Reporting from the Frontline
RNP correspondent Gabrielle Tierney interviews James Brabazon, winner of the Rory Peck International Impact Award 2003, discussing two of his films, A Journey Without Maps and Liberia: An Uncivil War, and his experiences reporting from some of the world's most dangerous war zones.
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What is your reason for going to wars and seeking danger?
It’s not to do with seeking danger; danger is a by-product of telling a story. My interest is in conflict and danger is of course a by-product of that.
Why are you interested in conflict?
I’m interested in conflict because people who live in conflict very often don’t have a voice. Either they are censored by their government or by rebel groups, or the logistics around getting to a place where you can talk is very difficult. I think people have a right to be heard. It shouldn’t just be rich powerful people who get their points across. I don’t think we hear those voices enough. If we do hear them, it isn’t loud enough; it isn’t clear enough.
You were the first journalist ever to film the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels. How did you make contact with them?
It was quite a long process. A friend that I was working with from Sierra Leone had good information about what was happening on the other side of the border and I worked hard to verify that. I finally got a number of letters through to them and the dialogue began. It was actually a politician who was the leader of the organization and was very close to the military who invited me in.
How did you get to trust the Rebels and how did they get to trust you?
Trusting the Rebels was just a leap of faith on my part really. But their trust in me came with time. I was alongside them in every way; I ate the same food, marched the same distances, stood alongside them in battle. Once they see that you are willing to risk your life to tell the story, they trust you. In fact, it took me a long time to convince them to let me onto the frontline. They had this bizarre duty of care over me. They had nothing to give, but they would give what they had. They would make sure that I had a bowl of rice every day and some cassava. They would give me their last cigarette. The same guy that would sit down with me and share his last cigarette with me is the guy I had filmed half an hour before shooting prisoners. So it’s a very complicated moral environment to work in. The trust really came from the fact that I never acquiesced to any of those acts; I never even on the spur of the moment pretended to endorse them. I simply documented what was happening.
Your film highlights the fact that a lot of the arms used originated in the US. What role has the West played in this? Is the supply of weapons simple complacency, or is there something more sinister there?
The Guinean government was receiving a lot of assistance, both in material terms and in terms of training, from the US. So for a long time there was an assumed association; the US supports Guinea, Guinea supports the LURD, and hence the US supports the LURD. In fact, there is no evidence to support claims that the US directly assisted the LURD.
How did you adjust from an environment of war to one of so-called ‘normality’?
Well it was quite extreme for me. I went from filming Journey Without Maps to getting straight onto a plane and going to a wedding of a friend of mine in Dublin. I turned up at the wedding and, literally, no one recognised me. Not my friend, not her family (whom I’ve known for years) – no one. I was standing in the bar of the hotel where I was staying and I suddenly felt very strange; I felt that something was physically wrong with me. I was there with my friends who I hadn’t seen in a long time. My friend works in fashion so many of the guests were runway models; it sounds like every young man’s dream. But I couldn’t forget what I had just experienced; many of the things I filmed remained very present in my mind. I’d lost a lot of weight and was physically very degraded. I decided to go for post-traumatic stress counseling in the Priory and after a fantastic session I began to recover both mentally and physically. Unlike many of the Liberians who I filmed during the war, I was fortunate not to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Counseling just helped me to digest out the worst of the events I witnessed, and give me an improved perspective to move forward with. The funny thing was that in the Priory they deal post-traumatic stress but they also deal with drug and alcohol related addictions. So there I was in another environment surrounded by yet more runway models.
You were also in Iraq- what did you experience there?
I made two films there: Unreported World and Dispatches. The first film was in Baqubah, which is 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. I was embedded with the US military, looking at operations against the insurgents, the differences between the different groups and some of the psychological and military methods the US uses. The second film was in Sadr City investigating the links between Shia groups and the US army, again shot as an embed. But they were both very wide stories; we were very lucky as we had great access to a lot of different Iraqis without US military supervision.
How did you manage to get that kind of access as an embed?
Well the thing with embeds, they are much maligned. Often it’s a question: is the glass half full or half empty? If you adjust your perspective on how an embed works, it’s amazing what you get. I’m not interested in driving around in tanks with American soldiers. In terms of film, it’s not interesting; once you’ve done it, you need not do it again. Just by deciding, “I want to go out and talk to this guy,” or, “I want to talk to the Iraqi army,” it’s amazing what you can achieve. You spend time with people, they get to know you, and they trust you. I haven’t lost anyone their job yet.
Were your loved ones afraid when you went to cover the stories in Iraq?
Very much so. In fact, we had to tell my grandmother that I was going to Iran instead in order not to worry her. But in the case of Liberia, I actually hired my mother as my researcher, which worked out great! She had a great understanding of the situation which helped her work through her own worry. But yes, they were very worried about me in Iraq. And naturally so; the perception given by the media is that it is the most dangerous place in the world, when really, danger is a relative perception.
Well my family wasn’t nearly as worried when I traveled to Somalia. I believe that my life was in more actual danger there as the danger wasn’t as abstract; in Iraq I could be hit by a random bomb. In Somalia, I interviewed the most senior Al Qaeda Commander that has been interviewed by a Western journalist since 9/11 and his supporters wanted to kill me. There is a very big difference in being randomly blown up and shot at, and being hunted. I’ve been hunted a couple of times, and it’s not fun.
