The Story of Filming in Afghanistan
By: Brenda Dorne
Executive Producer and CEO, EXE Studio Global
When my husband Rob and I began this project, we expected to find the Afghan military in disarray. While researching for Afghanistan Rising, we learned that the American people, our press and most of our congressional leadership had a negative impression of Afghanistan, its military and its ability to thrive post the drawdown of coalition troops. There were comparisons of Iraq and predictions of Afghan forces collapsing after our withdrawal. Our production team has successfully leveraged high quality media to empower military missions for more than 6 years. Leveraging the magic of media for a great purpose or cause is our passion.
Rob and I worked with our partner, Ron Luscinski, who produced the film, to craft the storyboards and plan. We researched all we could find on Afghanistan, their history, their culture and beliefs. We worked together with the US logistics and sustainment team for Afghanistan to gather all of the information on the ANA and to understand the current state of their logistics command. We then began the process of selecting our film crew. We chose Sam French as the director. Sam was nominated for an Academy Award for his Afghan short film, Buzkashi Boys, and lived in Afghanistan for five years producing media. His work showed a passion and understanding of Afghanistan and an outstanding eye for capturing the spirit of its people. We worked together to find five more crew members, who would bring experience filming in Afghanistan or in challenging or dangerous places. Accepting the call to travel into a war zone is not an easy decision to make or to ask of anyone. We struggled with every choice, knowing they would risk their lives to make this film. We weren’t just looking for a crew; we were looking for “fox hole” buddies.
When we arrived in Kabul, there were immediate concerns about security. Two months earlier a bomb had killed four contractors and the two war-fighters protecting them. This happened just outside the gates of Camp Eggers, where we were stationed. The two warfighters killed were from the security team chosen to protect us. Tensions were high. Within an hour of our arrival we were covered in body armor and were being transported to a luncheon with the Ministry of Defense. Every transport of our crew included up-armored vehicles and 40 pounds of body armor. Rob and I carried weapons we had qualified to carry before leaving home. I wore Afghan clothing and head covering to honor their religious beliefs and to blend in and not be a target. It was hot, dry and dusty; the sand was like moon dust that got into everything, especially our lungs. After a week in country we all developed flu-like symptoms while our bodies were adapting to this new environment.
Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, is the schedule required of contractors working in this war zone. The only days we were not filming were the days all travel was denied due to validated threats. Every movement we made had to be scheduled to the minute. We could not stay in one place for very long, and our security force had the power to stop the filming at any moment. Our Director, Sam, feared very little in Afghanistan. Five years living and filming there made him tough. He hated the control, was frustrated most of the time, but found a way to make it all work. We were constantly adapting and capturing the moments as they came. It was a very dynamic and volatile environment for filming.
What made it worth the risk was the amazing spirit we found in the Afghan people. We discovered the country, its military leadership and its people were very different than what we had learned during our research. We filmed a passionate debate among competent leaders with a solid plan of how they will succeed. Some of this success can be attributed to the new US Logistics leadership team that had started four months prior to our arrival. They had rolled in, gained the trust of the Afghan leadership, and helped them build a plan, which they were proudly debating in the meeting we were filming. It was a historic moment for them and for us. We witnessed a transformational moment where they were organized, empowered and united.
The Generals in charge of the different military commands were intelligent, articulate, and committed to their mission. We traveled to different ANA warehouses and bases, watched their Commandos train and their newly trained recruits graduate and be deployed to their missions. We found a very organized logistics command. They were proud of their pristine warehouses full of well-organized supplies. Their workshops were filled with young and older mechanics and craftsmen working on equipment together. We also found a competent, unified military, committed to its mission of “One Uniform, One Tribe, united against the enemies of Afghanistan.” They were all ready and willing to fight with valor for their country and their freedom, no matter what the cost. It was inspiring.
