Category: Iraq

Pot-Luck and the Money-Shot

So here I am, into the edit for my film ‘The Pianist’, safe – or so it seems, in London. No news about Georges, my French friend kidnapped a couple of weeks ago and threatened with execution by The Islamic Army – the same people who killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni the week before. The latest official news is that Georges is in the hands of a more moderate group and is in the process of being handed back, although I have just been reading on the internet that the group are now asking for a 5 million dollar ransom. Just as things looked hopeful.

I’d gone on holiday to the Loire Valley in France, I remembered talking to Georges about going there whilst in Iraq. He recommended it as a place to relax after months in Baghdad. But I found it difficult to relax, disturbed by seeing Georges each hour as the headline news item. He’d been given 48 hours to live unless France revoked their law banning Muslims wearing head scarf’s in schools. I was counting down the hours in my head… when the 48 hours is up… then the further 24 hours… then nothing. Unimaginable, I kept thinking of him. The pizza we shared the last time we went for a meal in Pizza Reef, Baghdad. Even then, things were getting dangerous, but Georges was never fazed by this. You can’t afford to be if you are doing his line of work. If you are you’ll never go out. It is pot luck for the many journalists out there. No-one is safe, no matter what level of ‘security’ you have – a gun, an ex SAS soldier, a bullet proof car..

I remember sitting with journalists in the hotel when I first arrived back in January, thinking how long before we are targeted for kidnapping? Iraqis live under fear of being kidnapped and killed each day, and have done since their land was ‘liberated’ of Saddam, and left lawless by the Americans. They are taken and killed every day for a few hundred dollars. So it seemed like such a logical development that we would be next. I remember a photographer joking that he wouldn’t mind being kidnapped as long as they let him take some photos. A few months later on a return trip the same man was being held face down in the desert with a gun to the back of his head facing execution. Things had certainly moved on. Kidnapping of foreigners was now big business.

Now the journalists were stuck in the hotel fearful of going out. Sitting with them it wasn’t a question of who had been kidnapped it was a question of who hadn’t! Everyone had a story. Some much more scary then others. Some held for a few hours, after pulling out cameras on militants, trying to get that ‘money shot’… (freelancers can earn much more money if they take pictures as well as writing). But more often than not, it is committed journalists who take the risks for the sake of good journalism. I remember another friend who’d been picked-up walking through Fallujah, held for a few hours and released. The next day there was another story in Fallujah and so he headed straight back there. A bizarre commitment I thought, unfazed by the risk. You cannot afford to see it, if it gets to you, get another job.

I was told of a bizarre bonding process that happened with the people who almost kill you. Many journalists became friends with their captors. The photographer held face down in the desert with gun to the back of his head, became friends with his captors. He took a photo of them all waving their guns, the same guns they’d pressed against his head for 3 hours in the desert. He got the ‘money shot’ and his story became a front cover feature of a popular French magazine. When he returned to Iraq a couple of months later he called his former captors/friends and they invited him over… though half the militants on the front cover picture had been killed by the Americans the week before.

I don’t know what any of this means for the fate of Georges and his friend Christian. All we can do is hope.

Georges Malbrunot… Kidnapped

In the three or four weeks since I finished filming in Iraq I have felt no inclination to write anything for this blog. Until now, the news came of a friend kidnapped…. an American guy called Micha who I’d actually filmed with Samir, joking about what we’d do if we were kidnapped; it was the only time I found Samir speechless. But Micha had a dark sense of humour about the whole thing, and in a funny way I wasn’t surprised to see him on TV, on his knees flanked by seven hooded guys with guns. And it did actually happen, some months later, when I was back in the UK. But Micha got lucky; Moqtada al Sadr negotiated his release…..

Then came the news that Georges Malbrunot was missing.

I’d been anxious, having not heard anything of his whereabouts for a week. Georges was my neighbour in the cheapo Al Dulaimi hotel in Baghdad.

He was known as somewhat of an Iraqi expert, having worked there for many years; he was also a great fan of tabbouleh – we’d spend many nights eating this and talking about wine, women, and where to holiday in France. He’d recommended the Loire valley, which is where I am right now, on holiday. And where I picked a newspaper up today finding his face on the front; having been missing for a week, it turns out he’s now in the hands of the worst kidnapping group in Iraq. The same gang responsible for killing the Italian journalist and Red Cross aid worker Enzo Baldoni last Thursday.

They have given France an ultimatum: to reverse their recent ruling on conspicuous religious symbols, which resulted in the banning of the hijab in schools, within 48 hours. 24 hours have passed since the ultimatum.

I find my holiday time here is spent thinking about Georges and the good times we spent together in Iraq.

