As the only production company in the world to do so, the small Danish production company Team Productions obtained access to film two of the most important trials of this century: those of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).

Well before Milosevic’s trial actually started, Team Productions had approached the UN International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague to ask for permission to film, but the Tribunal declined. The tribunal had received numerous applications from other filmmakers and the only way into the well-protected UN system was persistent lobbying.

Mette Heide (producer): “Milosevic’s trial is a major chapter in history and naturally we wanted to document it. In 2001 we contacted the tribunal again and wrote that we were interested in making a classic documentary about the trial for as many years as it would last. They said no, but we nurtured our contacts with Christian Chartier who was in charge of press relations for the Tribunal.

The prosecutors were not at all interested in collaborating so things didn’t look good, but we kept coming back. Quite early in the project we found out that it might be a good idea to build a historical archive based on the material we would shoot, and when we presented that idea to the tribunal it sparked some interest. The fact that our director, Michael Christoffersen, had made Genocide: The Judgment in 1999, a documentary about the UN Trial in Rwanda, also helped to open doors.”

Mette Hoffmann Meyer-of TV2 Denmark at the time-and Nick Fraser, from BBC, backed the project early on, and eleven other broadcasters got on board when Heide and Christoffersen pitched the project at an EBU pitching session in Amsterdam.

Mette Heide: “At the pitching we kind of indicated that we had the necessary permission to shoot even though we didn’t have a contract yet, and then a crowd of hands from broadcasters interested in participating in the project went up.”

That kind of support made things a lot easier, and when the production company contacted the Tribunal again, they were much more positive, especially knowing that the estimated number of television viewers would be several million.

The filmmakers contacted the various people involved in the trial: the prosecutors, Milosevic’s defence team, and the two counsellors or ‘amicus curiae’ (Steven Kay and Gillian Higgins) who had been appointed by the court to support Milosevic who insisted on defending himself.

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Mette Heide

Mette Heide: “The counsellors agreed to be in the film maybe because they aren’t part of the UN system and therefore have a more relaxed relationship to the media, and to have them as characters got things moving. Also the Head of the Tribunal liked the project a lot and lobbied for us, which meant that just after the trial had started we could sign a contract that gave us full editorial freedom but required us to keep the tapes until the case was over.

We started shooting and then ran into another problem: prosecutor Carla del Ponte and the vice-prosecutor had not been informed of what we were doing. Michael and I were invited to a meeting in The Hague and were trembling with fear over what could go wrong because we had already signed the contract with the broadcasters. But it turned out to be a problem of internal communication that had nothing to do with us, and we ended up getting total access to the courtroom and behind the scenes as well.”

Preselected Characters

The court attorneys at the Hague Tribunal follow a rule never to speak to the press, so the filmmakers had to convince the attorneys that the filmmakers were not news journalists hunting for the latest developments but serious documentarians who wanted to get the full picture. The prosecutors, however, led by Geoffrey Nice, were quite reserved about appearing in the film.

Mette Heide: “Geoffrey Nice used to say that he disliked ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries like the one we wanted to make, which made it a bit hard for us. He came on board in March after the case had started but didn’t start working as a character until early autumn. But that’s the kind of challenge you’re dealing with on this kind of documentary: you can’t chose your characters, they are already chosen for you and it’s up to you to make them work.”

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Michael Christoffersen

Michael Christoffersen: “It took some time to open him up, but once he had made up his mind, he cooperated willingly. As a matter of fact, I think we became indispensable to him: we were like a logbook he could confer with. He wouldn’t let us film him, though, unless he was doing something, but he eventually opened up and became one of the main characters in the film. It’s a question of building confidence.”

Hussein’s Trial

Building confidence was also a keyword in the film about Saddam Hussein’s trial. The Spanish director Esteban Uyarra knew Iraq and even though he had promised himself not to return to Iraq after the making of “War Feels Like War”, he agreed to do the film. Heide and Christoffersen had already established contact with Salem Chalabi, head of the tribunal in Baghdad, through the Americans. After many months of meetings and negotiations, the filmmakers finally obtained the exclusive right to film and were in seventh heaven for a while until their luck changed.

Saddam Hussein

Mette Heide: “We met Chalabi secretly in various places. For instance someone would call us and say, ‘Meet me at Sloan Square.’ We would ask ‘How do we recognize you?’ and they would say, ‘I’ll find you,’ and so on. It was like a John le Carre novel, but this practice turned out to have a reason: Chalabi was fired from the tribunal, accused of murdering a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance. The whole thing was a political conspiracy arising from a conflict between the Iraqi president at the time and the Chalabi clan – Chalabi being the USA’s candidate to take over after Hussein.

So from sitting there comfortably with an exclusive deal and getting calls from CBS who wanted to meet with us, we had to start all over again. Chalabi couldn’t go back to Iraq and was out of the game and we wondered what to do. We had to keep our contacts warm.”

And that’s what they did. They turned to a highly placed person in the US State Department who helped them further with contacts to RCLO (Regime Crimes Liaison Office), an independent office of the US Embassy in Baghdad*.

Mette Heide: “So we met with the Head of RCLO in London and he was favourably inclined to the project. But what happened next is a textbook example of the challenges encountered in such projects: your contacts change constantly. Our contact was relocated to Washington and his replacement was also interested in collaborating with us. The world of international attorneys is small and he was confident that we could do a good job. We were looking forward to go to Iraq in July, but then he left the post unexpectedly to return to Washington and was replaced by yet another person!

The new people seemed rather nervous about the whole thing as the trial approached, so we decided that we didn’t want to keep negotiating from Copenhagen. We wanted to be on the spot.”

Welcome to Iraq

Michael Christoffersen: “Before going to Iraq, Esteban and I went on a ‘hostile environment course’ to receive training in how to react and handle crises. When we arrived in Baghdad an anti-terror unit took us to BBC headquarters in a vehicle camouflaged as a milk van, and we sat there surrounded by heavily armed security personnel.”

After the dramatic arrival in Baghdad, Esteban and Michael spent several months waiting at a hotel in the so-called Green Zone to get in contact with the right people to get permission to film. They finally found someone from the RCLO staff who was willing to help and who became a mediator between the film crew and the tribunal. This person is one of the main characters in the feature-length film.

In order to manoeuvre through the court system, Heide and Christoffersen were constantly striking a delicate balance between sometimes presenting themselves as a BBC film crew with all the respect this could engender and at other times as a small crew from Denmark.

By the time the trial started, the film crew had established a good relationship with Hussein’s defence team, but they still needed the US prosecutors to agree to participate.

 Mette Heide: “We had to pressure the Americans by saying we wanted a balanced story representing both sides, and it worked. They understood that they, too, needed to participate in order for the film to be made.”

As to the development of the events, the worst-case filmmaking scenario happened -to both films! Saddam was hanged before the crew could finish the film, and Milosevic died before the court could reach a verdict and furnish a conclusion to the film. In the case of Milosevic, the crew chose to do a current affairs story to be able to release something quickly after his death. A fifty-minute version of the Saddam Hussein trial was made focusing on the work of the defence team because the US attorneys who were still in Iraq could not appear in the film for security reasons until after they had returned to the US.

A feature-length version with a more personal angle on the US lawyers is scheduled to be released in autumn this year.

 


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