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Shooting Amidst the Shooting: Doc-Making in War Zones

By Suz Curtis

From Sebastian Junger and Tim Hethrington's Restrepo. Photo: Tim Hethrington
When filmmakers discuss "shooting," they usually mean "using a camera." But when working in combat zones, shooting may suggest something entirely different.

Documentary director Ross Kauffman described reviewing material from his latest film, E-Team (co-directed by Katy Chevigny), with editor David Teague. The footage, Kaufmann says, was overwhelmed by the sounds of gunfire. While that effect might suit a film that follows human rights workers through dangerous areas of the world, it seemed a little much to him when he asked Teague to remove the gunfire sound effects, the editor responded, "There are no sound effects."

Kauffman didn't recall the moment being so violent. "I'm focused on getting the scene and capturing it," he says. "Sometimes I don't realize how loud something is. Other things go away when you're experiencing it through the camera."

Such artistry may compel the filmmaker to follow a story into a war zone, but war zones ask more of the filmmaker than passion alone; they demand rigorous preparation, pose significant logistical hurdles, and present personal risks unique to embattled locations. "It's important to be prepared and know that it's dangerous," Kauffman advises. "It's work; it's not play."

Research and Train

War zones are areas where injury is likely and medical assistance is often limited, so safety, first aid and survival training are important considerations when planning a project. Not only should the filmmaker know survival training, but, according to Kauffman, "You want to make sure the people you're with know survival training."

Sebastian Junger, co-director of the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, founded the Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) survival training program for experienced freelance combat reporters. He began the program after losing his co-director on Restrepo, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, to a shrapnel wound while he was covering the 2011 uprising in Libya. RISC training covers basic procedures for saving someone's life on the battlefield.

"One of the reasons I started RISC is in response to the helplessness you feel around injured people," Junger says. "When you don't have any tools or skills to help them, it's a terrible feeling."

When faced with a crisis, Junger notes, "Some people panic and some don't. There's nothing you can really do to train for that. But you can give people a kind of muscle memory-like response to certain tasks, like putting on a tourniquet. If you can just do it enough, you're at least a little ahead of the game."

E-Team cinematographer Rachel Beth Anderson trained with RISC. "It is an incredibly important course for the basic fact it gives you confidence, which results in calm and thoughtful reactions," she maintains.

Conflict zones, she explains, test even the most focused crew. "When something goes wrong," Anderson says, "the most important aspect is to think clearly, which can only result if you don't panic. The course itself is an essential training for freelancers because we don't have many options to receive this type of potentially life-saving training, especially with our smaller budgets."

Junger cautions filmmakers to consider projects carefully. "People think they are gambling with their lives when they go to war zones," he observes. "What they're really doing is gambling with the lives of everyone else who is going to have to grieve for them or take care of them. Think really carefully about the impact on the people that you love. What would that impact be if you got killed or seriously wounded?"

Marilyn Ness worked as producer on E-Team with Kauffman and Chevigny. She recommends building a local network before going abroad. "It's wise, if you are shooting in these regions, to make sure people know you're there to build a support network for yourself because you never know what kind of help you're going to need, especially for independent filmmakers who are working on a shoestring."

Achieving Invisibility

Once the work begins on location, even the most routine tasks can prove challenging.

Jehane Noujaim, director of the Oscar-nominated The Square, about the ongoing revolution in Egypt, explains that to remain invisible to authorities that might confiscate her footage, she used small Canon cameras, including the 60D and 5D—"and many different bags," she says. "I tried not to have bags that looked like camera bags. "Anything that looked like big camera gear was getting confiscated," Noujaim notes. "All of my equipment got confiscated at the airport when I arrived. But they were allowing small cameras to go through. When we were shooting, just because our equipment was small, and our sound person was quite small, too—it allowed for us to be in the crowd and have a kind of invisibility.

"Throughout the last two-and-a-half years, there were three or four cameras in [Cairo's Tahrir] Square," Noujaim explains. "And we were always looking out for each other." She recommends keeping the crew "as small as possible. You never want to outnumber the people that you're following. The key is to really try to be as invisible as possible and to allow for these intimate moments to happen."

Noujaim's team also used camera-top microphones, "so if we got disconnected from our sound person for any reason, we would still get somewhat decent sound," she says.

Rachel Beth Anderson, who has shot in many war zones, also used a small rig to avoid unwanted attention. She used the Canon 5D Mark II and III for E-Team. "I mainly shot everything on the 24-105, 24 1.4mm and 16-35-all Canon L Series lenses," she explains.

Filmmakers should also anticipate power outages, Kaufmann adds. "You have to be ready for anything. I was without power for a day or two. You have to have extra batteries and extra drives. And make sure you can plug in to a car either directly to the battery or through the A/C charger."

But, he explains, it comes with the territory. "These kinds of films are vérité, so you're capturing action as it happens. Anything could happen at any time, whether it's a bomb going off or you have to move for some reason in the middle of the night. You have to have all your batteries, everything ready to go on a moment's notice—not just ready to shoot, but ready to leave the premises."

An Agile Workflow

Both Noujaim and Kauffman developed a nimble process while on location.

While filming The Square, Noujaim lost many cameras, along with irreplaceable footage, so she remained vigilant about protecting it. "If we filmed an incredible piece of footage, we would remove that card from the camera and pocket it, and put another card in," she says, so if the camera and the card were seized, she would still have the footage in her pocket.

But she changed her approach after a fellow protestor—whom she considered an ally—stole equipment and footage. "The night that Mubarak stepped down, I had some of my equipment and cards sitting with somebody I trusted, because I had been trusting people for the past two weeks, completely with everything—with our lives, with our equipment, with everything. But it was the wrong person. My things got stolen, and with it, a bunch of footage. I learned that lesson really early on.

"After that, we got an office that was only a few blocks away from the square and we would continually go back and forth from the square to the office and dump the cards there," she explains.

Kauffman describes his approach to workflow as "Planned Makeshift." "Once, I'd been shooting all day in the car and I got to this place that had no power. It's not like we set up offices in these places. I'm literally on the rooftop in Bolivia, downloading cards and footage. You never know where you're going to end up."

What's more, Kauffman also had to change lodgings in order to thwart potential kidnappers; he never stayed in the same location more than a couple nights in a row.

Marilyn Ness, who produced E-Team from the US, describes the breadth of work done on location. "At the end of a full day of shooting, being the one-man bands that they were, the team had to download all their footage and do all their media management and all of their backing-up. And then they had to charge everything and be ready to be packed up to go again the next day. They were working insane hours."

Kauffman urges aspiring filmmakers, "Make sure you feel strongly enough that you actually want to go through not just traveling to a different country, but everything that making documentaries entails. It's very fulfilling, but it's a huge endeavor."

With unique challenges, stories captured in war zones also offer rewards. Noujaim believes filmmaking can positively affect culture. "Film opens a conversation and really humanizes situations that can be difficult for people to even talk about when political divisions are so deep," she says. "I think it's very difficult to look for tangible changes that a film can make immediately upon its release. But what it can do—and The Square is doing it right now—is open the space for conversation and for a different kind of thinking about a subject."

Suzanne Curtis Campbell is a Los Angeles-based writer, currently working toward her MFA in screenwriting at the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television. She has worked with Ladylike Films on the award-winning documentaries Somewhere Between and Code Black, and on PBS' Makers.