truth to power, which is so essential in our world today.

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