At what moment did you realise you had to make this film?
Eight weeks after 11 September, I was reading an article in the New Yorker, and buried in the article was a paragraph that essentially said that approximately two dozen members of the Bin Laden family and their associates living in the US were picked up by the FBI and very quickly flown out of the country. I read it and reread it, and I was just amazed - not knowing at the time that there was any kind of relationship between the Bin Ladens, the Saudi royals and the Bushes. It was just the mystery of that.
At what point did you become angry?
The anger began on the night of the election in 2000. And it wasn't a partisan anger, because I didn't vote for Gore. I wasn't upset that Gore lost. I was upset that these people were essentially trying to steal an election; they were trying to claim a piece of property that belonged to the people of the United States.
When the war started, it forced me not just to go with the easy liberal-left answer: "It's the oil." What if it was something else? What else was at play here? And the more I thought about these Bin Laden flights, and put myself in Bush's shoes - what if so much of this is meant as a distraction? If a real investigation is ever done regarding 9/11 and the reasons why Bush was asleep at the wheel, it's far too easy simply to say: "He's stupid." But what if so much of what we've been through in the past two or three years has been just about the embarrassment that the Bushes must have been feeling?
Let's say I told you tomorrow that the son of this best friend of yours, who you know quite well, is up to no good. And who am I? You're going to be like: "Fuck you! I know this family. I know these people." I don't mean to give Bush the benefit of the doubt here, but let's look at him as a human being caught in a very bad place, because he's been hanging out with the wrong people - and these people, the Saudi royal family [are] a brutal dictatorship.
I hate calling them "the royals" because it gives them such a masterpiece theatre air . . . these are the fuckers who, a couple of years ago, decided to celebrate New Year's Day by beheading three gay guys. They are the people the Bushes are in bed with. And I think that the amount of money they've taken from them, and the investments they've shared, clouded their judgement, made them not even want to consider that it had anything to do with them. Right down to the day after 11 September, not even wanting to consider Bin Laden, and wanting it to be Iraq.
Do you think that there's an element of denial in this?
Yes, I do. I believe that if you gave them a lie detector test, they'd pass it. Forget about the politics and the money for a minute; just consider the human ele- ment - which is that they are too close to the source of what is either funding or supporting a lot of this death and destruction. And instead of saying, "You know, we should really look into this", they decided to try and create one distraction after another. And even when they finally feel like, "OK, dammit, we've got to go into Afghanistan", they don't really go in there. And then, once they are in there, they don't really go to the place where he is to go find him. Why hasn't anyone really asked that question?
You have resisted the standard left response of doing a media critique.
Well, you know, it's been done. It doesn't seem to reach the average American. And so, instead of going after the media, I thought, why don't we just take the filter off? Let's show these things that weren't shown on the nightly news. Let's be the first to show footage of these detainees being abused and humiliated. I still haven't seen any footage on television. I've seen the photographs, but I've seen no footage. And our footage is everyday, commonplace stuff out in the field, not the tabloid, over-the-top, S&M business going on in the prison.
Ours just kind of happens in the movie and then it's gone and you're like, "Uh, what was that?" I don't want to make a big deal out of it because I want to show it as normal, not abnormal. Bush wants you to believe it's abnormal, that it's six crazed soldiers who did some horrible things. And my film shows it being systemic and commonplace and no big deal. "Oh, there's a detainee with an erection popping through the blanket", so four or five soldiers go over to touch it and, on camera, I have one of them touching it and then putting the hoods over the heads and snapping the pictures. And so, in putting these things in the film, my hope is that the public will go: "Dammit, how come I'm not being shown this? Where's our media?" The networks are saying: "Where'd you get this footage? Who gave you this?" I've been given access to stuff that I probably shouldn't have access to.
The first day we all began, I had a meeting with everybody and I told them: "There are those rare times in our history when a work of art has had an impact on society in a way that actually changed things." I cited a few examples I could think of - Uncle Tom's Cabin, books by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. As for movies, I didn't have any examples.
It's only recently become possible to make a film like this at lightning speed, so that what goes out into the theatre is this up to date. This little digital invention of ones and zeroes, the equipment being accessible, the means of production essentially being in our hands.
As you leave the theatre, you enter what is essentially the movie you just saw, and it's up to you whether you're going to continue the movie. We're trying to find a way for an American audience to ingest it and leave feeling compelled to act, as opposed to just being preached to. I don't say we've got to sugar-coat things. I wanted to make something that would be the kind of journalism I wish I could see when I turn on the news or pick up the daily paper.
I hope that people go see this movie and I hope they throw the bastard out of office. My mantra in the editing room has been: "We've got to make a movie where, on the way out of the theatre, the people ask the ushers if they have any torches."
Fahrenheit 9/11 is on general release
Gavin Smith is the editor of Film Comment, a New York-based magazine of film criticism