Lessons Learned

  1. Have a plan and a back-up plan. If neither are working, then scramble. For instance, most of Aaron Rodgers best plays come when he scrambles. That doesn’t mean he won’t call a play in the huddle, or audible to another if it looks like the play won’t work at the line. Scrambling is always the last resort.
  2. Shoot with two cameras whenever you can and go for a handheld look. Mistakes can become assets.
  3. Prioritize your shot list. Start with the most important shots first: masters, then mediums on key characters. Fill out the rest if you have time.
  4. Block out scenes and eyelines in the dirt like backyard football. It keeps the communication simple.
  5. Changing lenses takes longer than changing angles (in daylight). Shoot out a lens if you can, then swap.
  6. Any hold (sound, camera overheat, etc.) is an opportunity to plan for something else. Rehearse another scene. Plan a move and don’t waste any time.
  7. Always be scouting. With cell cameras, you can democratize this.
  8. We had daily access to hundreds of extras and had to limit that. We couldn’t manage them, and dramatically reduced the scenes requiring them despite the obvious production value they would have brought.
  9. Work farther from roads. We recruited a donkey to lug water and gear. This greatly limited spectators, and allowed us to have a lot more control of the set. Just don’t try to do any serious scenes with a donkey around. Every time it brayed the whole set would collapse in laughter. Anybody ever see “Hee Haw”?
  10. Send scouts out with cash to pay shepherds to take goats in other directions. Seriously guys, this one saved the film!

L to R: Assistant cameraman Monsour Karimian, cinematographer Kurt Braun, sound mixer Sardar Babakir, actor Adil Abdo, and sound boom Hajar Astayi hang with a donkey between takes of Scorched Earth. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

On our last day we shot at a Peshmerga army outpost. That morning we were (stupidly) driving a staged convoy dressed with ISIS flags. The Canadian special forces almost wiped us out. We were very lucky to survive,  and still had four more scenes shoot. Without these scenes the film wouldn’t cut. Our actors had their bags packed and in the trucks. They would fly out that night. There was no more room for error. It was the hottest day of the shoot with spot readings off the rocks at 142 degrees, and one of the scenes involved the characters running across a road and sixty yards up a hillside. I got four takes.

The film gods intervened and things came together like they never had before. We had no further holds, no sand storms, no goats. We finished our last shot with the sun setting behind our actors in what would be the last shot of the film. The base we shot at would be over-run by Hash’d al-Shaabi (Irania-backed Shia Militia) two months later. The fate of the soldiers we worked with there is still unknown.

Without proper scene numbers, no script supervisor, correct slating or logging, I had over one hundred hours of footage in three languages to comb through. It would be four and a half months before I was able to assemble a cut and inform the crew that we had succeeded in shooting a film with a beginning, middle and end.

We made it out with our shield in hand.

Scorched Earth director Andrew Kabbe on day three of his shoot. (Only 20 to go.) Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

Our Yazidi partners still live in camps waiting to return home. Their situation has worsened following the Iraqi attack on the Shingal region last October, and the shuttering of all NGO support in Kurdistan by the Iraqi government. They still wait for the world to hear their story.

Let’s be clear. I knew going in that this could be a difficult and risky venture, and I do have a good amount of experience from the military and other projects that made it possible to work in this environment. Nobody went into this flippantly. We all genuinely felt the world would continue to ignore this community and that this project would merit the risks we took.

People say cliché things about trusting your crew. In this scenario, there was no possible chance of success without it. I certainly wouldn’t recommend filming under these circumstances to anyone. War is chaos. What seems reasonable one day can be suicidal the next and it’s easy to get lured into a sense of safety that doesn’t exist. I would love to say it was pure skill that got us through, but we were extremely lucky. We endured a multitude of catastrophes, but luckily none of the blows turned out fatalliterally or figuratively. MM

Scorched Earth is currently in post-production and has received a 501C3 sponsorship from Film Collaborative. To learn more about this project and the people who made it, visit facebook.com/yazidigenocidefilm. Featured image photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe.

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