It also makes me think about the eight months I was there filming. Sitting around looking at the other faces round the table, thinking … Who? When? If? What? … and how I would respond if it ever came about. And that complete nightmare is upon me now.

Georges told me about how he had rediscovered a childhood sweetheart he had not seen for 20 years – how they had got together again and planned to marry. And that this was to be his last trip to Iraq before he planned to adjust his work so that it didn’t involve any more warzones; so that he could settle back down in his hometown in France.

The whole thing I suppose ultimately makes me feel sick in my stomach and brings home the danger that Georges was always rejecting, putting to one side, in pursuit of good journalism, a conviction for what he was driven to do. He never had a driver, a bodyguard, a fixer, security, anything – he was always out there, like most freelancers, getting close to the stories. And close to the people.

Since being back in England people are constantly asking me “What is the risk?” “How close were you to danger?” And it’s only on occasions like this (as Samir was always telling me) – “The danger is around you all the time – you just don’t want to realise it.”

Having never said a prayer since leaving school, I will say one for Georges tonight. I think that in times of despair we turn to some greater power to intervene. I don’t know what more to say.


Samir is driving home. “Look at the roads ripped apart by the tanks. Iraq is destroyed.” We drove along the airport road. “See, they cut all the date trees because the resistance would ambush the Americans here. Now look, this beautiful park area is used for dumping rubbish. See what Iraqi’s have become, they would not have dared do this under Saddam.”

We arrive at Samir’s home. There is no electricity, Samir is sweating. The generator, which he pays 15,000 Iraq dinar each month for, cannot power the air conditioning. Tempers fray very easy in this heat. Samir can take it no more. “Let us go to your hotel I cannot stand this heat. Fucking Americans!! What have they been doing here for 15 months? Saddam had the electricity sorted in 3 months after the 91 war!” Sweat drips from me as I film Samir. After 8 months with him I dare not offer my lame excuses, ‘Reconstruction takes time…’ I realise now, that these clichés are of no help to those who are here, now, living in this hell.

Samir pulls on his shoes. “People ask me why are you going to the States? Iraq will be full of opportunities… When??? This is why I’m going.. This country will never be right… They’ve ruined it… I told you Sean.. The only people who can re build Iraq are Iraqi’s.”

As we drive to my hotel I notice that the fuel queues are longer than ever. Definitely longer than they were 8 months ago when I arrived. I cannot answer the simple question of Why? Why are people still queuing for fuel in a land built on petrol? Why are people still waiting for electricity in the second summer since the Americans ‘liberated’ Iraq?

We get back to my hotel and see ‘some building… some construction…’ We watch workers building a new accommodation block. We discover it is for private Iraqi security guards. “Good news that Iraqi’s are finally being employed” Samir remarks, “They will make the best security here.” They are being hand picked from the West of Iraq, mainly Sunni’s from Tikrit and Ramadi. They are all ex Captains and Officers, they are coming here to look after the many Western companies with their construction contracts to rebuild Iraq.

“Look this is a dream come true for them. $800 a month, a place to sleep and the best food. Under Saddam they were paid $3 a month, and many haven’t worked since then.” I’m not so sure about the nature of the work though, “Think of the risk, they could be killed at anytime” I point out. Samir smiles, “This is why we are the best security guards in the world, Iraqi’s believe that their time is written by God, so they walk fearless.”

And at $800 a month they are good value. Their Western counterparts charge $800 a day.

Leaving Baghdad

I’ve just said goodbye to Fadi and Saha, Samir’s son and daughter. They have become my very own Iraqi family over the last 7 months. My leaving nearly became another all too emotional scene that Samir’s family have got used to.

Only a few months ago I filmed a beautiful reunion as Saha’s sister Rita, and her daughter Lulu came back to Iraq after 5 years away. Then, just a couple of weeks ago it was an emotional farewell as Rita went back to the United States. Samir was stood at the airport watching one half of his family leave. He took the arm of Saha, his eldest unmarried daughter, and left in tears. Now it is my turn to leave. I kissed Saha goodbye and ran out of the house as I saw her start to cry. Fadi shook my hand and asked me for my phone. I will miss his cheekiness. 7 months is a long time, and it is difficult saying goodbye when you know it is forever. When you know the chances of seeing them again are remote. It is hard, but something I am facing now. It makes me sad.

“Sean you really are like my brother” Samir tells me as we drive the dusty streets from his house back to our fortress hotel. “I didn’t tell you this before but I really learnt alot from being you.” Samir has been an inspiration to me. The great thing about making films for me is that I can absorb myself in someone’s world. My friends at home always joke, “Why don’t you get a life of your own instead of sticking your nose into other peoples all the time.” But other peoples lives are so much more interesting than mine, especially in a place like Iraq right now.

