Filming in hostile environments
If you're planning on filming in a conflict zone or hostile environment, there are several factors you need to take into consideration. From initial research to staying safe in the field, Emma Norton explains all...
Before embarking on filming in a conflict zone or hostile environment, the first thing that must be discussed is whether travel to the area is essential and whether the trip is necessary and proportionate to any risks being undertaken. Conflict zones are by their very nature dangerous, so it is paramount that you weigh up the risks and benefits of going into such an area, where the lives of you and your crew could be put at risk.
If you decide that filming in a conflict zone is necessary and feasible, then the next step should be to carefully research the area to which you are intending to travel. It may be a useful to consult journalists, NGOs or other filmmakers who have recent experience of visiting your target area.
It is absolutely vital to make sure you and your crew are properly insured for your trip. Think about insurance as soon as possible, depending on the risk of the area you want to travel to, it may take a good deal of time to get approval from your insurance company and you may need to meet a set of regulations or rules.
You will normally have to speak to insurance brokers; an average travel insurance company will be unlikely to cover your travel to a conflict zone. And be prepared, the bill will likely be high, but proper insurance is a vital expense.
Contacts and itinerary
You should create a thorough itinerary detailing how you will be travelling, where you will be staying and factoring in important logistical information like distances to hospitals and medical centres, which locations can provide electricity for charging satellite phones, cameras and other essential equipment, lists of emergency contacts and maps of every area your crew will be visiting. It is also important to create contingency plans, to be implemented if something were to go wrong.
It may also be useful to draw up a system for making contact and checking in with your crew. For example, crew should get in contact with a member of the production team in their country of origin or at a safe base within the country of filming approximately every three hours (if possible). This can help to ensure that the crew are all well and accounted for. Every three hours might sound excessive but when the bullets are flying over your head and bombs are going off nearby it is nice to remember that people know where you are at all times.
Think carefully about emergency procedures also - if something were to go wrong, how would a message be sent out? What steps would you take in event of a major injury, kidnap situation or other crisis? Most broadcasters and insurance companies require you to have these procedures all written out on paper.
Consider who you will take with you in your crew. Do they have previous experience working in hostile environments, conflict or war zones? If not, it would be prudent to ensure each member undertakes a training course to prepare them for working in dangerous environments - on average a course which lasts four to six days will cost around $2,500. This is a considerable expense, but if something were to go wrong in the field then it will be money well spent for a crew who has recent training in first aid, emergency management and security protocols. Indeed, in some circumstances, such training could even mean the difference between life and death.
Ensure that you have emergency details of all crew, contact telephone numbers for next of kin, blood type and any known allergies in case emergency medical treatment is required.
It will normally be necessary to secure an experienced fixer who has detailed local knowledge of the area in which you are travelling and filming. This person’s role may well be absolutely crucial, serving as your guide, your translator and can help you to stay safe and secure in an unknown location. Depending on your situation, you may also want to employ a security advisor who has had experience working in the country or location you will be filming in, or in very similar situations. Make sure they know what they are in for though, if you are under cover then they ought to know in order to make their own decisions on whether they want to take this risk. Also remember you will have a certain care of duty for them, working with you might present them with dangers they are not accustomed to.
Passports and paperwork
If your crew have more than one passport, then you should consider which one they should travel on. Check the stamps in each passport from previous trips which may raise questions or cause problems for you at border checks or airports. For example, if you are attempting to enter Israel to film in the West Bank then you will need to ensure that you do not have certain stamps from countries such as Lebanon, Syria or Iran.
In certain countries, visas and permits can be difficult to obtain as journalists or filmmakers, even more so if you are an independent filmmaker rather than part of an established international production company or broadcaster.
Consider the purposes of your trip – are you travelling under the cover of tourism while actually aiming to film for journalistic purposes? If so, you will have to ensure that your passport does not say that you are a journalist. You will also need to consider your online profile – does a basic Google or social media search reveal that you are a journalist or filmmaker? If so, travelling under the guise of tourism would be risky. Think very carefully before undertaking deception of the authorities – such a risk should only be undertaken if absolutely necessary, and pay attention that it may void any insurance policies that you are taking out for the trip. Again, it is wise here to speak to fellow filmmakers or broadcast journalists who have undertaken this sort of trip as they could advice you on anything from custom made filming equipment to the perfect fixer.
It is important to ensure your crew has specialist equipment necessary for the conflict zone which they are entering. Most conflict or war zones will require crew to wear body armour (flak jackets) which can be clearly marked with their status as members of the press. Such labelling does not ensure immunity from attacks, but can often help to keep you and your team safe in certain situations. In recent years though some nations have seen an influx against violence against journalists so make sure you do your research and make no assumptions.
All crew should have first aid kids with them. Depending on the severity of conflict in your location, these should include tourniquets and clotting agents to stop major bleeds. Get acquainted with every part of your first aid kit, where it is located and how you use it. This can help save precious time in the event of an emergency.
Satellite phones are useful to aid communication in difficult or remote territory, or when government (or other) forces have made cross-border communications impossible. Radios and mobile phones are also important to have with you. Some filmmakers choose to wear tracking devices with panic buttons in areas with a kidnap threat so that you have the option to discretely raise the alarm and notify your location to an emergency contact.
Finally, think about the weight and durability of your film equipment. Lightweight and hardy is what you want! If your camera operators cannot run with their equipment, then you may find yourself in trouble. You will need to have good mobility so that, in case of emergency, you can move to safety without abandoning your film equipment.
In the field
When it comes to advice on what to do when you are in the field, a lot is dependent upon the nature of your trip, where you are going, who you are taking and the potential risks you face.
In general however, it is important to follow basic the principles of planning, preparation, vigilance and professionalism. You and your crew must work together to carefully retrieve the necessary information for your story while working to avoid unnecessary risk and danger.
As mentioned above, stay alert, stay connected with a base which can monitor your progress and help to ensure your safety by keeping track of your location. Use tools such as social media and on the ground information to inform you of news and local developments.
Last year, more journalists died in the line of duty than at any other point since records began - so it is important to be prepared to abandon a shoot if the risks of filming become greater than the benefits