Things are not perfect. There is much left to be done if the ANA is to be independent and powerful. The sustainment of its military is still a great challenge. They were competent at organizing the supplies but getting those supplies distributed was a challenge. One of our most memorable experiences was of an Afghan soldier with bloody feet. While we were filming the new graduates in their barracks, a soldier was brought to my husband and me. He had bloody feet with blisters and soars all over them. They asked if we had medicine. I ran back to our van, grabbed the first aid kit, water and towels. Rob and I helped him wash and medicate his feet. When asked why his feet were so damaged, he explained that his boots were too small and he didn’t have socks, clearly a break down in supply chain and logistics. Our interpreter, OB, took off his shoes and gave the soldier his socks. It was an amazing moment. The soldiers of his battalion surrounded me and sang their warfighter song while my husband captured it all on video. Eighty young men, boys really, singing like warriors…to me. I studied every face, capturing every detail, knowing that some of them would die for their cause and all of them were heroes. I cried, they were grateful…It was a moment I will never, ever forget. When we told the Ministry leaders about their soldier with bloody feet, they all answered without dodging this uncomfortable topic. They spoke of their challenges with “corruption” taking supplies before they get to the bases, the lack of education of their youth and the Ministry’s struggles to overcome the many different challenges that have plagued them while building their military. A soldier told me that some of the young recruits send their gear home to their families so they can sell them to buy food or trade the gear for safety. Educating these young recruits is critical. Most did not have any formal education. This adds to the challenge. I learned that the US and coalition forces have helped teach close to 200,000 Afghan soldiers to read. What an outstanding accomplishment. It is about survival for these young people and a chance to help provide food, safety, honor and a future for themselves and their families. They have already witnessed so much death, and they all want to be a part of changing that reality and to be educated and have skills to trade when they come home.
Filming the Commandos in training was a fantastic experience. They were well organized and ran comprehensive training exercises while we were there filming. They were very proud of their accomplishments and talked about their successes in combat. They are running missions on their own and succeeding. They shared stories of terrorist attacks in Kabul where they were able to remove the threat without taking any ANA casualties and how the training they were receiving from the US and coalition forces was making them strong and capable. They were so proud and smiled and laughed with us, showed us such respect and then thanked us for being there to film them.
Rob and I had the privilege of flying in an all Afghan Air Force (AAF) piloted/crewed MI -17 helicopter flight. The coalition leadership for the AAF offered a ride along on a training flight. We needed 2 aircraft so we could capture one from the air in flight. The coalition leadership made it clear that we could only fly in one of the helicopters, the one crewed by the Coalition pilots. Rob and I made a “strong” case for the two of us, the owners of the production company, to fly with the Afghan pilots while our crew flew in the other to film our flight. There were questions from leadership, but when asked if they were good pilots and if we were in good hands, the answer was unequivocally, “Yes.” The Afghan pilots were smiling at us through the whole process and whispering back and forth. Rob and I knew that it meant a lot to them that we believed in them and chose to prove it by taking their helicopter. The flight was fantastic and perfectly executed. Our crew had a great time filming in air and the flight training was a success. Later, the crew and aircraft were called on to run a medical evacuation while we were still there. We watched them prepare and fly off for their critical mission. The AAF has a long way to go to becoming the kind of air support Afghanistan needs to win this war on terror, but the partnership of US, Coalition and Afghanistan’s finest has come so much farther than most think.
Afghans love their families and their country. It is their reason for fighting. It is their cause that is worth dying for. In order for us to include this important purpose we needed to go out into the city and film the people. To become less of a target we traveled without the parade of military security forces. They were fine for our travel to and from and filming on the bases, but not okay for markets, schools and parks. On these days we traveled in minivans like the locals. Rob and I carried our weapons concealed and we had an undercover Guardian Angel with us as well. We all carried tracking devices and our security team over watch traveled separately and stayed a few miles away. We had an amazing time getting to know the people. We went to markets and schools, parks and monuments. We filmed in the ruins of the Darulaman Palace and even drove ourselves onto an Afghan base to find a warfighter we had watched graduate the day before. Our translators were invaluable to us and opened doors and hearts everywhere. We were so well received. It was humbling and inspiring. We saw such poverty but also tremendous economic development. There were new schools, malls, houses and hotels along side giant piles of trash and children begging.
