So, You Want to Shoot in a War Zone? The Director of Scorched Earth Has Your Survival Guide

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I stood on a precipice and surveyed the blackened, bombed-out, bullet-riddled village before me. As I leaned into the breeze (more of a blast furnace than relief), I raised my fist to the heavens and screamed, “Where did all these fuckin’ goats come from!”

Like many things in my life, I fell into this project accidentally. For all who bounce around the world in search of adventure, stories to tell, or really good street food, you know what I mean.

My brother Dave and I are partners in Culture Shock Productions. Last summer we were working for the USC Shoah Foundation in Northern Iraq, documenting the stories from the survivors of the genocide that took place in the Shingal Mountains back in August 2014. The genocide targeted a religious ethnic minority called the Yazidi.

A common cliff set-up during the making of Andrew Kabbe’s Scorched Earth. The road where Kabbe’s team hauled equipment from can be seen with a careful eye in the distance. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

While working in the refugee camps, we were approached by a local Yazidi tribal council with a plan to make a film about the horrors that took place when ISIS attacked the mountain. They wanted to include American actors and for a lot of the film to be in English. Their basic thinking was that nobody outside of the region knew who they were, or what happened to them, and they didn’t think anyone would watch a film in their local Kurdish dialect.

With no luck securing any English-speaking actors, and considering they lived in a refugee camp just a few miles from ISIS front lines, it was understandable. Dave and I knew a few working actors in L.A., so we helped out and convinced them it was a worthwhile use of their time. We also convinced them it was safe. And it was. Up until shortly after the actors arrived and the safety deteriorated. The war against ISIS ramped up as the push into Mosul and the Shingal plains began destabilizing the region. Suddenly, we were getting calls asking for help.

At this point I should say that if I knew what I was getting into I may not have agreed. The task was to use the crew, actors and a preassembled camera package to tell this tragic storyall in about a month. I planned to shoot my first feature film in California in the fall after we finished the work in the camps. My brother and I worked well over a year planning that project; crossed every “T,” dotted every “I,” allocated every penny. We scrapped that plan and relocated the resources into a 115 degrees war-ravaged desert 7,500 miles from L.A. without a functioning bank in sight. The market is the black market, where settling up is done with a handshake over a duffle bag full of cash under the watchful barrel of an AK-47.

Traditional moviemaking wasn’t going to fly here. This is how we did it.

The crew of Scorched Earth in the middle of their daily offroad-to-mountain commute. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

To begin, I took stock of the crew. Stock included a group made of Yazidis, Christians, Jews, Atheists and Muslims—from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the U.S., England and Poland—who spoke Kurdish, Farsi, English and Arabic. Two translators were required at any given time, and two weren’t enough. My DP, Kurt Braun, is a hard-ass shooter from the California desert. He worked in Iraq before, so I leaned on him to set the look. The rest of the camera crew was Iranian, the grips and gaffers Kurdish (I can’t give them enough credit). Make-up was done by (the awesome) Monika Swiatek. Imagine trying to manage make-up in perpetually face-melting heat while being blasted with sand. She was fast as hell. She had to be.

We had three American actors: Josh Drennen, an acting teacher from L.A., who took over casting and coaching; J. Teddy Garces, a writer, director and stunt coordinator; and Johnse Allende, who was in the country a little longer than the others and established great relationships with the community. He organized the volunteers from the camps into departments.

Then there was Jesus Roldanthe indie film version of a Swiss army knife. He handled all the DIT and acted as production coordinator and head-shrinker for the crew. He had lived and worked in the region for over a decade. Without his experience, this production would have fallen apart. We cast two local YazidisDejin Jamil Khidir and Adil Abdoas our leads. Dejin had appeared in one other film, spoke great English and worked as an interpreter for us. Adil, who spoke no English, was acting for his first time.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you are going to work in a war zone you need one thing more than anything else: security. We had Dave Shumock. Shumock worked with the Kurdish military and is a trained combat medic. He was present on the mountain during the genocide and fought ISIS every day since. It ‘s suicidal to attempt something like this without a great relationship with the Peshmerga (the regional ISIS-fighting Kurdish military). Shumock had it in spades. He was able to get real-time intelligence when we needed it, as well as provide an accurate account of the military events in 2014.

Kurdish combat medic Dave Shumok consults the Scorched Earth production team by giving the rundown of August 2014’s Yazidi Genocide. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

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