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Rough Cut: Return to Kirkuk
Filmmaker Interview: Behind the Lens

Veteran Swiss cameraman Claudio von Planta talks to FRONTLINE/World interactive producer Jackie Bennion about his 20-year career shooting documentary features and about what drew him to Karzan's story.

You have been a cameraman/director/producer in many flashpoint regions around the world. How do you prepare for these assignments and what draws you to these conflict zones?

You're never 100 percent prepared for a new assignment but, over the years, you learn to adapt to nearly any situation. It's actually a liberating process on different levels. In the jungle of Irian Jaya in New Guinea, it was liberating to discover that I could happily live 6 month in a hammock without any comfort or luxury. It's also liberating to lose your sense of fear when you approach a danger zone.

"When I decided to follow some Afghan Mujahedin, I was seriously scared about shelling and imagined bullets flying everywhere. But, after a while, I realized that 99 percent of the time not much was happening."

Lots of our fears are based on ignorance. In 1985, when I decided to follow some Afghan Mujahedin, I was seriously scared about shelling and imagined bullets flying everywhere. But, after a while, I realized that 99 percent of the time not much was happening. Lack of food was a bigger problem.

kirkuk.oilfields

I really enjoy this process of losing fear. It certainly develops a sense of confidence and, strangely enough, even optimism, because in the worst places on earth, you often find some amazing people who risk their lives to help others. I really enjoy portraying people holding on to their dignity and their principles against all the odds. It's probably a reaction to my Swiss background where people often complain despite a very high standard of living.

What was it about Karzan's story and Karzan himself that made you want to go with him to Kirkuk and make this film?

I first met Karzan in 1996 in London. At the time he asked me whether I might be interested to film him smuggling four brothers from the Kurdish area in Iraq back to the U.K. It was a perfect opportunity to discover the realities of human trafficking and illegal immigration. Very quickly we got an assignment from BBC1 "Inside Story." Karzan wanted me to capture his illegal activities because he wanted to show that people do not become illegal immigrants for fun. They are always escaping terrible events and are ready to risk their lives in search of a better future elsewhere. Karzan was hoping that our immigration film would indirectly shed some light on the conflict in Kurdistan and highlight Saddam Hussein's repression of the Kurds.

But I never made it to Iraq in 1996. I was arrested by the Turkish military police in Diyarbakir in Eastern Turkey. [Claudio did return after the arrest to complete the film for the BBC]. Then, in January 2005, Karzan told me about his plan to return to his hometown Kirkuk in Northern Iraq to participate in the first democratic Iraqi elections there. Immediately, I saw a unique and historic opportunity to follow up the story we started in 1996. Ideally, we should shoot a third film one or two years from now to see how events in Kurdistan are evolving.

When you shoot a story that is particularly difficult or harrowing, how do you stay detached and still capture the story you want?

Psychologically, I am hiding behind the camera and pretending not to be affected by the scenes I am filming. Of course that's not always possible. I got angry when I met the brothel madams in the red-light district of Mumbai who were abusing underage girls as sex slaves. It made me very upset. It's one of the most disgusting aspects of mankind. In these types of situations, I try to use the intense energy of my anger for the filming. It boosts my concentration and keeps me going for a long time.

Since you started documentary work 20 years ago, what would you say has changed about how you do your craft?

In 1985, I filmed like a tourist with a Super 8 camera. I had no idea how to capture a proper scene from different angles...cutaways, etc. I shot like a stills photographer. I haven't gone to any film school. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to meet a brilliant Vietnamese editor in Paris, Pedro Nguyeng. When he saw my first footage from Afghanistan, he said: "If you are stupid enough to risk your life for such rubbish I think it's about time you learned how to use a camera." Luckily, Pedro was not only frank but generous and he started to teach me all the basic skills of filmmaking. I quickly understood that editing is at least as important as shooting. Ever since then, I've always tried to keep up with new editing systems.

"We shot "Return to Kirkuk" in 10 days and came back with 43 tapes. Lots of scenes don't appear in the 16-minute version. One is Karzan's visit to the torture chamber where he was mistreated at the age of 14. I felt gripped filming him talking about his traumatic past."

Between 1986 and 1996, I worked with Beta-SP equipment. Between 1996 and 2004, I used DV and DVCAM; and this year, I am using HDV.

My filming style evolves with new cameras. The great liberation came in January 1996, when I bought my first DV camera, the Sony VX1000. This small lightweight camera was a revolution: the handheld fly-on-the-wall approach became a reality and smuggling small cameras into dodgy countries became easier.

What equipment did you use for this story?

I used a Sony PD170 camera with two diversity radio microphones and I had a PD150 as a backup camera. I took a very small Gizo tripod with a Manfrotto head. For night scenes, I got a Sony top-light.

What makes a good story?

I must admit, I have a big frustration: After 20 years in the documentary business, I still don't understand how you sell a story to a commissioning editor. From my point of view, I usually get hooked by an interesting character doing something special. "Return to Kirkuk" is a perfect example. As I'd already shot a film with Karzan, I was convinced of capturing a great story about his participation in the Iraqi elections. But I couldn't get an assignment. We had to go ahead and shoot the story on spec. When we came back, we were lucky to sell a 16-minute report to BBC Newsnight. But we didn't get any cash upfront.

In the 16-minute version of the film with Karzan, can you talk about some of the editorial decisions you made in deciding what to keep and what to cut?

We shot "Return to Kirkuk" in 10 days and came back with 43 tapes. Lots of scenes don't appear in the 16-minute version. Hopefully, we will eventually find an opportunity to cut a longer format documentary. One of the missing scenes is Karzan's visit to the torture chamber where he was mistreated at the age of 14. I felt gripped filming him talking about his traumatic past.

Later on, by coincidence, I captured a scene where Karzan meets Sabir, a former neighbor, who 25 years ago denounced him to Saddam's secret police. The encounter in Kirkuk's graveyard was extraordinary. Sabir explained how he was tortured until he gave two new names of new suspects. Karzan eventually forgives him.

In your experience, have you noticed any editorial distinctions between how the U.S. media approach a story and how the Europeans do?

I don't know very much about the American documentary market but compared with Europe it's much more difficult to sell current affairs documentaries about international issues. I think a European audience is generally better informed about events all around the world.

Last year, I had the opportunity to film the "Long Way Round" TV series for Bravo and Sky. Together with the actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, we managed to drive around the world in only 115 days. More than ever before I realized how small the world is. It became very clear how much we all depend on each other and I very much hope that media organizations will increase their reporting on international affairs.

Where are you heading off to next?

I will soon be in Pakistan where I will look at the affects of the "War on Terror." It will feel like a trip back to my roots, because in 1985, I started my career in Peshawar where I joined a group of Afghan Mujahedin.

One day, I hope to revisit the Papuan OPM rebels in Irian Jaya where I shot "Rebels of the forgotten World" in 1989. These Papuans continue their resistance against the Indonesian colonization but nobody knows about them because they are completely isolated from the outside world. Some of these Papuans became very good friends and it makes me sad not being able to see them again.