Trying to Wean Myself off War

I got into Iran on a tourist visa to make a documentary about some human rights issues there. It was a difficult job because we had to set up clandestine interviews with activists, and I knew how risky this could be not just for myself as the filmmaker, but also those who took part in it.

I got into Iran on a tourist visa to make a documentary about some human rights issues there. It was a difficult job because we had to set up clandestine interviews with activists, and I knew how risky this could be not just for myself as the filmmaker, but also those who took part in it.

I told one of our main contributors that we could disguise him on camera and change his voice to protect his identity, but he said, "No. Absolutely not. We can't all be cowards. I'm not afraid of dying." I shall never forget him saying that.

A month after the interview I heard about his arrest when Amnesty International put out an urgent appeal because of "Man being tortured for appearing in television documentary." I feel terrible about it. It was my film — I produced and directed it — and this was not supposed to happen. It has made me really think about why am I doing this kind of journalism.

I think it was a combination of things — he was very pro-active with the Iranian student protest movement — but I believe his appearance on the documentary played a significant part in his arrest, and subsequent treatment by the Iranian authorities. I hear he's lost one eye and he's been beaten so severely he can barely walk. It sounds like they're slowly killing him. And even if they do let him out he's going to be a broken man.

This guy had already been in prison more than a dozen times because of his protest work, but he was completely blasé about it. "Oh yeah" he told me, " they beat me a bit, they tortured me sometimes, but that's just part of living in Iran."

I've interviewed many people who've contacted me subsequently because they've changed their mind about appearing in a documentary. And, of course that's always fine with me. The interview is immediately scrapped. But with this guy, he was determined to be heard and to be seen. Yet I can't help feeling responsible for has happened to him, and keep asking myself "How did this happen? What could I do to help him?" But then again, we're talking about the Islamic Republic — so realistically what can I do?

I've done a number of human rights stories in the past, and have been gratified when people say, "Gosh, I didn't realise it was that bad, thank you for doing it." And, a lot of people thanked me for showing a side of Iran that hadn't been seen before with this particular documentary. That I can deal with, but when people who you actually spent time with, get to know, and who you like and get on with, are actually being brutally tortured, it makes sleeping at night rather difficult.

I think I'm feeling this particularly badly because I'm a freelance journalist. The production team who helped to put the film together has now dispersed, so I don't have any support. It makes me think, "Wait a minute, I thought film-making was supposed to be a team experience," but in times like this, there doesn't seem to be any.

I'm at that point now where I'm thinking about getting out of the freelance game. It's becoming too emotionally difficult for me, and in truth I have come to realise that I have been putting my life of the line for very little financial reward. My social life has suffered too. Everything has to stop when you start making a film, and who would be willing put up with that?

When I went to Iran to make this documentary, I had no life. I was in the country illegally, which was very dangerous. So all I could think about was the story and getting as many interviews as I could pull off without being arrested.

But, the most distressing thing I have found is that the film hasn't done anything to change the present-day situation in Iran at all. Yes, it has alerted people to what's going on there, but nothing's changed. There are still more journalists in prison in Iran than in any other Middle Eastern country, and there are hundreds of students in prison for just wanting change. I find that very depressing.

When I first started filming human rights stories, I got a sense of euphoria because I believed I was at least educating people about what is going on in the world. But after a couple of years I started to lose the initial, "Wow, I'm making a difference," and began to think, "God, why bother?" Yes, you do see amazing things but after a while you forget the countries, because they begin to blur into each other. I've lost track of how many countries I've been to.

The problem is, I've made my name making documentaries about countries undergoing some kind of transition. I think that's the only thing that people will buy from me, unfortunately. When you get typecast, it's hard to get out of it, so every time the phone rings it's something that could potentially put me in harm's way.

I remember when I first got shot at in Bosnia in 1993 sitting in a ditch and thinking, "What a stupid way to die," and then I got angry about finding myself in such a dangerous situation. And you know, it's funny, but when you've survived something like this, you think it's not going to be like this next time — and well, war is war. But of course it does happen again.

