Monday, October 23, 2006

Making The Impossible Documentary -- Inside A Baghdad Hospital

In a recent post, while discussing the reason why it is so difficult to get accurate casualty counts from Iraq, I wrote:
Hospitals are notorious sources of enemy propaganda. From hospitals come pictures of dead and wounded people. So we attack the hospitals first. And we keep coming back to them.
It's all part of a very slick plan which falls under the heading of "perception management" and which so far seems to be working extremely well. The idea is, public opinion is heavily influenced by what the public perceives. Therefore the easiest way to control public opinion is by controlling public perception.
Given that the "coalition" in Iraq wants to keep the reporters as far away from the hospitals as possible, how would one go about making a documentary about a Baghdad hospital?

It was never going to be easy ... but it's been done!

Here is Ben Summers of The Guardian: Fly on the wall inside Baghdad ER
There is no bigger news story than the daily carnage in Baghdad, but for journalists and broadcasters there is nowhere more difficult to cover. It is reckless for a westerner to be seen on the streets. Militants intent on the kidnapping and killing of westerners are never far away. Every journalist knows it is irresponsible to stay in the same place for more than 20 minutes. As well as your own life, the lives of those around you would be put at risk.

We hear about the bombs going off, and we see bits of footage shot by Iraqi cameramen, but first-hand reporting of such events is next to impossible. This has led to a number of Iraqis gathering the news for western news companies. It also led to my most unusual assignment to date - sitting in a hotel room in Baghdad for a month, unable to leave the building.

The production company Guardian Films - the television arm of this paper - was in contact with a doctor from Baghdad. He was keen that the west see the conditions of the emergency room in one of Baghdad's hospitals. But to make a programme about a hospital is impossible for any westerner.

Added to the risk of death and kidnap is the reluctance of the hospitals to allow filming inside. Doctors and patients do not trust anyone with a camera. People are frightened of being identified, as various militias are on the look out for anyone saying the wrong thing, being in the wrong place - and working for the government. And as the doctor wanted to see a programme about Al Yarmouk hospital, which is in an area of south-west Baghdad riven by sectarian violence, the whole idea seemed like a non-starter. But he harangued the hospital and eventually, because he was a doctor - and an annoyingly persistent one at that - the hospital agreed to some filming taking place. But only on the condition that he was the film-maker. An interesting proposition was opening up, and a possible answer to the Iraqi 20-minute problem was presenting itself.

So if this programme was ever to be made, it would be filmed by a doctor who had never done such a thing before. A strange proposal to put to television commissioners. But clearly a chance not to be missed, and it became my personal opportunity for weeks of solitude.
The entire article is worth a read. And the documentary will be broadcast tomorrow night on BBC2 at 9:50.