So of all the places you’ve visited, would Somalia be the most dangerous?
Why are you asking that question? You’ve asked me a lot of questions about danger, which I’m happy to answer, but I want to know why you are interested in it.
People are naturally drawn to danger. I would much rather see a documentary about a dangerous subject than one that isn’t, because it’s interesting.
So you think it is entertainment?
Well danger is compelling if nothing else. But dangerous situations, by their very nature, are interesting.Yes. So what was the question again; was Somalia the most dangerous place I have ever visited? It’s hard to say really; how do I know? We never really know how close we are to death in various situations. There are threats that you can perceive, that you know are real; if someone has a gun in your face, that’s a quantifiable danger. The guy standing behind me who was going to shoot me in the back and then decides not to; how can I know? It’s very hard to say what the most dangerous place is that I have ever been to. I mean, statistically, I imagine that crossing the road in London is up there. I don’t know. It’s very hard to think like that you know. I’ve stood up and run through sustained automatic gunfire, in the expectation of being killed. Or at least hit. You do that once, you do it twice, it gets to the point where, what’s more dangerous really? For me, it’s a meaningless question.
On a personal level, is there anything that you have reported, uncovered or achieved that you are particularly proud of?
Well I told the story of a war. I told the whole story of a whole war, so far as anyone could. Liberia went from being not news at all, to regularly being front-page news. If that helps it form a transition to a form of government in Liberia where people can benefit from peace and stability, or if there is anything I might have done to help, then that would be great.
You won the Rory Peck International Impact Award. What has that done for your career?
My career? Uhm, you have to be so careful about what you’re saying when you’re being recorded! Out of four awards I won two. It was a nice evening. You stand up in front of your peers and it is your peers who select the pieces. And I suppose there are a lot of commissioning editors in the audience.
You’ve talked about the importance of recognition by your peers. Is there anyone who inspired you to become a journalist or whom you particularly admire in the field right now?
Wow. That’s quite difficult. As a young man I was really influenced by the work of Don McCullin. I read his book, Unreasonable Behaviour, and it was the most liberating thing I ever read. It just encapsulated my ambition. He’s not pretentious about his work at all. I really like that. I really respect it. He’s the real fucking deal as well. There are a lot of people who talk about reporting conflict, going to war zones, but there are only a tiny number of people who do it; I mean, really do it. A friend of mine who I work with, Tim Hetherington, has a very different approach than me with documentary film-making, but he is pretty continuously inspiring. He makes me look at the world in a very different way. I find him professionally stimulating. You get inspiration from wherever you can get it really. My great hero, one of my favourite authors, is Patrick Leigh Fermor. When I was nineteen, that was it; I took the boat to France and followed in his footsteps traveling around Europe.
You were approached to be the official documentarian for the coup in Equatorial Guinea. How did this come about?
A very good friend of mine, Nick du Toit engineered a meeting between me and Simon Mann. My relationship with Nick stretches back to my work in West Africa. That’s how I became involved in that, but the plan significantly changed; what from and what to, I won’t go into, but suffice to say that the stage that I was involved in bears no resemblance to what the outcome was. It was very unclear; it still is unclear to me what Nick’s involvement was.
Do you feel that if you had gone ahead as the official documentarian with Simon Mann and the other mercenaries, that you too would have been a mercenary?
No. Not at all. If you get access to a story like that, if you get that chance, you should take it. Make the film- you always have your own agenda.
You seem very drawn to Africa. Why is that?
I studied pre-colonial African History at Cambridge. I tell that to some people and they say “What history? Africa doesn’t have a history!” I say: “There’s a fourteenth century library in Timbuktu!” It’s so annoying! People just don’t even know; a whole continent’s history has been reduced to: “They were savages. We colonised them. History began.” So I’ve always been interested in African history and working there. It’s partly because there’s an African interest all around us. There’s so much of what we perceive to be our culture here that originated in sub-Saharan Africa. And more! I just find it deeply instructive working there. It’s a sad fact that a lot of the work I do there has to do with conflict. And I try to also report on good things there, but things also need to be exposed too. It’s frustrating that there is a lot of bad news that comes out of Africa. People talk to me about “African savagery” being so brutal. Sixty years ago, Europeans were shoving people into ovens! Ten years ago in the Balkans, people were being crucified in their villages. It’s hypocritical. Everyone is very keen to look at the brutality of other people without examining themselves. I find that really worrying. So I suppose as much as I am looking for anything in Africa, it’s a kind of shared perspective.
Africa has been very much in the media of late with Bob Geldof and Live 8. Many in the Black community have described this kind of attitude towards Africa as insulting. Do you agree?
Yes, I think it is actually. All you need to know about Live 8 you can find out by counting the number of African performers that day. That will tell you everything you need to know about Live
8. That will tell you the sum total of that insulting pathetic lapse of judgment into pop star egomania.
What is your next project?
I’m off to Kenya to make a film about the police force in Nairobi. It’s about the urban situation in the city: crime, gangs, etc. It is a portrait of a city, “Cops n Robbers.” Well, African Cops n Robbers. Throughout the year I have other projects. I go back to Iraq this year too. And whatever else turns up, turns up. There’s a friend of mine, a DJ, and his answering phone message says, “Hi you’ve reached so and so, whatever it is, I’ll do it!” So I kind of feel the same way. If it’s an interesting project I don’t care where it is.