Tag: Baghdad


Another Adventure

Another 12 hour flight seems about right to set me off on another film adventure. It’s almost 2 years to the day that I set off to Baghdad taking that dangerous unknown road.

But the results have been rewarding, the film The Liberace of Baghdad won several international awards including Special Jury Prize at Sundance, in Chicago and San Paolo and Best Documentary Award at the British Independent Film Awards. Such accolades haven’t helped sales though! – having re-mortgaged my house to make the film I’m still waiting for the film to sell one year on.

I always need time and space before moving onto a new film. For me the experience is all-encompassing and this can drive you crazy. If indeed you are not already crazy. Something I question more and more as I grow older and more stupid. My last film took me to Iraq for 8 months at its most dangerous watching friends being killed and kidnapped around me.

In many ways I feel I have been trying to overcome this. The unpredictable situation that developed around me, the dangers, the deaths and the kidnappings remain vivid in my mind as I think back to my time in Iraq. I wake up in cold sweats looking back at different things of could have been, I think of friends killed 28 year old Marla a passionate aid worker and others kidnapped.

Then I get positive and think it is time to move on!! To open a new chapter in my life, to try and close this last one. It is time to make a new film. I decide on Japan, why? Well because for me it has very interesting issues of freedom and reminds me oddly enough of Saddam’s Iraq. Just in terms of how people are told to think and operate out of loyalty.

So here I am two years on heading over to Japan. After making a film in the worlds most dangerous place I’m heading to the worlds safest. As I leave I see on the TV news the face of a friend staring out at me. It seems no matter how hard I try Iraq will not let me go. It haunts me day by day. I’m sat looking at the innocent face of a trainee journalist I knew in Iraq, Jill Carol 28, kidnapped and threatened with death if all female Iraqi prisoners are not released from jail.

Her interpreter was thrown out of her car and shot in the head leaving a 4-year-old without a father. It seems some stories will never go away. For 4 months last year I tuned into the news each night fearing the worst for another friend George. He was released after 4 months and only because he was French. Carol happens to be American.

The road to Tokyo

I’m sat in the limousine bus from Narita International airport to central Tokyo with a nervous excitement in my stomach. I’ve spent most of last year doing the festival circuit with ‘Liberace of Baghdad’ and now it is time to embark on another adventure. As a place to film; Japan is not without its difficulties, traditionally one of the most secretive and private societies where very few people speak English. I’d heard of the growth in English language schools and wondered why? When I looked further into it, it seemed many Japanese were learning English out of a growth in leisure and ‘freedom’ rather need for work or travel. The English school provided me with an opportunity to meet English speaking subjects for a film. I’d heard stories about the ‘housewives’ who would learn English in their afternoon breaks. They’d often not tell their husbands and would have secret fantasies for the English teacher. It only seemed sensible for someone like me to come as film maker/ English teacher to look at modern Japanese using the English school as a vehicle to freedom.

Snowmans Welcome

I meet my friend Atsushi at the 246 café near my hotel. It’s a very western café, with a faint smell of fish. But even that disturbs me, fortunately there are loads of people smoking and it kills the smell. Smoking inside? Seems rather liberal in Japan. And women smoking everywhere I look, probably more then men.

This super clean environment is smoke filled. Why? We sit and wait for two café latte’s I watch the array of beautiful women serving us. It is difficult to concentrate here with such beautiful women. I notice Atsushi seeing that I’m now ignoring him. He understands and gives up the conversation for just enough time for me look at little longer… Beautiful… apart from the smoke and that faint fishy smell. Then our coffees arrive. It is extra creamy, a latte like never before. And on top is a snowman designed specially for me by the coffee maker. I look over to Atsushi’s coffee there is no snowman. I smile, waft passing smoke away from my face blown by a gorgeous girl next to us and then I sip the coffee. It tastes better than most – I have another sip – in fact it is amazing coffee. I look down at the menu and worry about my vegetarian diet. How on earth am I going to cope here? But now I’m just enjoying the coffee, I take another sip. This is better than Italy I think to myself.

This is my first education on arriving in Japan; you can get everything you want here, and it will always taste better than anywhere you’ve ever tried before! The Japanese get lots wrong but rarely is it ever food.

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.