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On the Frontline in MOSUL: A Conversation with Olivier Sarbil and James Jones

For a good portion of the nine month fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul, veteran French cameraman Olivier Sarbil was embedded with a small elite team of Iraqi Special Forces. Airing this week on PBS’ Frontline (and on Britain’s Channel 4 in November), Sarbil’s film MOSUL combines beautifully shot actuality footage with direct interviews with the soldiers in their home. The often uncomfortably close up scenes take us directly into the fight against ISIS, focusing on four young soldiers. Having screened to packed, rapturous houses at European screenings, it has been entered for an Academy Award nomination in the short film category.  I spoke with Olivier and his co-director and producer James Jones in London to find out how they made such a powerful film with minimal crew and little knowledge of Arabic. 

(Edited for length and clarity)       

Carol Nahra: This is your first time working together, isn’t it? How did that come about?

James Jones: Basically, Olivier had been a freelance cameraman in news, shooting this extraordinarily beautiful stuff that didn’t become anything bigger, so it was kind of wasted. So he was kind of known in that world for shooting really beautifully but hadn’t done that longer form stuff. So he went out to Mosul for Channel 4 News to doa long news piece. And then PBS had a film fall through and needed to fill half a slot and Dan Edge, the senior producer called me and said ‘We’ve got this amazing footage, we’ve got two weeks until broadcast, can you come and like help.’ And I had just finishedUnarmed Black Male so thought why not. The film (Hunting Isis) was very good but it was lots of commentary. But I think all of us came away from it thinking this could be so much bigger. He shoots so beautifully, he’s got this amazing access, where no one else on earth is filming, and the guys seem to trust him. So we were all like let’s send Olivier back and I will come on as a producer (Olivier shot the frontline scenes solo while James and a fixer joined him for the interviews). 

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Olivier Sarbil and James Jones in London

Carol: How did you approach this shoot and gain the trust of the soldiers?

Olivier Sarbil: Somehow we started to build a trust between me and the commander….For me it was important that I wasn’t going to do a news report – I was going to tell their story, the story of the battalion. And I don’t speak Arabic so it’s all about how I smile, the body language. I’m covered in scars, it helps, from shooting the war in Libya. I myself am a former Marine – maybe it helps me, cause they understand I know how those guys work in the field. And it was a very long process, for weeks eating beans and rice with them every day, shooting almost nothing. I didn’t want them to feel frightened by the camera. I really wanted them to feel Olivier is there but he’s almost invisible.

James: He doesn’t speak Arabic, he didn’t have a fixer or translator with him….He’s so unobtrusive, they know he can’t understand what they’re saying, so they’re completely uninhibited. It’s like a documentary experiment. It’s like totally fly on the wall – if they’re calling their girlfriend or roughing up a prisoner, they just do it.

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Carol: It was translated when you got back, correct? So there must have been moments where you thought ‘Oh my god I’m glad I didn’t know what they were saying!’

Olivier: That was one of the most amazing moments. When I was going back and I had all that footage, and finally I could understand what they were talking about.

Carol: What was the most shocking thing that you realised much later what they were saying?

Olivier: I would not say shocking because I had an idea, but for example, there is a scene in a school where they are talking with a kid. I didn’t know they were threatening him.  I had no idea…. You really have to trust your instinct and your gut. The thing that is really interesting is if I had a fixer or a translator, it would have killed the connection between me and them. I think I would have missed some key scene because my fixer might have said ‘ they are just talking rubbish, don’t worry about it’ and maybe I would have been tempted to turn away the camera. Because I didn’t know, it’s like I’m being deaf, so you have to develop other senses. It’s a very interesting process.

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Carol:  How did you conduct the interviews?

James: When they’d more or less declared victory in Mosul. Even then they were still on rotation. There was a week window – we didn’t know when that would be. As it happens it came in the middle of Ramadan, in the middle of summer; it was really hot. Half of them were wounded; half weren’t picking up their phone. It was just like a nightmare. It was actually a miracle that we got it. They were scattered all over Iraq. We didn’t want to think about what the film would be if we hadn’t got everybody. Each of them told crucial bits of the story – losing any one of them would have made it really hard. We probably would have had to use commentary.

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Carol: What has been the reaction to the film at screenings?

James: It has been amazing. But the one criticism we’ve heard is some people have said “Is it too beautiful?  It’s about the horrors of war, but does it look too beautiful?!”

Olivier: It’s an argument that unfortunately I’ve heard a few times. Some people are saying that because it’s war you don’t have to be worrying about the aesthetic of the shot. Which I find disturbing to a degree. Because it’s something that you don’t have in photojournalism. All the best photojournalists are painting with their pictures the miserythe death, the suffering with beautiful pictures. And no one told them ‘Why are your pictures so nice?’ But in fact I think the reality that you see for example in a news story that is not actually the reality. The way they build a news story with a shaky shot, it’s not reality.

James: It’s a cheap trick. To tell audiences it is dangerous, it has to feel wobbly. And actually there are a lot of tricks. Where this, it is well composed and it’s beautiful, and it looks sometimes like fiction. But I don’t think that that means it doesn’t seem visceral, or tense.

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Carol: It’s beautifully shot and reminded me of Cartel Land. I’m amazed how you did it – because there is a fair amount of turmoil going on and you did the sound and everything too.

Olivier: I’m not a war junkie. The only reason I went to that battle is there was a story to be told. I said to Dan and James, we had to tell it in a way that was not just another bang bang. And there is bang bang – this is a war story – but I wanted to get more into the mind of those guys, to be more human, more intimate.

James: It’s a film about shades of grey – the horror of war. These kinds of guys going through really extreme things. What we were keen to do was to treat the soldiers with the same respect that we treat British or American soldiers. We wanted to go home with them, interview them, see their lives… It’s interesting, at a time when Trump is banning Muslims for all being terrorists, these men are fighting against ISIS. They are fighting our battle. We left Iraq to them. They are sacrificing themselves to fight ISIS. There’s this kind of irony that all Muslims are seen as enemies but these guys are doing great work.

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MOSUL airs 18 October on Frontline, and on Channel 4 in the UK 7 November (title The Fight for Mosul). Location photos © Olivier Sarbil – Mosul

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