I respect the honesty and openness that Samir has given me over these months. He has opened the window of his world and really allowed me inside, in a culture where it isn’t so easy to go snooping around peoples bedrooms, asking them the sort of personal questions I like to ask, and filming so intimately that they eventually fall asleep on camera.

It is a privilege that I respect and that I hope will make a great film. It provides an illuminating insight into what is going on here for ordinary Iraqi’s, something often missed in the daily diet of news. My only aim in coming here was to make a film that showed Iraq as it is today, from the perspective of the Iraqis. I think with Samir I have done that and so much more.

But most of all I have made a great friend who I will miss. I’m often asked to describe my approach to film making, the answer right now is quite simple, it is making friends and sharing experiences in interesting places. In everyone I film I see myself, my aspirations of what I’d like to be, but also my inadequacies and my failings. I look for people who are brave and honest enough to confront this, and allow me to film them, naked, often literally.

Within a week of being with Samir I was filming him in the shower, within a month in his bed, now he falls asleep on camera and barely ever has his clothes on, apart from his y-fronts. Such is the raging Baghdad heat.

As the summer sets in, I am packing my bags for the last time. Returning to London to prepare the edit of this film. I am hoping to finish it in time for an important documentary film festival in Amsterdam in November, where I am hoping the film will premiere.

If all goes to plan I intend bringing Samir over for his first taste of fame outside of Iraq.

Out with the old, in with the new

We drive off for the best pizza in Baghdad. It is in a dangerous place, a suicide-bomber struck the area recently killing scores. Samir isn’t happy, but I’ve had it with the hotel food. On route I notice teams of road sweepers dressed in red clothes, “Look the only work available for the young in Iraq.. sweeping the streets” Samir points out. “They get paid $3 a day which is more than what our hotel staff get.” We arrive for our $4 pizza. It is a privilege, and tastes delicious. We leave and get stuck in the heavy traffic. Samir has to turn his air conditioning off when the car isn’t moving, so we open the windows and let in the belting 50c heat. An armoured vehicle passes, inside men hold guns. I notice that each window has a bullet hole in the centre. It looks like they’ve all been shot at.

Samir knows these vehicles. “It is bullet proof glass but they make a hole in it themselves so they can fire out of the vehicle if they are attacked.” The men sit like birds in a cage, staring at everyone and everything they pass, sub-machine guns poised on their knees. One false move could really upset the apple cart here. I look to my video camera in my bag. “Don’t film them Sean, they will kill us. They will say they thought your camera was a gun.” We both sit silently, looking straight ahead until the armoured van pushes its way through the busy traffic. Other drivers look up, see the armed men staring through the bullet proof glass, and give way. The ‘law’ of this ‘lawless’ land is the gun, although every driver around me right now is probably armed, these guys have the biggest guns.

We get back to the hotel and queue outside the checkpoint. We wait like sitting ducks outside the hotel. As we approach, the four Iraqi guards recognise Samir and wave us on. Samir laughs, “Look that is our security, they are there to protect us. We could have TNT in our boot. Who cares?” He is in fits of laughter as we zigzag through the concrete slabs in the road that lead up to the hotel. The raging heat has us both dripping in sweat, and now we can’t find a place to park. Samir swears furiously, looking for a place to park his battered old ‘Super Salon’ car. We disembark and race to the air conditioned hotel.

The pool is cool. We meet the new restaurant manager, he is looking troubled again. I imagine the weight of responsibilities on his head. After being Saddam’s palace manager for 20 years he is working and sleeping here in the heavily fortified hotel, for his own personal safety after receiving death threats. We have a dip in the pool and meet Khalid, a 22 year old clean cut man man. He is the new legion of Iraqi security men, a much cheaper version of the notorious Blackwater company who looked after Paul Bremmer, and currently look after the Iraq Prime Minister. Khalid looks happy. He has every right to be, he is earning $1500 a month in his new job. I feel happy that the liberation of this land has brought fortune and opportunity to Khalid and others like him.

I sit with Samir as Khalid leaves with a spring in his step. The new restaurant manager follows him dragging his feet. Samir shakes his head. “Iraq is becoming so complicated.”

An American journalist enters the pool, “Hey Guys I’m leaving.. see you next time.” Samir looks at me. “See you next time.. you know I’ve spent most of my life trying to leave this country and I’m still waiting!” The American journalist is wearing a bullet proof jacket for his journey on ‘the world’s most dangerous road’, the airport road. It reminds me that I’m set to leave also on Friday.