The kidnapping of ‘Iraqi War’ documentary filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji filmed the Iraqi war documentaries Al-Ahlaam (Dreams) in 2003 and its sequel Love, War, and Madness in 2006, but he didn’t expect to be kidnapped. “We were four in crew of forty-five protected by police and still got kidnapped outside of a mosque,” he replies in an interview I conducted last year. Al-Daradji’s dual Dutch-Iraqi citizenship also complicated matters, being that many Iraqis felt that his European nationality put him in the services of the Americans.
Insurgent captors believed he and his crew were U.S. backed, so they killed his 14 year-old boom man; secondly, the US military viewed his Iraqi-ness with suspicion, arresting him and his crew for being “al-Qaeda” propagandists as they recovered in a Baghdad hospital after being kidnapped by insurgents. Danger plagued the Iraqi-born actors of Al-Ahlaam, as main characters Bashir Al Majid-- a former real Abu Ghraib prisoner under Saddam Hussein-- and Aseel Aded, or ‘Ahlaam’ herself were forced to the Sunni extremist dominant ‘Dora’ southern tip of Baghdad.
Al-Ahlaam and its documentary sequel Love, War, God & Madness have been shown at over a hundred film festivals worldwide. “It’s about the situation in Iraq in general that people like. They see the film and like that it comes from the true, human side of the Iraqi individual,” says Al-Daradji whose most recent film, Son of Babylon, is being shot in seven countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, UAE, etc.). It follows a woman who journeys from northern Iraq with her grandson to find her husband who has been missing since 1991. Al-Daradji’s motives were simple: “to engage with the Iraqi people who are not evil, suffer, and need to be heard.”
Regardless of his motives, the tripwires of filming in Iraq were multiple so the filmmaker suggests to all filmmakers interested in filming Iraq or some other lethal terrain to select film crew from Iraqi locales:
[Even] filmmakers of Iraqi descent need not tell Iraqis
he’s not from Iraq…
the important thing is to keep a very low profile, to
know where you are going,
how, what and when. A filmmaker with Iraqis will be
safer, his job easier, but
there’s still no room for safety in Iraq.
In order to be psychologically prepared for Iraq Al-Daradji says:
You must be prepared to die. American [soldiers] in
the road will shoot anyone, and you just have to be
prepared to not fear it…. If you have a camera in Iraq,
you will always be a suspect, and especially if you are
Iraqi you can even be more a target: Sunni or Shiite,
Palestinian or Algerian, Al-Qaeda.
The almost suicidal willingness to capture his subjects’ sufferings, Al-Daradji has earned multiple awards for his first and two subsequent films. More sadistically, however “filmmakers going to Iraq need to trust in the Angel of Death; fear can lead to massive problems in the field.”
The detainment of Nigerian ‘oil exploitation’ documentary filmmaker
Six months into Andrew Berends’ infiltration into exploitive nature of the Niger Delta oil economy, to film The Delta Boys, the Nigerian State Security Services (NSSS) detained and interrogated Berends and translator for ten days, on the conviction of espionage; they confiscated their possessions and left them without sufficient food or water in August 2008. He was released only a month later, after supporters raised $10,000 for legal expenses and after media casters, political journalists and senators raised money and signed a petition on his behalf.
He advises filmmakers to keep a low profile and obtain journalist visas and permission from both the Nigerian Ministry of Information and local Niger Delta government. “Nigeria is the most difficult place I’ve ever filmed,” claims the director last year. He also advises filmmakers to safeguard their footage and contacts. Berends speaks from experience. After all, he once had to swallow his SIM card:
It is best to periodically courier copies of footage
out of the country. [Because] one's cell phone and
laptop will likely be seized… I managed to swallow
the SIM card from my phone, so [NSSS] couldn't get
the numbers. Unfortunately I lost all my contacts.
Also, after denying that I'd spent time in militant
camps, the police found copies of my grant proposals
on my laptop. In these proposals, I'd explained in
some detail about all the time I'd spent in certain
Interestingly, shooting Blood of My Brother and When Adnan comes Home, in Iraq about the Iraqi war, Berends didn’t run into any trouble. He spent six months, from March to September 2004 shooting in Iraq and deemed it “one of the easiest places I’ve ever worked...In Iraq, I was definitely an outsider, but I achieved extraordinary access to my subjects’ lives, suffering, and struggle.” British white male, Andrew Berends completed these two films without running into the same problems he would have two years later in Nigeria. He attributes this to the fact that so many Iraqis want the outside world to know what’s happening there:
They understood that I was a journalist. Some
believed strongly enough in their fight that they were
willing to die for it. It was only natural that they
appreciated having an outsider there willing to
document their struggle.
Five journalists Berends knew were kidnapped, while he managed to successfully integrate with Iraqi insurgents against the Americans. In fact, he says:
The Iraqi Arab culture is a culture of hospitality. Some
of the Iraqi friends I made explained that because I
was away from my family and in a strange land, it was
their responsibility to take care of me and protect me.
These were not paid fixers, just ordinary people who
befriended me, and wanted to see me succeed in
capturing stories to share with the rest of the world.
Berend’s time in Iraq was victorious he was a welcomed outsider who intimately accessed the sufferings, experiences and world of the Iraqis. That said the world has become increasingly dangerous for journalists.
Despite these two filmmakers’ attempts to avoid becoming the objects of regional politics, the extenuating circumstances Al-Daradji and Berends endured extend into their films’ subject matters. Near-death experiences demonstrate to filmmakers, artists and adventurers everywhere that the will, desire and conviction are the means to freely channel internationally veiled truth, suffering and exploitation.