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Be Careful What You Wish For: Doc on Natural Disasters Finds Its Drama in Sumatra

By Jeff Swimmer

Jeff Swimmer in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a week after the December 26 tsunami. Swimmer was producer on a National Geographic Channel 'Explorer' segment about natural disasters that is scheduled to air in May. Photos: Jeff Streich

As every freelance producer knows, work can be a real grab bag. Shows and shoots can range from the tawdry to the sublime, and the silly to the serious. And very occasionally, one finds oneself on a story that is drenched in drama, even history-making. The following, for me, was one of those rare moments.

Christmas 2004. I'm in the final shooting stages of a show I'm producing for cable about natural disasters. I'd gone far and wide in search of places that are keenly threatened by natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. My crew and I had been to Istanbul, Turkey; Naples, Italy; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

All that was left to shoot was a segment on a threat that seemed far more abstract than the others. I'd done a lot of research about these kinds of disasters, but the more I learned about them, the more remote and implausible they seemed. Tsunamis. Even the word sounded more fanciful than menacing.

I had set up a shoot to go to Japan, the bulls-eye for some 60 percent of all tsunamis on Earth. There I would meet tsunami engineers who were building seawalls along vulnerable coastlines, and speak to those who had survived tsunamis in past decades. I would study their complex warning system, and return home and try to tell the story of people who are bracing for something awful. It would be about readiness and preparation. And often distant, hazy memories by survivors.

I had some trepidation about how we would be able to bring some genuine drama to this story about such seemingly hypothetical events.

But on December 26, just as I was about to lock down all our locations and interviewees for the Japan shoot, I began getting phone calls from friends, relatives and members of my production team. A 9.0 earthquake in South Asia...huge tsunamis...thousands dead...Shouldn't we drop Japan and go to the scene of such epic destruction? The decision was a unanimous "Yes."

We spent the next several days scrambling for visas to get into the very dangerous Aceh Province in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, the tsunami's ground zero. The province is one of the most seismically--and politically--volatile parts of the world: A multi-pronged armed rebellion had killed thousands over the years.

The tsunami happened on a Sunday. After days of being scrutinized up and down, and outright begging, on that Thursday the Indonesian Embassy finally came through with our visas. We got visas for myself, my associate producer, my shooter and an American tsunami scientist whom we wanted to film as he surveyed the damage.

Setting up the shoot was a logistical nightmare. What we feared most was that the total collapse of what passed for civil society there could unleash the furies of the raging armies. So we knew we had to plan for just about any eventuality. And time was critical. We needed to hire two full-time bodyguards to get us safely past rebel roadblocks, a cook--since we'd have to bring all our food--a translator/fixer, a mechanic for quick roadside fixes and drivers for each of our three vans. One van would be for us, a second for food and supplies and the third for lugging giant vats of gasoline. The latter was effectively a mobile bomb, and it scared us to pieces to think of driving near it. But our fixer assured us that its driver was well-compensated, and knew the risks.

Our first stop, in the Sumatran capital of Medan, was deceptively calm. All the flights to Banda Aceh, the Acehnese capital, were booked with relief planes and visiting foreign leaders, and there was no way we could get there by air. So all 12 of us piled into our vans and headed north up to "Banda,"at Sumatra's tip. It's a 300-mile drive but it would take us a day and a half. Constant roadblocks set up by rebels slowed us down terribly. With guns over their shoulders, road blockers coerced passing cars to "contribute to the mosque" in the area, and non-payment looked very dangerous.

After a few hours of traveling, we began to see terrible destruction. Houses and stores and boats flattened, mobile medical units and heavily armed MPs everywhere, mosques turned into refugee camps. The landscape was flat, and overbuilt along the water--a deadly combination. What really amazed us was that for the tsunami waves to get where we were, they had to somehow wrap all the way around the Sumatran landmass. Even with that massive impediment, destruction was horrific all around, and residents told us there were bodies everywhere.

But we couldn't know how puny this destruction was compared to what we'd later find.

We could have made it all the way to Banda Aceh that night, but our guards said it was too dangerous to drive in the dark. So we stayed overnight in something that passed for an Acehnese motel, though I don't think any of us slept. Crime and rebel action were rampant in this town, Lokseumawe. Our guards slept with our gear in the parking lot. It was too dangerous to go look for food in the town, so they made us sandwiches and passed them through our hotel room doors.

The next day we arrived in Banda Aceh, Ground Zero. It looked like a scene from World War II, perhaps Dresden after nights of firebombing. Within minutes we found bodies. First one, then another, and a few more, until we couldn't count anymore and certainly couldn't process what we were looking at. Over the next week we'd see hundreds and hundreds more. Rubble piles stood 15 feet and higher, with bodies wedged in them everywhere.

Nearly every person we met, almost without fail, lost family members, and they wandered around looking for some sign of them. A futile effort.

For myself and the crew, covered with gauze masks to fight the death stench, we fought back tears constantly, with only some success. The stories people told us of watching family members pulled from their arms, ripped our hearts out too. We initially felt awful being there with cameras, instead of helping. But we quickly realized that the relief effort needed far more than a few extra pairs of hands. Also, most residents wanted us to record their stories, to share their plight with the world. We realized filming them was in some ways the most useful thing we could do.

Most of our interviewees asked us to be filmed. Though many wailed and cried throughout much of their interviews, we hoped we were doing something that in some abstract way could be helpful. But it didn't make our pain go away. They were by far the most grueling interviews I've ever done, and for days this was all we did.

The hardest part was leaving Banda Aceh. I felt a numbing pain as we boarded the plane to take off back to the Land of Plenty. We all felt sick to our stomachs, knowing the awfulness we were leaving behind. We had their stories on tape, and we'd try to share them with the world. But it wasn't even close to enough. They'd have to try to piece their lives back together, to make some sense of what happened to them. And we'd go and try to make the movie.


Jeff Swimmer is an IDA Board Member and a duPont Award-winning director and producer of documentary films on both sides of the Atlantic.