After spending two weeks in Iraq in 1991, docmaker Ziri Rideaux knew she wanted to explore more of what was happening on the ground in areas of conflict. Rather than rely on overused officials to get stories, however, Rideaux wanted them from locals. That first trip to Iraq, she tagged along with a friend who’d gone there to report. ‘I realized that there is so much censorship going on that the stuff in the news or on TV about warfare is really crap. It’s like they’re making it for kids: this is the good guy, this is the bad guy,’ says Rideaux. ‘That just made me angry, so I thought, ‘Okay, I want to go and see more firsthand.” Over the next four years, Rideaux traveled everywhere from Bosnia to Afghanistan to film in countries impacted by war.
‘You might go there with a certain idea of what you want to cover that’s influenced by Western media, but when you get there it can be a totally different story,’ says Rideaux, who worked as a news and political reporter for ARD and ZDF in Germany from 1988 until 1992, and now runs Zirius Films in LA. ‘You realize what huge propaganda machinery we’re exposed to with our media and how little of the stuff is actually true.’
Rideaux also takes issue with the way material is edited. When she worked in the Johannesburg office of Reuters intermittently in 1993 and 1994, her unsettling job included editing raw footage into TV-friendly fare. Showing a dead body in the distance was fine, for example, but not a disembodied head. Rideaux believes shielding the public from graphic war images is a mistake. ‘If people saw what goes on in war areas there wouldn’t be any wars,’ she says.
For docmakers on the ground, getting these stories often means talking with locals living in war zones as opposed to the military or government. Folke Rydén, a Stockholm-based director and producer who worked for SVT – both in Sweden and as its us correspondent – before starting his own prodco, FRP, admits that in his early days of shooting in warring areas, he’d spend more time listening to the authorities than to ordinary citizens. But for his recent doc, Full Cover Girl, which profiles aspiring female politicians in Iraq, Rydén found telling these civilians’ stories more rewarding. ‘There are so many interesting people trying to live their lives out there in the world, many in unbearable situations, and those stories have to be told more. That’s my mission,’ he furthers, ‘not to relay some spokespeople’s message – we call that CNN journalism.’
In the four years it took to make Full Cover Girl, Rydén and his team tried to stay out of the Green Zone in Baghdad since they couldn’t meet Iraqi civilians there. There are two ways to film in war zones, says Rydén: high or low profile. ‘If you go high profile, you travel with a small army, you’re visible and you’re a target,’ he explains. ‘On the other hand, the deterrent factor is high – maybe you’re not attacked because the people you’re with are able to shoot back. If you go low profile, you go with one or two private security guards and you meld in.’
Having been kidnapped in Beirut in 1988, Rydén now knows how to keep out of sight. When his team leaves their secured hotel compound, they don’t tell anyone where they’re going. ‘If we do, then we go the other way instead,’ he says. And when he enters a building, he exits after 10 or 15 minutes through another door to avoid becoming a kidnapping target.
If you’re determined to get close to the actual fighting, filmmaker Robert Young Pelton recommends avoiding official channels ‘because they’ll either prevent you from going or they’ll only allow you to go to a place they feel is appropriate for their story.’ As someone who has filmed in Liberia, Iraq and Chechnya, Pelton is an expert in infiltrating dangerous places. In third world conflicts, where no formal protection exists, Pelton says ‘you need to find out which commanders are fighting which lines and then find out how to get to their people and get an invite up there.’
Using local fixers is another way many docmakers set up coveted interviews. They’re a resource Martin Smith has used throughout his career, which includes seven years with CBS News and 25 years producing for PBS’ Frontline. While several of his fixers have been helpful – ‘you’re only as good as your fixer and driver,’ he says – there’s no guarantee they’ll always be up to snuff. While in western Pakistan in 2002 filming In Search of Al Qaeda for Frontline, a local contact with whom Smith had worked for a couple of weeks claimed he could get access to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That wasn’t the case. ‘You smell [the lies], then you fire them,’ says Smith.
But, in the same way gut instincts help detect dubious fixers, they can also stir doubts in docmakers. Many have understandable ‘What am I doing here?’ moments in war zones. Richard Parry, a London filmmaker who’s done stories (and been shot at) in such turbulent regions as Bosnia and Haiti, jumped at the chance to go to the former Yugoslavia in 1992 for his first front row seat to a war. During his train ride to Osijek, a Croatian city on the front lines, doubt set in. Initially reassured by the large number of families on the train, Parry noticed the passengers thinning out after each stop. By the time the train neared Osijek, he was almost alone. ‘Then the train stopped and some guy wandered up and down the line to see what was left of it after the shelling,’ recalls Parry, ‘and I thought ‘God, what am I doing here? What am I trying to prove?”
But his urge to stay overpowered, and that’s a feeling with which Pelton can relate. He returns to the reason many filmmakers say they keep going back to cover war. ‘When you read the news and most of the stuff comes from governments, you realize that it’s critical that people go to these places to counter the propaganda and bullshit that’s disseminated by official sources,’ says Pelton. ‘That’s why filmmakers exist. If we didn’t have brave or stupid or curious filmmakers that went into these places and did documentaries and captured what they thought was going on, all you’d have is the official version.’ Frightening possibility, but not one that docmakers will allow to happen anytime soon.