Documenting in the Face of Danger
By Laura Almo
The mantra of 2001 was that the events of September 11 changed the way we see the world. For filmmakers, broadcasters and the viewing public, September 11 has reinvigorated interest in programs that examine more probing and consequential topics.
The PBS series Frontline (www.Frontline.org), for example, overhauled its fall programming to cover areas of more immediate global relevance: the war on terrorism, the trail of terrorists and the fragile alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provided funds for in-depth analyses of these issues on the Frontline website, informing a wide audience about these concerns. But these issues existed long before September 11. And filmmakers have never shied away from exploring them, even if it has meant venturing into the most dangerous of places, at tremendous risk, to seek out answers and report on something the public may not want to see—and the media may not even wish to air.
Meena Nanji had been working on Women and War (www.womeninwar.com), a work-in-progress about Afghani women in refugee camps in Pakistan, well before the terrorist attacks. Inspired by a talk she heard by two representatives of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), Nanji visited the refugee camps in the fall of 2000. While there, she heard horrific stories of life under Taliban rule, but these were stories of courage, resilience and survival. Nanji returned to the US with some remarkable footage, which she put on the back burner while she pursued other projects. When the events of September 11 brought the plight of Afghani refugees to the forefront, she returned to this footage. With the world’s new interest in Afghanistan and the Afghani refugees, Nanji received enough funding to return to the refugee camps with cinematographer Denise Brassard.
Nanji and Brassard spent most of November and December in the refugee camps in Peshawar, watching the war unfold and the situation change on a daily basis. Despite the circumstances, Brassard maintained that they never really felt in danger; the bombs were falling in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. The filmmakers were, however, conscious of being women alone in Pakistan during a tense situation. They took the necessary precautions, obtaining the proper paperwork to visit the refugee camps, and donning traditional Pakistani clothing, including chadors to cover their heads. Their taxi driver, who was very helpful throughout their time in Pakistan, would warn them when they were in Taliban-friendly areas. In addition, Brassard made a cover for her camera.
Nanji’s decision to go to Pakistan while the US was at war in Afghanistan was influenced by her RAWA contacts, who had been living in difficult and dangerous circumstances for over 20 years. They told Nanji that it was okay for her to come to Pakistan, so she relied on their instincts. As the war unfolded and the Taliban fell, talk of the refugees returning to Afghanistan has become a realistic option, but not for now. To do so, the women feel, is still too dangerous. When women feel safe enough to return, Nanji and Brassard hope to follow one of their subjects--a teacher--back to Afghanistan as she rebuilds her life.
For filmmakers like Nanji and Brassard, to work on projects in dangerous places, one must establish contacts, be well informed, and understand the culture, subtleties and rhythm of the place. It also takes a fair amount of street smarts and logic, not to mention a heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings.
Danger comes in many forms. There is the geopolitical danger of a country in the middle of a war, or that has been ravaged by war and is politically destabilized. There is also the sociopolitical danger of filming in a totalitarian state, where subjects address the camera at their own peril—and that of their family and friends. And there is the danger of repercussions to the filmmaker once the film is out in the world.
Logistically speaking, things that are simple to expedite in one country become seemingly insurmountable obstacles in another—obtaining the proper papers to enter a country; entering on a press visa vs. a tourist visa; getting permission from the appropriate officials to film the people and places you are interested in; and getting footage out of the country safely. Of course, much depends on the specific country. Some countries want a pay-off for allowing camera equipment in, while others want to know exactly what is shot on every frame of footage, and will restrict what one films by having a “minder,” or chaperone, accompany the filmmaker at all times.
