This past autumn in New York, DOX’s Pamela Cohn moderated a panel discussion with four award-winning documentarians as part of a festival called The Royal Flush Fest which takes place in Manhattan’s East Village. They were discussing how non fiction filmmakers grapple with the personal and ethical dilemmas of making films in war-torn regions:

It was Christmas-time of 2003 and filmmaker, Andrew Berends (The Blood of My Brother, When Adnan Comes Home, Delta Boys) remembers being at Pottery Barn, a high-end housewares store. It was nine months after the US had invaded the country of Iraq. The store was warm, cosy and well lit and he remembers looking at a $4000 leather chair and thinking, “Is this what a country looks like when it’s at war?”

Last year, Eric Daniel Metzgar ( The Chances of the World Changing, Life. Support. Music., Reporter) overcame his visceral fear of traveling to Africa to have dinner with a warlord. At the behest of producer, Mikaela Beardsley, he accompanied New York Times’ journalist, Nicholas Kristoff, to the dark heart of the DR Congo.

Everything post-9/11 struck Laura Poitras (Flag Wars, My Country, My Country, The Oath) with the same sense of disbelief as she watched people in smart clothes walk busily down the streets of Manhattan with their lattés and expensive mobile phones stuck to one ear.

Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels, Wait For Me, Project Kashmir, In a Dream) took himself and a camera to the red light district of Calcutta after merely seeing some compelling footage of children of prostitutes which he had received from a woman doing a project there called Kids With Cameras. This woman, Zana Briski, turned out to be his codirector for Born Into Brothels.

Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghraib prison. © Paul Cobaugh
Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghraib prison. © Paul Cobaugh

All of these documentarians are award-winning, highly regarded filmmakers in their field, winners and nominees of Academy Awards, Peabodys, Emmys, International Documentary Association Courage Under Fire Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, etc. – recognised by their peers, and the film-going community at large, as some of the top artists working in non-fiction cinema today.

The panel was meant to highlight filmmakers who had “risked life and limb to tell important stories of people in war-torn and impoverished places around the world.” One topic was: and they asked, “What is the extent a filmmaker will go in order to tell a story?”

Berends, Poitras, Kauffman and Metzgar certainly tit the bill as risk-takers and consummate storytellers. However, each and every one of them was slightly horrified at the notion of being touted as brave souls cavalierly going into war zones to shoot stories. It is a bit more complicated than that, number one. And number two, that is not really the “duress” part, necessarily. The duress, as any independent artist knows, is getting a feature-length movie made, completed, distributed and seen. A brave and foolhardy feat, indeed.

“My intention is to create a less comfortable ride for the audience.”

Andrew Berends, the winner of the aforesaid Courage Under Fire Award for his work in Iraq making his two moving and compelling films, experienced personal upset about what was happening – as a human being, not as a “journalist” or “documentarian” hot on the heels of a good story. He felt a personal connection to the men fighting there, most much younger than he, and contrasting that to the comfortable life at home with no sign of war in sight was a very unsettling feeling for him. This is also why he ended up going to the Niger Delta last year, to try to understand the young Nigerian rebel army that blows up pipelines and kidnaps white people. He wanted to understand something much deeper about the people portrayed as villains in the media. Berends, along with his interpreter, found himself arrested and detained by the Nigerian government there, after following the story for six months. His agenda of showing a human portrayal of these rebels trying to save their land was derailed by an entity that had no interest in looking bad on the world’s stage.

ROSS KAUFFMAN, director of Born Into Brothels, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2005, did not have an agenda at all. He was simply captivated by the kids and the footage he saw. He says the biggest lesson he learned in making that piece was that no matter where one is or what one is doing, to change one’s life is up to the individual. In other words, there was nothing that he as a filmmaker telling these kids’ stories could have done to change the course of their lives – that conceit is something made up by some PR machine. “I realised that to understand and respect an individual’s life is the most important thing. And as another individual [coming from a different world], one has to step back and let go – you can only do so much for someone.” Unlike a lot of journalists and reporters, a long-form filmmaker’s priority is relationship-building with his or her subject; egos and larger agendas are usually quickly checked at the door.

But that is not to say that a filmic story does not have an authorial stamp, a personal ethos in how the filmmaker sees the world he or she is privileged to penetrate. These filmmakers grapple constantly with the privilege of the first-world artist going in to document a third-world subject. It has inherent moral and ethical problems that looms over every decision they make in the field and in the edit room.

Laura Poitras (© Heather Block), Zana Briski, Ross Kaufmann and kids, Eric Daniel Metzgar.
Laura Poitras (© Heather Block), Zana Briski, Ross Kaufmann and kids, Eric Daniel Metzgar.

Laura Poitras acknowledges the ambivalence of doing this kind of work: “It’s a hugely problematic tradition in photojournalism and filmmaking in war zones, that people from the first world take images from the third world and bring them back to be consumed. It lets audiences off the hook. My intention is to create a less comfortable ride for the audience by really looking at how our power and privilege are used and exercised on foreign soil. It’s important to make people feel accountable, to show Iraqi civilians beyond the statistics and front-page news. It’s about reflecting the power back to the audience. There is culpability; you’re being asked to take responsibility.” She admits that she has internal conflicts about this all the time. By being invited into an Iraqi home, as she was by her main subject in My Country, My Country, she felt protected. She was immediately set apart from “the pack mentality of journalists” who all gather in the same places when an incident occurs, vying for sound bites and the perfect pull quote to
tell a very complicated story. She understood the value of the access she was given and, in turn, people were more open with her. Her American passport enabled her to do the work she did there.

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