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This Machine Kills Fascists
A camera is a powerful thing. It’s a lot like Woodie Guthrie’s guitar – a machine that kills fascists. It can create stories that have the power to render both warlords and governments accountable. In the 21st Century, social revolutions are carried out at the hands of iPhones and YouTube. The camera has become the new smoking gun.
This is probably why our film crews are not always welcome guests.
When we accompanied a group of German doctors to the prisons of Zimbabwe in 2011, we found ourselves walking into a political hotbed. The country’s severe cholera outbreak of 2010 had torn its way through the prison system, highlighting a lack of appropriate healthcare and raising a litany of human rights issues. As we followed the doctors around the prison wards, we were escorted by an assigned team of eight government agents, who pre-screened the inmates we interviewed and demanded a daily viewing of our footage for censoring. We had to allocate a third of each shoot day to travel back to the agents’ office so they could review everything on our drives, which could have been confiscated at a moment’s notice.
In 2013, we travelled to Sri Lanka to document an enterprise spearheaded by Tear Fund and World Concern to help Tamil farmers get back on their feet in the wake of a devastating 30-year civil war. The conflict had only ended four years earlier, with a bloody standoff between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers that cost the country thirty thousand civilians. The country’s wounds were fresh; displaced Sri Lankans were rebuilding their lives and the Sri Lankan government was staring down concerns raised by the G8 foreign ministers about human rights violations and the population’s lack of access to safe passage.
The Sri Lanka we entered was one still under massive military occupation; at the time, there was an equal ratio of soldiers to civilians. We were assigned a team of intelligence officers who trained their cameras on us, following us and scrutinising our every movement.
We were rushed past decimated city blocks, cordoned off by large makeshift walls, obscuring lines of burned out buildings riddled by shellfire like swiss cheese. In some places the mines were still being removed from the ground. Move along. Nothing to see here.
At the end of the day, we’re storytellers, not investigative journalists. As filmmakers, the idea of exposing all that is hidden to the world is a compelling one, but the fact is, it could be a fatal decision for the people and organisations that are hosting us on the ground; the chickens will eventually come to roost in their backyards. These people are our concern, and our stories cannot put them or their work in jeopardy.
The day before we left, we met with civil war victims – kids who have seen more death before hitting double digits than one should see in a lifetime. We spoke to a woman whose son was in prison. He had been involved in the civil war in a minor role, driving trucks for the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers had run the province like their own empire, forcibly recruiting local children for the conflict. He was shot in the midriff during the war and had spent two years in prison. As we spoke to him, he showed us his badly patched, scarred-over wound, allowing us to photograph it.
Word about the impromptu photoshoot got back to our government chaperones. They demanded to meet with us for the handing over of all our footage immediately. Our guide, a Sri Lankan native, feigned illness and delayed the meeting for 24 hours, sending us upcountry to catch our flight the next evening.