Veteran filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond made the 1999 film Children in War (www.childreninwar.com), the tragic story of modern warfare and terrorism as told by children in Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland. The Raymonds chose to cover the effects of war in Rwanda and Bosnia, where the conflict had been recent and intense, and Northern Ireland and Israel, where the conflict has been long term, and the children haven’t known lasting peace in their lifetime. Working in unfamiliar circumstances, anything is possible. “As a filmmaker, there’s a certain level of fear that you just have to conquer,” Alan observes. “Anything could happen, but it probably won’t. There’s always some free-floating anxiety. Many things we encountered are routine for war correspondents, but for the independent documentarian, it’s scary”
Each of the four countries had its dangers and obstacles. In Bosnia, the war was going on, there were snipers in the mountains, and all media representatives were required to wear bulletproof vests and flak jackets. In Northern Ireland, if one so much as pointed a camera at sensitive surveillance equipment, somebody would appear within minutes. And in Israel, there was the constant threat of terrorism—which the Raymonds encountered on their first day of filming—along with the challenge of getting into the occupied territories. Even with the proper press credentials, they were turned away three times at the border between Israel and Gaza before they were allowed to enter.
But it was the experience in Rwanda that was the most frightening. Not only were logistics difficult—telephones were unreliable and there was no established banking system, so all transactions had to be done in cash—but the country was destabilized, under military rule, and there were no authorities that the Raymonds could reliably go to in case they got into trouble. Things could change instantaneously, and often did. Alan remembers, “You could be driving on the very same road you had driven on earlier in the day and come upon impromptu roadblocks made out of branches, with military personnel standing there asking what you’re doing and why you’re there, and all you can do is hope you can talk your way out of the situation.”
This is the territory that goes with making these kinds of films, and patience and perseverance are the best tools the filmmaker has, as was the case for French filmmakers Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brohy while working on Hidden Wars of Desert Storm (2001; www.Hiddenwars.com). This film looks at the origins of the Gulf War and explores some of the more controversial questions of that conflict. The challenge of making this film, say the filmmakers, was working in Iraq. “You’re never alone, and you must ask permission to shoot anything,” Ungerman recalls. “The room in the hotel was bugged, and everyday you had to tell the authorities what you were going to do that day.” Getting footage out of the country was also a challenge because officials could confiscate it. Ungerman and Brohy gave their tapes to the French Embassy in Iraq, which sent it to the embassy in Amaan, Jordan, where they picked it up.
Speaking on the danger involved in filming in Iraq, Ungerman and Brohy agree that, “You’re okay as long as you follow the protocol and don’t make the wrong move.” There are definitely ethical considerations and responsibilities that they felt towards their subjects in Iraq as well as with their current project in Colombia. People want to speak on camera because they want the story out, but they’re not always comfortable doing so. In Iraq, if sensitive material has been shot, President Saddam Hussein might see the footage and ask who the “minders” were who accompanied the filmmakers; those people will suffer the consequences of the filmmakers’ actions.
Yet subjects do speak out because they are desperate for the world to hear their stories. They will often speak anonymously, however, on the condition that they are shot from the back and their faces do not appear on screen. Ungerman points out that it is handy to have a digital camera with an LCD screen to show people how they’re going to be filmed.
Cinematographer Brassard explained that while filming Women and War in Pakistan, she and Nanji were confronted with similar issues. They had to film one of their main subjects, a member of RAWA, in silhouette, and when the filmmakers visited the RAWA refugee camp, they couldn’t film any of the signs indicating where the camp was located because that would compromise the safety and security of their subject, other members of RAWA, and the camp itself.
Perhaps the real test of a film comes when it reaches an audience. Sometimes, however, screening a film has repercussions for the filmmaker. For Joel Soler’s Uncle Saddam (2000), a satirical film about Saddam Hussein, repercussions came in the form of his house being painted red and a death threat pinned to his mailbox following a week-long engagement of his film in Los Angeles. Soler still doesn’t know who did it, and though it scared him, it didn’t stop him from pursuing other precarious projects. The success of Uncle Saddam (HBO will air it later this year) and the events of September 11 compelled him to work on his current film project about the bin Laden family, which has taken him on several odysseys into Syria and Yemen. The exhilaration and excitement of going somewhere new and unfamiliar inspires Soler to penetrate deeper to find the real story.
These filmmakers take great risks to shed light on remote corners of the world that many of us, until recently, rarely have considered. But, post-9-11, these documentaries help us see the rest of the world in a more complex, multi-dimensional and necessary way.
Laura Almo is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles.