Award Winning Documentarian Rachel Beth Anderson on Filming in Conflict Zones

Rachel Beth Anderson is a cinematographer-turned-director who has spent her career working almost exclusively in conflict zones. She was recently awarded the cinematography award for a U.S. documentary at Sundance, along with Ross Kaufman, for her work on E-Team, which followed a group of four Human Rights Watch workers documenting war crimes around the world.

Along with filming in SyriaAnderson has worked in Libya, Afghanistan, Turkey, South Sudan, Egypt and Nepal. She's shot footage for CNN's Hero’s, and was in Cairo during the 2011 revolution for PBS's Frontline documentaries.

A calm moment during the revolution when Friday midday prayer began in Tahrir Square. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

Her footage from Egypt is also included in multiple long form documentaries, including two for PBS (Before the Spring: After the Fall, and a followup doc in 2013 on Egypt's current state post revolution), BBC’s This World, Egypt – Children of the Revolution, and two independent films, Zero-Silence and Uprising.

Jan 29th Cairo, Egypt. A reminder of the prior days fight of tear gas and molotov cocktails as the opposition took over Tahrir Square from Mubarak's police force. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

Anderson recently made her directorial debut feature documentary, First To Fall, which she filmed during a seven month journey spanning the Libyan revolution. First to Fall tells the story of two young friends, Hamid and Tarek, who left Canada to return to their homeland and fight against Muammar Gaddafi. Having never fired a gun before, Hamid and Tarek join the revolution nonetheless.

The rebels dug-in on the western frontline on the outskirts of Misrata to protect the fighters and hide their artillery. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

Anderson has lately been traveling with First to Fall to film festivals in Western Europe. Her film had its UK premiere at the Human Rights Film Festival in London and won two awards at the prestigious French investigative reporting film festival, FIGRA. First to Fall also showed in Italy, at the Cinemazero Film Festival, which features investigative films—it screened as part of a tribue to Ilaria Alpi, a journalist killed twenty years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia.

We spoke to Anderson about how she went from growing up in North Dakota, without attending film school, to becoming a documentarian working almost exclusively in conflict zones across the globe.

Rachel Beth Anderson

Let’s start with E-Team, which follows these four members of the 'Emergencies Team' whose job is to go into some of the most dangerous places on Earth and investigate allegations of humans rights abuses. How'd you get involved?

I was in Libya working on First to Fall, and I met the director and cinematographer of E-Team, Ross Kauffman, while he was filming one of the Human Rights Workers there. Apparently his producer had been calling all of these male cinematographers based in New York, and their wives and their families were like, ‘No, you’re not going.’ So they called me, and I was extremely excited because I already loved Human Rights Watch and the work that they do. I desperately wanted to do something in Syria.

Where in Syria did you go?

The first time we went in, we crossed over the Turkish border in Idlib Province, and then the other trips were in the Aleppo Province. When I say 'cross,' that means smuggle ourselves across. It means driving a car that breaks down four times and then somebody tells you to run, and you get out and you sprint across a field and jump over some barbed wire.

A child sleeps under the weapons stored in a FSA neighborhood headquarters in the countryside of Idlib, Syria. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

With all your equipment?

You could only bring what you could carry on your back, so I was carefully picking and choosing my lenses and equipment. If you forget something you’re screwed, because there isn’t a store up the street where you can get a charger. I had my DOMKE bag with a couple of lenses and a little backpack with my laptop and a Nexus (wireless charger), in case there was a power outage. You also had to carry whatever food you wanted to bring in and the clothes you were going to wear.

What was the danger of you getting caught?

If the Turkish border guards don’t know you, or why you’re crossing, they could shoot you.

At this point in your career you'd already spent months at a time in conflict zones, but I imagine this was still a terrifying prospect.

The craziest thing for me was that we didn’t even know if we were going to cross into Syria at the time. It was all kind of up in the air, and somewhere deep down in the gut, I was like, ‘Maybe we’ll just stay in Turkey?’ Because it’s intimidating no matter how many times you do this, it’s just this unknown, and frankly it sounds crazy to run into a war zone. But then we got the okay that we were going to cross. So we packed, with the plan of crossing the border at three in the morning. I slept for like an hour.

An FSA guard stands outside a checkpoint in the countryside of Idlib, Syria.

When you finally got to the spot where you had to sprint towards the barbwire fence separating Turkey and Syria, you were filming the whole time, right?

