How do you make a documentary that transcends the influx of daily news from a conflict area where your own security is at stake and the local inhabitants are reluctant to talk to westerners? In making a film about Baghdad, Swedish-Polish Ryszard Solarz decided to stay in Stockholm and direct a team of local reporters and photographers from a distance of 3500 kilometres, which turned out to be a very workable method.
Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.
Published date: July 1, 2005

Usually Ryszard Solarz films and edits his documentaries himself, but in his latest documentary Baghdad on Air, he wasn’t able to hold the camera as he was sitting in Stockholm, 3500 kilometres from Baghdad, directing a team of Iraqi cameramen and reporters. He communicated by telephone and MSN messenger, relying on FedEx to bring him the rushes. A brand-new way of working for Ryszard, it had its advantages: he was not at (the very real) risk of being kidnapped or killed and local Iraqis were doing the interviews. They could move about in zones where Western journalist couldn’t and people spoke more openly.

This special access is clearly reflected in the film which focuses on the daily lives of the Iraqi people in the turbulent period between the US presidential election in 2004 and the first Iraqi election in January 2005. The film is structured around the free radio station Radio Dijla, very popular among the inhabitants, not least its phone-in programme in which Iraqis phone in about everything on their minds related to the daily struggles of living in a city exposed to frequent bombings and suicide attacks. The programme is hosted by actor and comedian Nahi Mahdi, who is the film’s main character. He goes around seeking out people and talking to them. He is a gem of the film: not only is he charismatic, he is also extremely popular. Everywhere he goes, people embrace him and are more than happy to talk openly to him.

The reports from the field are linked by shots of Nahi talking on his radio show about the incidents we are witnessing. For example, he visits a school where parents have been asked to pay for security guards because six kids have been kidnapped from the school, and he subsequently talks about it on the show. The other way round, a fisherman phones him at the radio station and afterwards Nahi goes on a fishing trip with him in his boat while chatting about how to make a living and the fear of going out after dark.

In other cases, clips from the official news reports of suicide bombings or attacked trucks are followed by scenes of the events sent by on-the-spot reporters as the events are taking place or talking to relatives of the casualties shortly after an event has occurred. Those scenes are on the spot and manage to bring flesh and blood to the news stories and show the sufferings of real people, those we usually only see as anonymous victims of the Iraqi conflict.

The film is extremely successful at creating a sense of being with the Iraqi people and actually experiencing the chaos, struggles and fears – and hopes – that shape their daily lives. The film starts with people commenting on the US election and culminates with the Iraqi election day, the long queues and people happy to get the chance to vote. Nahi makes a touching speech on his show about the historic day they have all been waiting for. The event’s significance is rooted so deeply in his soul that he is moved to tears.

Baghdad on Air obviously benefits from the good access provided by the local team and Nahi’s popularity, but this way of working also entails a risk of losing the film as a whole. With a shooting ratio as high as 100:1, a lot of material didn’t end up in the final film. Even so, Baghdad on Air is impressively well structured and consistent. The director’s hand is ever-present, the film has a coherent idea and a structure that works well, bearing witness to the director’s careful planning and close control despite the long distance. In this case, the distant directing method benefited from the cooperation between the locals’ insider access and the director’s outsider perspective. Ryszard Solarz talked to DOX about the details of this cooperative effort.

How did you get in contact with the reporters?

I knew Ahmad Al Rikaby, the cofounder and owner of Radio Dijla. Ahmad helped us to establish the first contact with the Radio Dijla reporters. The person we chose to be the leading character was Nahi Mahdi, a well-known comedian in Iraq. Being a celebrity, recognized and liked by most Iraqis, he was a perfect choice for interviewing people on the street as well as organizing the first team. Nahi had worked on television serials during Saddam rule and knew a studio photographer named Bassim who became our first documentary photographer.

All contacts – both with Bassim and Nahi – went through a translator because neither Nahi nor Bassim spoke English. A Radio Dijla employee named Samer, who was responsible for Radio Dijla’s Internet site, became our translator and later our production leader. MSN messenger became our lifeline and Samer the most irreplaceable person in our project.

How did you decide what to film?

During daily chat sessions lasting two hours, three times a day, Nahi, Bassim and I would decide on the stories we wanted to film. In the beginning I also gave them a detailed shooting script for the stories in order to be able to edit the scenes. Neither Bassim or Nahi had any experience in documentary filmmaking or TV journalism at all, so my job was to teach them the basics. I also sent them interview questions. My basic structure was to follow the main events and see how those events reflected on the everyday life of Baghdad citizens, starting with the US elections and ending during the first Iraqi election. Later on, as Bassim and Nahi became more experienced, they would increasingly make their own suggestions about what to film. We also decided to work with three teams simultaneously in order to cover everything that was happening during this hectic and dangerous period of time.

How often were you in contact with the reporters?

At least three times a day. Nine o’clock in the morning, Baghdad time, was the time of the first and most important Internet chat session. Then we often talked with Samer in the middle of the day and summed things up in the evening.

How and how often did you get to see their recordings?

The tapes were sent by FedEx. It worked surprisingly well, even though we risked losing the tapes during the transport to Baghdad Airport. Once, some thieves even stole the tapes thinking that they could get a high ransom for them. Luckily, when they found out that the tapes were filmed by Radio Dijla’s reporters and that the interviews had been made by Nahi Mahdi, a comedian who they knew well, they returned the tapes without asking for any money at all.

Usually it took three or four days to receive the tapes. In Stockholm, we worked with four Iraqi translators who went through all the interviews with me. Then, after seeing all the shots, I would have a long chat session with the photographers where we went through each take. In many cases I asked for additional shots. That became a weekly routine.

Were the shootings done very spontaneously? How much could be planned beforehand?

Some shootings were done spontaneously when the events in Baghdad made advance planning impossible. Acts of terror were obviously filmed as they happened. But even for those scenes, additional material was filmed the same day or the day after, following an Internet chat session with Samer. He became my assistant and gradually even learned to judge the technical standards of both audio and visuals and was watching the takes direct from DV cam cameras and describing the content to me on the chat. Writing was more precise than telephone conversations.

What was their input and what was yours?

Their input was to film, my input was to plan, instruct and advise. The cooperation worked very well indeed. I have personally filmed and edited most of the 25 full-length documentaries I’ve done in the past. That knowledge greatly helped me in giving both technical advice to photographers and instructing them on how to film sequences to facilitate the editing. They were fantastic at learning quickly and we understood each other’s intentions very well. But they definitely made a bigger contribution than I did. They were taking all the risks.

What are the advantages of this way of working?

I see this way of working as a one-time thing: I don’t plan to do it again. In this particular situation it was important to make a documentary about this unique time in the history of the Middle East. I saw this opportunity and I took it. As I mentioned before, normally I do my own filming. I see it as my own way of expression.

Would you describe it as a film on Iraq by Iraqis or a film on Iraq made by a Swede?

It’s a combination of both. Definitely there is a special feeling of Iraqis talking to Iraqis. This is what I like most about this film.

Have the Iraqi reporters seen the final film?

They’ve seen it on the Internet when Swedish TV put this film on their Internet site – and they like it.

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