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James Jones and Olivier Sarbil: How We Made ‘On the President’s Orders’

Hot on the heels of their Emmy award-winning documentary Mosul, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have delivered another masterful foray into the dark side of human behaviour. On the President’s Orders takes viewers to the Philippines where President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has led police to murder thousands of drug users and dealers. Arriving to embed themselves with a police force in Caloocan just as Duterte pledges a killing moratorium driving the violence underground, Jones and Sarbil’s film is an astonishingly framed narrative which manages to tell a story full of menace and intrigue. In the lead up to their festival run, before it airs on PBS, BBC Storyville and Arte France, I sat down with the filmmaking partners to discuss how they made it. This has been condensed for length and clarity:

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me how you came to this story?

James Jones: Yes, we were finishing Mosul together and thinking what story we wanted to do and which subject might play to our strengths. I think we had both been aware of the mass executions in the Phillipines. We’d seen some great photojournalism. Basically we went out to Manila to try to get access to the cops. A lot of the coverage had been quite formulaic – dead bodies in the street and sobbing families. We didn’t really get under the skin of it, understand who was doing the killing, the rationale behind the murder. We wanted to see it from the police’s perspective – not sympathising with it but understanding how they could justify this mass murder. And so we showed up in Caloocan which is the hot spot. And Duterte the President had had to basically pause the drugs war and say ‘we’re going to clean it up’. So we actually had very little faith that they were going to give us access. We’d come halfway across the world – they would guess why we were choosing them. But we were lucky, we met the police chief, who quite liked the attention. And there was a kind of push from above to show that they had changed – the drugs war was going to be cleaner. So we just had full access and spent the next six months going back and forth.

Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official media centre for the police. We tried to get the access directly with the commander because we knew that if we had something too official obviously we would be on the radar of the police; obviously it would be more difficult.

JJ: It was great on the one hand because we had no official oversight. We were able to do whatever we wanted. But there was also this worry that because we had nothing on paper he could just wake up one morning and get fed up with us and kick us out.

CN: How would you define what plays to your strengths?

JJ: I’ve done a film about police shooting in America. So journalistically I was drawn to it and Olivier was drawn to it. And I think in terms of the type of filming Olivier had done in Mosul in terms of getting access to a group of men, it felt like a combination of the two of us. We could win their trust. We could get access that no one had got before. And Olivier would shoot it in a way that was incredibly cinematic. So it felt like on one level an important story – an injustice that we wanted to expose – but also filmically it was set up for film noirish atmospheric: quite dark and beautiful images.

CN: That of course is what is really striking and will gain some attention. How did you go about planning the look of the film?

OS: It’s a story filled with violence and darkness. For the film, we went for carefully composed shots. We wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood and an emotional connection with the city to enhance our characters’ feelings and the story.

CN: You had to build this picture of menace. Did you discuss how you were going to do this as you were shooting?

OS: First we had the shooting recce. We discovered the country and all the lighting and how we would be able to visually tell the story. So we had a pretty clear idea of what will work and how we will make it cinematically. And actually on a daily basis we were working and trying to edit short sequences to see how it works. So as soon as we decided to have a style for the film – the look – we really kept to it.

JJ: We wanted actuality, but actually the thing that was happening while we were there was the killing was going underground. Had we gone six months to a year earlier, there would have been more operations where they just bust into slums in uniform and shot people. Whereas now they were being a bit smarter and it was vigilantes or plainclothes off duty cops executing people on a motorbike. So the challenge was to kind of capture the fact that people thought the police were behind it – and even the cops privately were admitting to us that they were behind it. There were these clues along the way but it was a balance of not damning them by innuendo but making it feel solid that you knew that these guys were the killers.

OS: We didn’t want also to just be focused – if we had the chance to have more actuality with the police we would have followed them. But at the same time we didn’t want to make the film running after the police. We wanted to spend six months with the cops plus going underground, behind the scenes of the killing, and to have a chance to know the people a little bit better.

“They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back.”

James Jones

CN: So you were there off and on for six months. How did you plan that schedule?

JJ: We had twelve weeks on the ground, which is a good amount of time. And Olivier doesn’t shoot very much in a day. Visually it’s all very well covered but he’s not someone who just rolls for three hours. So twelve weeks on the ground. Four trips of three weeks. So for the first three trips filming almost entirely with the police and a bit with the funeral parlour director. And then on the last near the end of the penultimate trip we started filming with Axel and the family in the slums.

OS: It was a bit risky to suddenly leave the cops and go to the slums. We were quite conspicuous.

CN: What did everyone make of you?

JJ: They quite liked Olivier and were impressed by his military background and the fact that he had been in Mosul. They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back. They thought we were more of a news crew but we kept coming back and we’d want to film stuff that to them felt quite inconsequential, which is often the way with documentaries.

CN: Was it just the two of you?

JJ: And local fixers. I was doing sound; Olivier was shooting. Which worked, was a perfect set up for the environment. We would put a radio mic on our main characters and a boom on a stick. In the slums we weren’t out on the streets with our characters that much. We did drone footage later on – a note from one of our commissioners was they wanted to get a sense of the space. With our characters in the slums we mainly filmed inside their flats. And we tried to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible. And the kit would be hidden in bags and we would dash quite quickly.

OS: One of the reasons the filming was stressful was by definition you might think the police were following where we were going.

CN: You were again working in a language not your own, although lots of people do speak English in the Philippines. But there were nonetheless some revelations in what they were saying that I assume you found out back in the edit?

JJ: It was kind of ideal in a way that we could communicate with them well enough in English. So we could establish a proper relationship and give instructions or get information. But because they knew that we didn’t understand Tagalong, they would be quite indiscreet. And say things like ‘I asked the boss if we could go overboard, and he said no’, ie we are not allowed to kill this one. Or ‘the killings have caught up with us sir’, or ‘there are things we should talk about later’. So those little moments which as you say when we are filming we have no idea about but when we get the transcript back realise it’s gold and that there’s something else going on.

OS: Because they got so used to seeing us in the station – at some point we could just walk in and walk out, sit on the sofa, spend the day in the police station, going from one building to another, and no one would ask the question: what are we doing there? We built that trust with the police officers, and sometimes they’d forget that we were there. That’s the magic in observational documentary.

On the President’s Orders, a Mongoose Pictures production, has its North American premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada on Saturday, 27 April.

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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