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

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With our cast and crew set, we began. We laid out our schedule based on our equipment rentals. We gave ourselves six days for pre-production, leaving 23 days to shoot. I knew with smaller productions that it was best to start with locations and build from there. We laid out a basic storyline with note cards: a rescue mission and journey across the mountains in search of safety. This would squeeze the most out of location, our greatest production asset. After six days we composed a rough storyline with a beginning, middle and end. We had about 20 pages of the screenplay written and a couple locations scouted. The rest of the of the writing and scouting were done early in the morning or after shooting.

The evening before production began, the crew gathered for a lovely dinner of goat (locally referred to as meat. As in: “will you have meat or chicken?”). We jovially mused about how well everything was coming together.

Mike Tyson once said that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Day one punched us in the face. First by the brutal heat. We had to carry everything off the roads and into the desert by hand. Our batteries drained a lot faster in the heat and we had to shut the camera down.

The Scorched Earth crew sits a mile up-canyon on a cliff. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

Then there was sound. You can’t imagine how many goats a waterless desert moonscape like Kurdistan can sustain. The goats were everywhere (until I wrote them in and they magically disappeared). A truck passing by echoes off the rocks for a full five minutes and is accompanied by flyovers from jets and bombs. You’d think that would help sell the story of an ongoing war, but it wasn’t factual. There were no planes or helicopters that aided the Yazidis in their retreat from ISIS.

Lastly, none of us predicted the time commitment that is the telephone game of translating a variety of languages. Most of the crew had never seen a camera before, and you can imagine trying to translate apple box (or other film jargon) to Kurdish. We limped home only to realize that we didn’t have power for most of the evening, so all our downloads would have to take place between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. All that set to the backdrop of the ever-changing militaristic atmosphere. 

Scorched Earth‘s nighttime shoots brought more security considerations. The crew’s 5K light would let everyone for miles know exactly where they were. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kabbe

Our day two dinner was a much different affair. We chewed our “meat” quietly, humbled and scared. On top of everything, Ramadan had started; a Muslim holiday where participants fast from sun-up to sundown, including water. Half my professional crew was Muslim. Did I mention it was averaging 115 degrees?

The worst part was the enthusiasm of the Yazidis for this project. This film was a glimmer of hope for them and I was entrusted to tell this story to the world. I didn’t want to let them know that I suddenly felt we had undertaken an impossible task.

The reasonable thing to do was to pull the plug. Safety was a real concern, and it wasn’t just the war. It was the heat. Someone could die if they were left in the desert. We had neither a professional transportation nor location manager. Cell service was unreliable. There were no real emergency medical services. All we had was Shumock. 

To make matters (even) worse, Shumock’s  intel informed me that ISIS was aware of what we were doing. It was at that instant that the magnitude of my miscalculations descended upon me. It was one thing to do a documentary in the region, another thing entirely to drive around in the mountains in a camera truck with “please blow us up” written all over it. I had to inform the crew. What happened next would be up to them.

Against all crippling odds, each crew member decided, one by one, to shoot whatever we could. They determined that if we were going to fail, it would be out there in the Kurdish desert. Come home with our shield—or on it. In all my years working in film I’ve never felt such trust. And it is a moment in life I’ll never forget. 

The new plan: simplify everything. I got up the next morning and threw on my Herzog T-shirt. We went to work.

Audio maestros Hajar Astayi and Sardar Babakir

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