We arrived at a park with kites and within minutes had close to 80 kids playing and filming with us. The elders were concerned in the beginning, but it wasn’t long before they allowed us to film their boys flying kites, their afternoon tea and their families. A man with a push cart full of ice cream rolled by, and my husband stopped him and bought the entire cart. He chose to give the girls ice cream first, which caused total chaos. Our parenting skills kicked in, and we organized the 80 plus kids and gave them all ice cream without anyone, including us, getting hurt. One of the smallest of the girls had endeared herself to my husband all day. She held his pinky and hid behind him for most of the day. When he gave the first ice creams to the girls, she was first in line and proud of it. But then she kept coming back crying and asking my husband for more ice cream. She claimed the boys were taking hers and he would hand her another one. At the end, she skipped up to him with an old plastic bucket full of the 5 ice creams she had swindled from him. She smiled a Cheshire grin and told him they were for her family before skipping away. Children growing up in a war zone are still children, but these kids were smart, tough and shrewd. It was fascinating to watch.
Everywhere we filmed we found a very grateful nation of Afghans. The elders, the students, the children and the business owners were all anxious to share how grateful they were for America, our troops, their new life and their dreams of the future. We could not go anywhere in the cities and villages without having people stop us and thank us because we were Americans. A film crew draws lots of attention and we were very worried about safety, but found, instead, a charming community of hopeful people who were dreaming of a safe future and living better lives because of our military’s help. They would surround us, laugh with us, play with our cameras, beg for us to take pictures of them and thank us, over and over, for giving them back their country. We saw children in backpacks, including girls, walking to and from school. This is a normal thing for us but a great advancement for Afghanistan. A group of children climbed a big hill to the top where we were filming to bring us pots of tea and glass cups. While we were filming in the Bird and Carpet Market, a well dressed elder stopped and grabbed my husband’s hand. He began yelling to the crowd that Americans are courageous and have given them back their country. He pointed at me and said, “Look at this American women who honors our God by covering her head.” He then turned my husband to face him eye to eye, shook his hand and stared into his eyes with the most gracious look for what seemed like forever. He then put his hand to his heart, nodded his head and walked away. It took Rob a minute to collect himself. Many people have thanked him for his service, but this was as heart felt as he had ever witnessed.
This is our legacy as Americans, that we risked our sons and daughters and resources to avenge the attacks of 9-11 and help protect the world from terrorism. We helped build this Afghan Army, capable of carrying on with confidence against our common enemy. If we are to truly live up to the name of this mission, “Enduring Freedom,” then we must continue to support the people of Afghanistan through their election, insuring that they are strong enough and prepared to carry it forward. They are our partners against terrorism. We have invested heavily, and we are winning. We have reached the tipping point, and with hope, determination and good decisions we will prevail.
For those who read this and question if our experience was staged or manipulated, I give you these facts: although we worked hard to be prepared at each location, because of many breakdowns in communication, the bases and leadership were never prepared for our arrival. We had to sit with the commanding generals and convince them our intentions were good, over lots and lots of tea. After they hosted us for lunch, a cultural benefit we enjoyed quite a bit, we could begin our filming, knowing they had prayers after lunch, and then stopped working around 3:00 PM. It was not easy but we remained dynamic and filmed an authentic reality that is the ANA. As for our days out in the cities, there were great times, challenging times, sad times and scary times. But one thing was consistent, the desire of the people we met to communicate their hopes and dreams for a peaceful Afghanistan and to express their gratitude to America for all we have done to help them over the last 13 years.
My final thoughts are these: We can help win this war on terror by producing and distributing more positive messages through the media outlets in Afghanistan and in our own country. Media has historically been a powerful tool in winning wars. But so much of what we hear in the US about Afghanistan is negative press. We don’t get the hero stories. We don’t hear about the successes. We don’t hear that 7 million more kids are going to school and 8000 more schools are being built. We don’t hear that women make up 20% of parliament now and that women are starting businesses all over Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan love Facebook and their TV and Internet. They want peace and are willing to die for it every day. We have invested almost a trillion dollars, over 2300 lives and countless wounded to help rebuild their security forces and their country to help them win the war on terror and to promote freedom for all people. A world free from terror is worth the investment made by all. Rob and I were so pleased to see the amazing progress our military and our partnering allies have made. We lead a global force for peace in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan Rising provides a small window into the truth of our success and the commitment of our partners, the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the brave warfighters of the Afghan National Army. It made me proud to be an American and extremely proud of what our military has accomplished on this important mission.