‘Through the Fire’ was shot in Hargeisa and Mogadishu in September of last year. The making of this documentary has sparked more questions than any other to date. There has been a great deal of curiosity about the background of the project as well as the practical and logistical details of production work.
In light of this, I selected a handful of the most frequently asked questions and posed them to the film’s director (Eunice Lau) and my co-producer (Arthur Nazaryan). Written below are their responses, providing behind the scenes insights. We look forward to sharing the finished film with you in the near future.
What inspired you to make Through the Fire in the first instance?
Arthur: While working on the Kenya-Somalia border in 2011, documenting refugees fleeing famine and conflict in Somalia, I was struck by the resilience and strength of the Somalis who I met. It challenged the clichéd portrayal of Somalis as helpless victims, and I wanted to come back and do a project that explored this further. Eventually this evolved into a documentary film about what Somalis themselves (rather than foreigners) are doing to rebuild their nation.
Eunice: Too often what we read about Somalia in the news is related to piracy, famine and war, with the images of ‘Black Hawk Down’ in 1992 etched firmly in our memory. Yet Somalia is one of the cradles of civilization. I wanted to understand what had caused this beautiful, historical country to fall prey to such grave suffering and loss. And I wanted to hear the story of the women of Somalia and Somaliland because the dominant discourse in the mass media is very male-oriented. For this reason we decided to tell the story through the eyes of three amazing, courageous and compassionate women: Dr Hawa Abdi, Edna Adan and Ilwad Elman.
What were the main challenges?
Arthur: First, it was the security situation. Foreigners and journalists are regular targets for al-Shabaab militants and various bandits who operate with relative ease in Somalia. Second, it was finding the funding to pay for reliable security, accommodation, and transportation. Finally, it was very challenging to get in contact with the women we needed to document, and making the arrangements to ensure we could film them in the time available.
Eunice: As a filmmaker, you always want to spend time getting to know the environment, culture and key subjects you are filming. The security situation in Somalia did not allow us to sit in the streets and take it all in before picking up the cameras. We had to negotiate hard to spend even more than a couple of hours in a single location, and no more than 30mins in hotspots such as crowded market places. And we had to work out creative ways to get enough footage without compromising ourselves and the wonderful people protecting us. It took more than three months of preparation (pre-production) before we felt confident enough to start production.
What were the highlights of your stay in Somaliland and Somalia? Can you recall any particularly memorable experiences?
Arthur: Yes, filming at the bombed out cathedral in Mogadishu was a surreal experience. This one location seemed to speak more of Somalia’s turbulent history than any other. It’s a vestige of Somalia’s past as an Italian colony, bearing the scars of 20 years of conflict with warlords and extremists, now serving as a housing site for dozens of refugees displaced by that fighting.
Eunice: Every moment spent with Dr Hawa Abdi, Edna Adan, Ilwad Elman and the former child soldiers was memorable. Every moment that they shared with us was inspiring and profound. Being a hardened former journalist, I am trained to separate my emotions from my work. But being there in Hargeisa and Mogadishu, confronted by the visceral memories of these survivors, it was hard for me to hold back the tears sometimes. At times you feel wretched that such cruelty exists, yet at times you feel hopeful that humanity will prevail, because of the courage of individuals such as those we met along the way. To witness the will to survive and the will to recreate, has been a profound and humbling experience for me. And I hope we have somehow translated that across the screen with our film.
What security precautions did you have to take?
Arthur: We had to have a team of armed security personnel with us every time we left the hotel. It was very restrictive, and often created an uncomfortable distance between us and the people we were filming, but it was necessary at the time. When you go out, it’s not just your own life you’re risking, it’s potentially also that of the bystanders around you. This is why you have to be mindful and not spend too much time in crowded places like markets.
Eunice: We researched and consulted with experts before picking the best security team to guide us during our time there. And after we arrived, we entrusted our lives with the good people protecting us and concentrated on telling the story. We always tried to negotiate for more time at each location the night before filming and they would work out how to accommodate us. But when they said it was not possible or we HAD to go, we never argued against their judgement. Doing your homework to get the best team to work with you and establishing trust and respect are the key ingredients to a successful partnership. These are by far the best security precautions any filmmaker can take.
Were there times that you feared for your safety?
Arthur: Filming at night was an unnerving experience. The tension was high and often I could see the security guards’ fingers by the triggers of their guns.
Eunice: We knew from the outset that there was a possibility we may not make it back alive because the situation is so volatile. After you have done all you can to minimise risk, you just have to let it go and concentrate on what you have come to do, which is to tell a story. Just as we survived 9/11 – we cannot let fear dominate, or let those who threaten our freedom dominate the discourse and win the battle.
Having said that, we had a few close shaves. One of most memorable was the evening of the suicide bombing that killed 15 people, including journalists, at the Mogadishu café near the National Theatre. It was the eve of our departure from Somalia. We were in the vicinity an hour and a half before the bombing. But that very morning we had a bad feeling and decided not to linger on the streets. I passed on shooting more B-rolls at the National Theatre and wrapped filming earlier. The moment the bombs went off we were sitting on the rooftop of our hotel admiring the sunset and listening to the calls to prayers. I didn’t want to believe it was a bomb until we heard it from the radio moments later.
That said, most of the time we felt pretty safe and enjoyed the company we were in.
How did you get over the language barrier?
Arthur: We had an excellent translator with us whenever it was necessary, like during interviews. For quick interactions with bystanders, I learned basic phrases like ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘what’s your name?’ A few seconds of conversation is enough to disarm people’s ambivalence towards you filming them and their surroundings. It went a long way.
Eunice: A touch, a smile, is sometimes all you need to connect to another person.
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