I had this tiny little flip camera, because it’s so hard to find a good point-and-shoot for low light—this is definitely not the best technology, but I’m also a poor freelancer so that was all I had. I used this little Kodak camera, and my thought was that because the sun was just beginning to show (it was dawn by the time we finally got to our jump off spot), just as magic hour was happening, that I'd run next to our crew so that you could see their shadow as we all ran towards the fence. I didn’t care how jerky the footage was going to be—I was just holding the camera at my hip as I ran, with the crew and Human Rights Watch workers running right beside me.

How’d you go from having little to no filmmaking experiencing to shooting in these hotspots all across the world?

It was all an accident. I went to school for broadcast journalism and I was supposed to be on camera, an on scene reporter or an anchorwoman. I wasn’t satisfied with it, because I felt like I wasn’t able to tell the whole story. I grew up in North Dakota, and everything is pretty easy-going and not terribly diverse. Then I spent a summer in Egypt before I graduated on a Fulbright program to learn foreign correspondence and conversational Arabic. I was there for three months and I absolutely fell in love with the region because it was so completely opposite to anything I had ever experienced in my life. So I bought a camera and I just started shooting and teaching myself how to shoot. Eventually that led to me trying to find any way to get out of the Midwest and to get back to Egypt.

Filming the burnt out former Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo.

For your upcoming Libya film, First To Fall, what surprised you most about filming there during the revolution?

I think it was that it was just a different type of conflict to cover, because journalists were a precious commodity, and the Libyans understood very quickly how important it was to have people capturing what was going on and getting it out to the rest of the world, so Gaddafi would stop slaughtering people.

So the work of journalists there could also help generate support and to get supplies?

Exactly. Especially in the very beginning, it was very important. The Libyans did everything for free—usually war is very expensive; drivers are expensive, food is expensive, places to stay are expensive. In Libya, you could stay in a lot of the hotels for free. The drivers wouldn’t let you pay. Fixers wouldn’t take money from The New York Times, The New Yorker, BBC. They refused. Eventually they got paid after the war was over, but at the time, nobody wanted anything. When I found my characters, they were also my drivers and fixers. They became brothers in a way, and eventually I got kicked out of a hotel I was living in Misrata and I had to move in with these guys.

Prior to the war, guns were not a normality in the society, but soon they became household fixtures. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

Why were you kicked out?

Because I was a 26 and alone, and coming and going at all hours of the day and night. In that part of the world, the day doesn’t really start until three in the afternoon and ends at three in the morning. I was following the rhythm of my guys. That’s when they would pick me up and drop me off.  I think they thought I was sleeping with everybody because why else would a young, blond, 26-year-old be in a war zone? So they kicked me out.

Filming a former Gaddafi home after NATO bombed the compound inside of Tripoli, Libya.

What did you do?

I moved in with one of my main characters and his friends, and never once felt worried about my personal safety because they took care of me. I just became a fly on the wall; they would keep me around so much that eventually the guys on the frontline asked for them to quit bringing me out to the frontline because I was ruining the Jihadi mood.

Hamid, one of the main characters in the film, concentrates during his commute out to the frontline. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

How so?

In Jihad, or in the war, to die in Islam, to die as a martyr, you had to be thinking pure thoughts and be in the war.

A fighter grasps a doctors arm inside a field hospital on the western frontline of Misrata. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

What was like it being a woman documentarian there?

They took care of me, but it was hard. There were times when they would just drop me off at the field hospitals because they were too scared to bring me to these places they were fighting. When it was really hot some days on the frontline they would say, ‘Sorry, this is as far as you’re going today.’ I would spend the day with the doctors and the nurses and watch every ambulance come in, terrified that they were going to open the ambulance door and it was going to be one of my guys or somebody that I knew. You already see enough horrible things when you spend time in a field hospital, but seeing somebody that you know—that would’ve been a nightmare. 

There were many desperate days when the field hospitals beds were always full. Here a fighter watches as his friend is treated for battle wounds in a Misrata field hospital. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

Is this what you want to do with your career?

I don’t just want to do conflict, but I’m interested in places that are under covered. The reason I went to Libya was because I found the story and everyone else was leaving. There was a group of freelancers and people that would come back and forth, but there wasn’t anyone following one particular story. After Tim Hetherington died, it was just such a loss to the journalism and filmmaking community. I never met him, but I met so many people that have been influenced by him in other ways, that it’s kind of mind-blowing that one person could do that.

How often do you think about those realities?

Of course it crosses your mind. I’ve lost friends. In Syria, my friend Marie Colvin was killed, and she always used to say that doing this job is like being in a casino and the longer the spend on the floor, the house always wins.

One Egyptian man holds a sign for the outside world to see exactly what the protestors in Egypt felt they wanted at that time…many thought have changed now with hindsight. Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.