Making A Film on Drones and the Robotic Future of War From Nevada

And the Humans who Protest It

As long as I can remember, I’ve been documenting anti-war protests.

As a child, my mom used to take me to weekend demonstrations on the Mall in Washington, D.C., from the time of the Reagan invasions to the first Iraq war. Rather than chant along or carry a sign, though, I always wanted to document the proceedings, camera in hand.

A neighbor, Colman McCarthy, who ran marathons with my parents was a nationally published columnist who inspired me to become a journalist, and with his dogged pacifist arguments, to always be directed by a sense of justice.

When I covered blood diamond wars in West Africa in the 2000s, I always considered myself a peace journalist, trying to bring more awareness to the insanity of violence and what might have caused it.

Back in our nation’s capital, in 2011, covering a Tax Day rally near the White House, I noticed a motley crew of Code Pink activists wearing green construction hats and colorful tee-shirts with the inscription Bring Our War Dollars Home.  One of them was walking around making a continuous humming sound with a cardboard drone lifted above their shoulders and the crowd. I had seen activists wearing the orange Guantanamo jumpsuits, and had heard about Code Pink disrupting events, but this was my first up close exposure to whom some have called the “lunatic fringe.”

Image courtesy of Nico Colombant

Shortly thereafter, after moving to Reno, with my wife, documentary filmmaker Kari Barber, who was hired to teach journalism at the University of Nevada, we decided to make a film on drones together, since the Silver State was touting itself as a future hub for unmanned aerial vehicles of all stripes.

Joseph DeLappe in his art workspace in Stead Nevada – Image courtesy of Nico Colombant

Searching for an angle, I kept reading articles in local media about artist Joseph DeLappe, then a colleague at the university, where I had also started to teach. His thought-provoking work included creating protest art to counter military drones. Of added interest to us as filmmakers, he had earned a grant to make a participatory memorial at Fresno State, to remember hundreds of civilians killed in U.S. strikes, including dozens of children.

Kari, also looking for a direction for our movie, went to Fresno as part of documenting DeLappe’s work. There, she met San Francisco-based Toby Blomé, a main Code Pink organizer, always looking for new protest ideas herself and connections to grow the small but resilient global anti-drone movement.

Image courtesy of Nico Colombant

We decided I would join the next action she was organizing at Creech Air Force Base, where “Home of the Hunters” is neatly chiseled into cement blocks surrounding the compound, a 40-minute drive from Las Vegas, close to brothels set up for servicemen commuting through Death Valley.

Above the trailer for Battles Beyond the Horizon by Kari Barber and Nico Colombant premiering in October in Reno and Las Vegas.

My first time at Creech was very much a lunatic fringe moment.  The anti-drone movement was composed of former but still vibrant hippies, greying members of Veterans for Peace, wise Indigenous leaders and representatives of different pro-peace religious groups, each with different peculiar outfits, musical instruments and hymns.

At night, they crammed into a nearby Goddess temple, peaceful despite its closeness to the 95 north-south highway and just a few minutes from Creech where former video game addicted high schoolers are recruited to serve. From inside small trailers, these “hunter” soldiers press actual kill buttons on joy sticks activating a drone’s “hellfire” missile after watching their intended “prey” on blurry satellite video screens, sometimes for hours on end, even days.

A former drone pilot we interviewed talked about how it was like “popping his cherry” the first time he killed from thousands of miles away, before perhaps returning to Vegas after his “successful” shift, trying his luck at gambling, drowning his moral injuries in alcohol, and going to sleep with sedatives after all the excitement, before returning to the base to resume the cycle of following through on sordid fantasies including killing from afar.

On the other side of the highway at the temple, the resident priestess led the protesters in communal prayer at dawn, and at dusk the activists would perform their own circle rituals, often with fire, to prepare for their long days of protest, right outside the Creech entrance, with heavy traffic hurtling by, often honking in disapproval.

Image courtesy of Nico Colombant

Their dress was often carnival-like, matching performance art to their convictions, from wearing pink tutus and anonymous masks to flying peace flags and kites, while practice drones flew above them, and military personnel drove by, revving their Hummers and flashy sports cars.

With your tinted window rolled up and with your AC on full blast to avoid the desert heat, the activists burning in the sun did look like the “lunatic fringe.”  But from within their group, with their constant hugs, belief in finding consensus in their actions despite their generational and religious differences, with their reassuring appeals they tried to give to those going to work who would listen to choose a different fate, their eating healthy organic food, their walking in the midst of roaring engines, occasionally blocking traffic and risking arrest and their freedom to alert others, to put a few specs of sand into the military machinery of killing, it made me wonder: what if they were the only ones who weren’t lunatics?

They were the ones denouncing self-fulfilling prophecies of endless war and retribution, not the ones silently complicit in such a system. They were the ones pointing out the ominous end of any shreds of our humanity due to a possible future of data induced independent killer robots our military leaders have programmed and our elected governments have paid for.

Or were their freedoms being protected by the killer drones as one sidewalk spectator said as she saw them coming unexpectedly toward her at a Veteran’s Day parade in downtown Las Vegas which the activists decided to crash?

Interviewing main experts in ethics of warfare, from military academies in the U.S. to an international peace institute in Germany, catching up with a drone pilot whistleblower in Berlin, and a Basque anthropologist who felt compelled to join the protesters, while deconstructing official speeches after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan and going back repeatedly to Creech, in Battles Beyond the Horizon we tried to find out where the lunacy resides.  Our full-length documentary will debut in Reno and Las Vegas in late October.

Nico Colombant is a Community Documentarian and Journalism Instructor, a veteran foreign correspondent, multimedia short and long-form storyteller, and hyperlocal community website developer who joined the Reynolds School faculty in 2016. Nico coordinates the Reynolds Media Lab, a content production center of the Reynolds School with services and productions that range from podcasting to web videos. He also runs the Our Town Reno collective website which reports on issues of poverty, homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, gentrification, displacement, and street art. His teaching interests include international and cross-cultural journalism, short and long-form multimedia reporting, news writing, radio features, web video, political journalism, and podcasting. His documentary film work in progress or completed has dealt with issues ranging from lawlessness in Africa to the U.S. prison system, drone protesters in Nevada, and Latino voters in Washoe County. With 15 years of experience as a multilingual international journalist, Nico has covered strife, civil wars, coups, failed elections, and natural disasters for many news organizations worldwide.

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