POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? What generally inspires your interest?
Esteban Uyarra: Well, for me it’s to have a good time entering a world that I didn’t know anything about previously — whether it is a war zone or the life of lawyers, now, in my next project. But the bottom line is to transmit something exciting and interesting to others so they can share it. Thank God, in documentary filmmaking you can do this while having a good time and the experience of a lifetime.
Sarah Brownrigg: With regard to inspiration, there are many ideas that can catch your eye for one reason or another. Sometimes, even in creative partnerships, it’s easy to feel that an idea isn’t good enough or hasn’t been thought through sufficiently to present to another person. One of the enormous benefits of my relationship with Esteban is that we’re great friends and so have the freedom to express these ideas, even if they’re barely formed, which is vital both in growing ideas and in the recognition of which ones are not right. And it’s a simplification, but the motivation for me comes from the pure and unshakeable human urge to communicate.
POV: What inspired you to make War Feels Like War? What’s the story behind the genesis of the project?
Sarah: It’s hard to pinpoint an exact start to this film. I, despite my disagreement with his voting preferences, have been a massive fan of P.J. O’Rourke’s writing since the 80s and so had a well-thumbed copy of “Holidays in Hell” on the bookcase. Esteban had a copy of the collected war reports of the Spanish writer Arturo Perez Reverte (which is sadly not available in English), whose fiction I admire greatly. Somehow, through multiple conversations about these books, we ended up knowing that a documentary had to be made about people reporting from a war. That happened like a light switch being flicked on. After that, it didn’t seem as if we had any other choice but to make it happen.
Esteban: The first influence was Arturo Perez Reverte’s “Territorio Comanche.” It’s about his experiences as a war reporter in Kosovo. There is a lot of stuff in the book about the hotels that journalists stayed in and I thought I could make something like “Fort Apache” — you’re safe inside the hotel, but outside there’s a hostile environment. Then I read A Mad World by John Simpson, which also talks about similar hotels.
The plan was to go anywhere in the world where there was this sort of hotel and make a film. Afghanistan was impossible, I couldn’t afford to get there. I considered Palestine but that seemed to have been covered. Then, as the build-up to war in Iraq started heating up, I thought it might be the right opportunity. I just decided to go to Kuwait City. I had no understanding — there was no understanding — of how things were going to work for the journalists. We just hung around the American press office and were given cards that said “unilateral journalists.” We quickly felt like bystanders who could be easily brushed off.
POV: What would you like to see happen with the film? What were your primary goals in making it?
Esteban: The primary goal was to make the film. I don’t make films to make money, I just feel I need to do it, and once I start, I feel there is nothing that can stop it. I hope people will look at the film in five years’ time and still understand what it feels like to enter a war zone, not just as a journalist but as a viewer.
Sarah: What we wanted to happen with the film has evolved as we’ve moved through the process. When Esteban came home with the footage, we just wanted to get a good editor, and we did. Brian Tagg worked with amazing intuition and sensitivity for the material and Esteban’s wishes and just made us feel safe, which is important at that stage. After that, of course we wanted it to be seen, and so far I think it has been screened, or bought, in nine countries and accepted in festivals across the world.
I think, now, without wanting to sound too lofty or idealistic, I would like to think that young people, who are just starting to get their minds involved with the wider world, will find it useful and of interest to them. We are all responsible to some degree for the actions taken in our name or on behalf of our home nation, and far too often we are not allowed the information necessary to realize or accept those responsibilities. And this of course gives a dangerous amount of power to a very small number of the population. “War Feels like War” is not in itself perfect, but I do think it allows a degree of increased insight, more than one would get by watching the news.
POV: What did you learn that most surprised you in making “War Feels Like War”?
Esteban: I learned how easy is to be brave the first time you are in a place like Iraq during the war, but how quickly you build a library of fear that makes you scared the next time you are in a hostile place. I was in Haiti for three months during the uprisings and that’s how I felt.
Sarah: Because we were self-funded until the editing was almost over, we couldn’t afford for both of us to go to Kuwait and Iraq. At the time, I was somewhat jealous of the experience that Esteban was about to undertake, largely because we’d worked together so intensely on it up until that point, and that builds a cocoon that supports you as a team and supports the film.
Naturally I was very worried for his safety, but watching hour upon hour of endless news reports, and knowing that I had no control of the situation over there forced me to build a different cocoon for myself, one that presented boundless support and encouragement to him, but that was a means of blocking out emotion for me. It was extraordinarily draining and I felt myself very much withdrawing from the world. What has surprised me the most coming out of the film has been to learn that my ability to see the good and my depth of feeling for people has increased, when I might have expected to become more hardened. I think in some part this is because you see those very qualities within the film.
POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Esteban: I’m developing a new documentary that will look very closely at lawyers within the anti-death penalty community, in particular a young lawyer in the making, someone whose morals and dilemmas are still taking shape. Hopefully I will get some funding from PBS!
POV: In filming War Feels Like War during the early stages of war in Iraq, did you experience some of the same emotional and moral “ups and downs” as the reporters and photographers we meet in the film? Did you find yourself seduced by some of the adrenaline and spectacle of war reporting during your production?
Esteban: My experience and feelings almost mimicked the reporters’ — if they couldn’t go into Iraq, I couldn’t go… on top of which I was panicking because some of my characters had crossed the border and I had no way of following! I had no car, I can’t drive and I was alone, so I hit a crisis. Thank God I got a lift, and then another, and I met up with my characters again in the south of Iraq. Of course, yes, I was getting a kind of rush out of the whole situation. It’s very exciting, it is history in the making and you are there filming it. There is not a dull moment. But the experience keeps asking you about your own humanity. What the hell are you doing there, just filming? Is there any point in making a film while a whole country is being bombed? You think, maybe it’s futile?
For more information about Uyarra Films, visit uyarrafilms.co.uk.