January 31, 2007

Bringing the War Home: Andrew Berends

Andrew Berends, the recipient of the 2006 Courage Under Fire Award, traveled to Iraq in March 2004, intending to get a behind-the-scenes look at what was really happening in that war-torn country a year after the Unites States' invasion. He felt that traditional news media were mainly reporting on the numbers of people killed and wounded and where American soldiers were fighting.

Berends called his friend James Longley, who was working on a made-in-Iraq documentary (Iraq in Fragments). Longley advised him to fly to Amman, Jordan, take a taxi to Baghdad, and bring a passport to get across the border.

Berends packed two cameras, sound recording equipment, video and audio tapes and a bulletproof vest. He also wrote a letter assigning himself to cover what was happening in Iraq for a documentary. That's all it took for him to get press credentials, and four months later he was embedded with a US Army unit.

The filmmaker did that for a week, and spent the rest of a six-month stay in Iraq documenting the toll that the war was taking on the lives of ordinary people on all sides of the fray. His 80-minute documentary Blood of My Brother is an intimate look at how the death of an innocent civilian affected his family, interwoven with images and words about what life is like in the war-torn nation.

Berends was born in Manhattan, raised in the suburb of Westchester, and has made Brooklyn his home for the past 12 years. He majored in filmmaking at Wesleyan University, and worked on independent narrative films after graduation.

In 1997, Berends arranged to spend a week on a Dutch fishing boat on the North Sea; one of the fishermen was his cousin. Berends brought his camera intending to make a short film about their life on the sea. On the second night, there was a storm. One of the ships in the fleet sank and a 19-year-old fisherman drowned. Berends visited the sailor's native town several times during the next two years. The resulting film, Urk, was released in 2003.

"Once I got into documentaries, I felt like I was at home," he reflects.

Blood of My Brother, which Berends produced, directed and shot, was his second documentary. After spending a week embedded with a US Army unit, he hired an interpreter and visited the Kadhimiya neighborhood that has an ancient Shiite mosque, where there had been a suicide bombing about a month earlier. Berends was walking through the neighborhood with his interpreter when a couple of young men got his attention.

"They said they had a story for me," he says. "I filmed them telling me about their friend Ra'ad. They said he was a portrait photographer, who had saved enough money to open a studio. Ra'ad had volunteered to help guard the ancient mosque. He was shot and killed by an American patrol the previous night. My first thought was, That's a heavy story, but it's over; he's dead."

The men asked Berends if he wanted to meet Ra'ad's family and see how the killing was affecting their lives. He agreed, and they told him to come back in two days.

"Honestly, it sounded pretty scary, going into these people's home only a couple of days after their son was killed," he recalls. "But I went and met his mother and brother. I didn't interview them. I just kept the camera rolling while they spoke. Both of them were crying, but they were totally open. The brother, Ibrahim, was longing for revenge, but as the only male in the family, he was obligated to assume the role of breadwinner."

That was the beginning of Berends' exploration of how the war was affecting the people of Iraq. "The American military wasn't monitoring what every journalist was doing," he explains. "I spent some eight to 10 days in conflict areas with the Mehdi army, which primarily consisted of poor Shia youth. In one scene, I was right behind a sniper as he was creeping to the corner of a street, where he started shooting at American soldiers. In normal circumstances, either I'd be running for my life or I'd try to stop him. I was definitely thinking about the ethical nature of what I was doing, trying to make the right choices. I believe I did the right thing in that situation."

The Mehdi Army was positioned around an important mosque for Shia Muslims. They had effectively taken over the city. The Ayatollah Sistani told his followers to march in between the Medhis and American soldiers to try to save the shrine and the city. They were peace demonstrators trying to put an end to the fighting.

Police came to the hotel where Berends and other journalists were staying and offered to bring them to see the ayatollah when he arrived. They drove through the city to a point about a half a mile away from the battle. The streets were deserted.

"They didn't look like police," Berends remembers. "Their faces were covered, and they had machine guns and some kind of rocket launcher. I was asking myself, What am I doing here? They took up positions, and after a while I saw headlights coming towards us. It was the ayatollah coming with thousands of followers. I could hear helicopters flying and bombing positions around the mosque.

"At first, the police were welcoming them and sort of celebrating," Berends continues. "Everybody was chanting and demonstrating. Then, things started to get out of control. The police started yelling at everyone to get back, and pointing their guns. I turned the camera to the left, and there were demonstrators chanting and advancing on the police. I turned it to my right and the police were yelling at them to go back. All of a sudden, they started shooting."

Berends kept his camera rolling and tried to stay behind the line of police. Some of them were shooting directly into the crowd, killing people right in front of him. He ran up to a screaming man who had been shot in the arm and began filming.

"I had a crisis of conscience," Berends says. "I was asking myself, Was this the right thing to do? A policeman stepped in front of the camera and yelled at me to stop shooting. Whenever I had shots like that, I immediately put the cassette in my pocket, so it wasn't taken away.

"I tried to be objective and never lit a shot or imposed myself into the story," Berends continues. "I got as physically close as possible to whatever was happening and tried to avoid zooming in and out, because when you're right there with the people, it's easier for the audience to relate to them as fellow human beings. I wanted the film to feel genuine and alive with energy as though the audience was there with me."

In general, he found people on all sides to be open and cooperative.

"An important part of Iraqi culture is hospitality," he explains. "Many people said, 'You are away from your home and family. It's our responsibility to take care of you.' It's a very open, friendly society, unless you fall into the wrong hands."

Berends carried about 180 hours of cassettes home in a knapsack; the images were recorded at a standard 525-line resolution in 24p format. He subsequently hired an editor and sound mixer, Aaron Soffin, and a composer, Stephen Barton, as well as several translators.

Berends produced two comprehensive stories from the raw material. The first, Blood of My Brother, took five months to edit. After it played at multiple festivals, he made a distribution deal with LifeSize Entertainment. The film played in theaters in a handful of cities, came out on DVD in November and is available at Blockbuster stores, on Amazon and at www.bloodofmybrother.com.

"We haven't made a domestic television sale yet, which is frustrating," Berends says. "A big part of the purpose for this film was to bring the war home. I saw what was happening from all sides. I'm afraid people are tired of news from Iraq. Sometimes, if I bring the subject up, people start looking away as if they don't want to talk or even think about it."

Berends also brought indelible memories and impressions back home.

"The daily news reports are about the numbers of people who are killed--American soldiers, insurgents, Iraqi police and civilians," he says. "But, each person killed is more than an number. There are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. The people I met don't want to kill each other or anyone. They are caught in the middle."

The second film, When Adnan Comes Home, which focuses on a young person and the bureaucracy of a juvenile prison, was slated for a world premiere at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam in November.

 

Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.

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