Actually, I've put myself in the firing line a lot. However, when you are in threatening situations, a survival instinct sets in — it's that adrenaline kick that makes you believe you will survive at all costs. You forget about your life at home, and start thinking this is normal; that, in the middle of a war zone, 90-year old ladies are queuing for bread, and there are kids playing football in the street.

You get the sense of life just moving on, so why should you be a coward when there are people scraping out an existence and trying to get by? It's amazing what a few days in a hostile environment or a war can do to you.

I think the worst time is getting on the plane, or arriving at the airport thinking, "Er, I shouldn't really be doing this." But when you get there and climb into the helicopter, or team up with the United Nations or with the NATO peace-keeping force, it's like a different me takes over. It's quite interesting, actually. There's what I would perceive to be my normal rational self, and then, before you know it, within 24 hours of being in a hostile environment, I can transform into something completely different.

I guess it's the excitement of thinking, "Wow, there's something happening." I could be witnessing history in the making, and it's my job to get the message out. But I realise I am paying a heavy price. Friends who don't work in journalism think I have this thrilling life and get to go to far-flung areas of the globe; that what I do is "real" journalism. But I honestly don't feel like that because of the responsibility I carry. Although I am close to my family, I don't tell my parents half the things I do because I know their reaction will be "Oh, my God! How can you do this? You're going to end up dead one of these days."

It's also such a competitive industry now, especially with the growth of reality television in the UK. There's less and less interest in foreign stories, and there are always hungry freelancers willing to go out of their way to deliver something really different for editors to look at. The problem is that "really different" usually means putting themselves into extremely dangerous situations to get the pictures or footage that these editors are prepared to pay for. I've paid my dues on that one, and I'm not prepared to do whatever it takes anymore.

OK, when we do work we get paid fairly well, but overall you're making probably less than a junior secretary at a city bank. And, when you think of what you're doing, the risks you're taking, the stress, the putting your life on hold for assignments — you have to ask yourself, is it really worth it?

It's hard to know what to do. When you've made a name for yourself as being a freelance cameraperson, producer, reporter you think, "OK, I'll do this for another year. I can get by." But the truth is that although I manage to pay my bills and pay my rent, I have no savings at all. I don't want to be living like this for the rest of my life.

What happens if I get sick? I've got no pension plan. I haven't got a partner so I don't have emotional security either. I'm starting to realise now that if something were to happen to me, if I were to step on a landmine or get some weird illness — God knows how many tropical insects I've been bitten by — I would be in deep trouble. So I can't go on forever like this, and I certainly don't want to be in this situation when I'm 50.

I'm therefore, trying to wean myself off war. It's just too ugly, but more importantly I've realised I'm not ready to die. I think once you start worrying about dying, then that's what's going to happen. It's too easy to slip up, or make a wrong judgement, or end up going to a war zone that has a bullet with your name on it. Anyway, I believe this is really a young person's game.

I'm not religious. I don't go to meetings of support networks. I don't have a dependency. I haven't turned to drugs or alcohol. But I do think that every man or woman in this job does have a breaking point. And, right now my feelings of loneliness and resentment have been aggravated because of how freelancers are treated by some media companies.

A couple of weeks ago a production company asked me to work on a new documentary. It wasn't a high-risk story, and I wanted to do it. So I started doing the research and psychologically preparing myself for the trip. I didn't hear from the company, so after a few days I rang them to find out what was going on. They hadn't even had the courtesy to tell me that the shoot had been cancelled. I found that was very disrespectful and disheartening.

It feels like it's OK for me to go to a war zone; it's OK for me to go undercover to a country where my life could be in danger or I could be arrested; it's OK for me to take all these incredible risks but then when it comes to getting help or some kind of acknowledgement, there's not that support or guidance around.

I've applied for jobs with various networks, but it seems as if editors look at my CV and think 'loose cannon; she's never going to sit in front of the computer for eight hours'. I suppose they have a point, but I know I would be prepared to do it. I've also been engaged twice. They were great guys, but both times I saw my life becoming boring and predictable. They just wanted to get married and have kids. But, you know what? Maybe that's not such a bad thing.