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Combat Documentarian Rachel Beth Anderson on “First to Fall”

While there seems to be no shortage of cursory stories from the front lines of recent Middle Eastern conflicts, filmmakers Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucza have decided to dig deeper. During the Libyan uprising the duo smartly embedded themselves not with emotionally inaccessible military units but with two Canadian students – friends who cast away their safe and secure western lives to take up arms in the fight to overthrow their homeland’s dictator. The resulting documentary “First to Fall” is an unflinching look not just into the struggle that would eventually oust Gaddafi, but a cinematic, exacting account of how war turns boys into men.

Global Comment spoke with the doc’s co-director (and Sundance award-winning cinematographer) Rachel Beth Anderson prior to the film’s premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in NYC.

Lauren Wissot: So how did this doc come about in the first place? How did you meet Hamid and Tarek?

Rachel Beth Anderson: I had been living and working in Cairo as a journalist prior to the Arab Spring. When the Egyptian uprising began in 2011 I found myself filming my own friends as they turned from everyday civilians into revolutionaries. Their world as they’d known it was quickly consumed by protests, teargas, and risking their own livelihoods for the hope of a better future. I was fascinated by how quickly they rose to this “call to action,” never wavering as the danger increased, until the current dictator was removed and they were celebrating what they felt was a victory at the time.

It seemed natural to me that I should cover the next country, which happened to be Libya, where everyday people were rising up. Following the youth in Libya was an entirely different experience than in Egypt, because they weren’t just battling teargas, but were up against Gaddafi’s army who had turned his guns on his own people. Specifically, I found myself fascinated with stories such as that of my main protagonists, Libyan expatriates Hamid and Tarek. They were young men my age, studying at university like I did, living a free and comfortable life – and had felt it their personal duty to give up everything, travel thousands of miles, and go to war as untrained soldiers. I knew they would be the perfect individuals to help reach audiences beyond the borders of Libya. Tarek was incredibly sweet and he always felt it was his responsibility to help me tell the story of Libya, and Hamid had one of those strong and silent personalities that magnetized the other young fighters – everyone flocked to be around him. He took on the role of big brother to Tarek, and you could immediately tell there was something to take from these young men who idealistically wanted to create change as freedom fighters, but hadn’t yet considered the outcome.

I didn’t know where these young men would end up but felt compelled to follow them as they attempted to achieve their goal of becoming a soldier on the frontline. I had thought that Libya’s fight would be similar in length to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, lasting only a few weeks, but as cities across the country turned into active frontlines the few weeks turned into eight months. I stayed for the majority of the war because as the fight waged on and the news cycle changed, this meant journalists were sent elsewhere – but people were dying and the civilian struggle wasn’t over. I knew there needed to be a visual document of the transformation of the young men who were fighting, and also of the country of Libya.

LW: I’ve noticed that female directors covering recent conflict zones have really been coming into their own lately. There’s Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” which was up for an Oscar this year, and filmmaker Laura Poitras is obviously in the news for her journalistic involvement with Edward Snowden. Any thoughts as to why so many women are trekking into traditionally male-dominated areas of doc-making?

RBA: Jehane and Laura are incredible reporters and gifted filmmakers. What I think is really remarkable are the amount of female freelance journalists in their 20s who I worked alongside in Libya. They broke some of the biggest stories and filed incredible in-depth essays as a result of their fearless reporting. Perhaps that comes from some naivety of youth, the fact that we aren’t yet tied down to routine and commitments at home, but it’s also because we are extremely passionate about sharing human stories. We’ve grown up in a society that hasn’t told us that we aren’t allowed to do this or that because we are women.

Speaking for myself, I believe there is sometimes a unique access that you gain as a woman behind the camera, broaching subjects that you wouldn’t always have the liberty to delve into as a man. There are many sensitive topics that a woman subject may have to speak about but feel uncomfortable divulging to a man, and it is common in many cultures that women cannot even be alone with men. Beyond that access I’ve often found myself working in male dominated societies where a female, and a foreigner, might be underestimated and considered not to be a threat, which allowed me to break down barriers very quickly. Honestly, it isn’t easy going in many instances and I have many anecdotes to tell, but when you’re in the field you have to acknowledge the strength or weakness in the culture you’re working in and take advantage of the asset of being a woman.

LW: You’ve got an extensive background in TV journalism, shooting for PBS, CNN, the BBC, and so on. What are the differences between filming for news programs versus for independent films? Do you prefer one format to the other?

RBA: I went to university for broadcast journalism and was training to be on camera, but that didn’t last long as I quickly figured out I really disliked being a part of the story. I still consider myself to be a journalist in every aspect of my filmmaking, as I focus on capturing the truth and delivering a human story to the viewer as if they witnessed it with their own eyes. The biggest change for me is how the film is transformed in the edit. Cutting a news report is more about pounding out facts and using images that match the words. In filmmaking you have the pleasure to combine arresting and beautiful images that speak for themselves layered with the insights and emotions of a main character’s journeys. This allows special moments for the audience, the time to “breathe” and think and develop their own relationship with the protagonists while they’re still experiencing the film. I feel a huge responsibility to the audience to create a film that not only expresses an emotionally truthful, hard-hitting story, but also keeps them entertained throughout, so that the final message can stick with them after leaving the theater.

LW: You just won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at this year’s Sundance for Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s “E-Team.” That film follows the Human Rights Watch activists who document war crimes in Syria and Libya, and is actually launching this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. How did you find time to shoot both of these films? Was there some overlap in Libya?

RBA: I’d already finished shooting the majority of “First To Fall” when the “E-Team” crew got in touch with me. I had moved from Cairo to Brooklyn to look for funding to begin my edit, an uphill battle for a first time filmmaker like myself. While I feared losing momentum moving into the post-production phase I jumped at the chance to work on a project that I’m passionate about, human rights activism, and on a story that I’m fascinated by. Also, it would help me stay afloat while trying to hustle in New York. It was such a blessing, as I’m incredibly proud of the work I did in Syria with Human Rights Watch, and I feel privileged that the crew pulled me into the fold of such an important film.

LW: I’m very curious to know what you’re working on next. Is there a particular conflict zone that you haven’t tackled and are champing at the bit to cover?

RBA: I am hoping to get back to North Africa and follow up on the current state of the revolutions I’ve previously covered, how they’ve evolved. Also, I’m currently trying to get another film off the ground in Honduras. I’ve had a particular story in my head for over five years – and am pushing to get the means to start by the end of this summer.