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The Making of Children in War

By Alan Raymond

A group of children wearing matching red shirts smile at the camera.

As long as we have been documentary filmmakers, we had always wanted to do a film on children in war. To us, it was one of those great classic themes that seemed at once immensely challenging and truly meaningful. With the brutal ethnic wars raging in Bosnia and Rwanda in 1994 in which children were being deliberately targeted and killed, the time seemed right to try and launch the project.

We had just completed our Academy Award-winning documentary film about a troubled inner-city elementary school in North Philadelphia entitled I Am A Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School. We really had enjoyed working with children while making that film and it seemed natural to continue working with children, albeit on a global scale. We were very fortunate to have a compassionate executive producer in Sheila Nevins at HBO. After the success of I Am A Promise she agreed to fully fund Children In War, and after four-and-a half years of production, the film is finally completed. In addition to Bosnia and Rwanda, we all agreed that we would also try to tell the story of children who had never known peace in their lifetime: Children growing up in countries experiencing long-term "low intensity" wars of terrorism. After much debate, we decided to go to Israel to film both Palestinian and Israeli children and to Northern Ireland to film the children of the Troubles. By exploring the voices of children in war in four different conflicts, we hoped to arrive at some larger portrait of the state of the world at the end of the 20th century. We wanted the children in these four countries to speak for themselves: to describe their lives and what it is like growing up in a war zone. We also felt that there could be a deeper meaning to these children's interviews. Perhaps children growing up in war zones could tell us some underlying truths about our own moral universe.

The production logistics are formidable and we ended up making nine international research and filming trips. This included three trips to Bosnia-all during the actual war, and two trips to each of the other countries. Because we were working as independent filmmakers and not as part of a large network or cable news organization, we were pretty much on our own. Arriving in each country cold, we had to figure out where to stay, negotiate the local currency in the black market, rent cars, hire assistants, obtain press credentials, and quickly assess which part of town to avoid. In Bosnia there were no functioning hotels where we did our filming and we did the best we could under the circumstances. In each country, we went through a series of drivers and rental vehicles that are best forgotten.

Additionally, we had to find translators that we could work with in interviewing the children. The film encompasses five different languages: Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, Arabic, Kinyarwandan and English. Making a film in five languages only one of which we spoke, was perhaps the greatest challenge in both the filming and editing of the documentary. It was very difficult for Susan who had to interview children through interpreters. And there were other concerns with this kind of interview: Susan had consulted with child psychologists prior to doing the interviews and they all encouraged her to get the children to openly talk about their war-related experiences. Only through freely expressing themselves in this way can children in war begin to take control of the traumatic events they witnessed.

We had made two significant aesthetic decisions at the outset of the production. The first was to shoot in 16mm film and not on videotape. Alan wanted the documentary to have a visual look to it that differed from the instant war news reports we are all used to seeing on TV. Film, he believed, could lend a richer, more nuanced texture to the documentary. Having said that, shooting on film did prove to be daunting, especially in Bosnia and Rwanda. There simply was no support system in either country for the equipment, the raw stock or the laboratory processing.

The second big decision we made was to employ subtitles in the final film, not the more usual voice-overs used on American television. We wanted very much for audiences to hear the actual quality of the children's voices—even if viewers couldn't actually understand what the boys and girls were saying without reading it on the screen. Home Box Office supported us in this decision and we have never regretted it—although creating more than five hundred subtitles in the final film was a nightmare of extremely detailed work.

Moreover, there were no functioning banking systems in either Bosnia or Rwanda during our filming. This necessitated carrying large amounts of cash on our bodies. Although nothing ever happened to us because of this, it was just one more anxiety—producing aspect of the production. We're often asked if we were in danger making this film? The answer is obviously YES. In fact HBO made us take out life insurance policies equal to our production budget, making them the beneficiaries. We assumed this was a new wrinkle on "cast insurance." Plus, we carried body armor that included flakjackets and bullet-resistant Kevlar vests. However we rarely, if ever, wore them. They were heavy and cumbersome, making it difficult to operate the camera and sound recorder.

Rwanda was probably the most dangerous of the four countries, especially at night when we were driving back from the Zaire border and were often stopped by young men with automatic rifles at makeshift roadblocks. Were they government soldiers? Or were they members of the Hutu Interahamwe, the perpetrators of the genocide?

Any discussion of the tribulations or dangers involved in the making of Children In War pales, however, in comparison to the suffering of the children we filmed. While we faced risks and hazards, our problems were temporary. Soon we would be back in the U.S.A. editing the production. For the children of Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland, their war-related trauma may last a lifetime and their losses include parents, brothers and sisters.

The emotional toll of making the film was actually the most difficult aspect of it. As the parents of an 11-year-boy, we kept wondering how our son would cope with the tragic events these children had witnessed? How could he survive living alone in the Goma Camp for one year? We're still haunted by the brave little boy Sanel who lived through three years of the war in Bosnia. When Sanel was asked what he would say to children who don't know what it's like to live in war, he answered poignantly, "It is very difficult to live in war. You just wait for the moment you will die."

Making Children In War was a great opportunity for us as broadcast journalists to be involved in global issues. We are very pleased that in addition to the HBO airing of the film on January 31, 2000, we have been given the opportunity to write a companion book on Children in War for TVBooks published by Harper Collins. We'll be able to include many more of the children's interviews than we were able to in the documentary. We're also planning to use many of the children's drawings seen in the film as well as poems and stories they wrote for us.

Despite the emotional and physical challenges we faced, making this film was a profoundly rewarding personal journey for us as well. We will never forget the beautiful children we met and hope that their interviews will stand as significant collective memories that express some permanent, enduring truth about the madness of these wars fought at the end of the 20th century.

In addition to the Oscar-winning I Am A Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School, Alan and Susan Raymond are prolific documentarians whose work includes An American Family; Police Tapes; To Die for lreland; Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House; Elvis '56, and many others appearing on outlets such as HBO, Cinemax, and PBS.