How They Did It: So You Want to Shoot in a War Zone?

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. The road where we hauled equipment from can be seen with a careful eye in the distance.

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 LA, 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 LA 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 filmmaking wasn’t going to fly here.

The crew mid-trek of their daily off-road-to-mountain commute.

This is how we did it.

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 LA, 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.

Dave Shumok giving the run down of August 2014’s tragic attack.

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 crew sits a mile up-canyon on a cliff.

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. 

Night brought more security considerations. Our 5k light would let everyone for miles know exactly where we were.

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 in front of a haphazard crowd.

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!

Pictured (left to right): Monsour Karimian (Assistant Camera), Kurt Braun (Director of Photography), Donkey (donkey), Sardar Babakir (Sound Mix), Adil Abdo (actor), and Hajar Astayi (sound boom).

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.

Andrew Kabbe on day three. Only 20 to go.

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.

We are currently in post on this film and have received a 501C3 sponsorship from Film Collaborative. To learn more about this project and the people who made it, visit There you can find our IMDB link and more information. MM

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