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Courage Under Fire Award: Reality Warriors--Jonathan Stack and James Brabazon

By Michael Rose

From Jonathan Stack and James Brabazon's <em>Liberia: An Uncivil War</em> . Photo: Michael Kamber. Courtesy of Discovery Times Channel

"In this nation of ours, the final political decisions rest with the people. And the people,so that they may make up their minds, must be given the facts, even in time of war, or perhaps especially in time of war."

-Paul Scott Mowrer,
Editor, Chicago Daily News

Their dispatches have whipped up patriotic fervor, brought down governments, stopped wars and soothed worried mothers. Their exploits have made best-selling memoirs, reshaped history and spawned epic films.

From William Howard Russell in Crimea, to Matthew Brady at Bull Run, to Edward R. Murrow in London, to David Halberstam in Vietnam, to Peter Arnett in Baghdad, the war correspondent has been a mythical, courageous figure who shines the light where the military censors and the powerful demand darkness. Recognizing the importance of bringing the truth about war to light, the International Documentary Association created a special award to honor the work of documentary filmmakers who have demonstrated "Courage Under Fire."

The award is given only when the IDA feels that there is a particularly brave effort resulting in an important work. In this current war climate, the Awards Committee was moved by the story of a conflict that hadn't commanded the front pages. While most of the world focused on the merits of the US-led invasion of Iraq, carried out to topple an "evil dictator," a conflict to oust a warlord president was tearing Liberia apart. Ironically, the United States chose to stand by as Liberia's citizens pleaded for America's help, had invaded Iraq without such a plea from its people.

This year's Courage Under Fire honorees waded in as a battle for control of the country was building during the summer of 2003. Two-time Academy Award nominee and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Jonathan Stack joined award-winning photojournalist James Brabazon to create Liberia: An Uncivil War for Discovery Times Channel, a film that uncovers the story behind the fierce struggle for Liberia's future.

Stack had spent years documenting African-American culture--in gangs, in bands and in prisons--before he made the journey to Liberia, a country that was "made" in America. In October 2002, he teamed up with Brabazon, who had already spent three months with Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the rebel army of Liberians who were attempting to overthrow the government of then-President Charles Taylor.

It was the first time Stack had filmed in a war zone, but he feels his experience with problem-solving helped guide him. So did learning to stay calm under fire, which he ascribes to his nature. "I tend to get calmer when things are crazier," he writes in an interview conducted by e-mail.

Validating John Lennon's view that life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans, Stack and Brabazon began their project during the production of an episode of the Travel Channel series called World's Most Dangerous Places. Stack was convinced that the situation in Liberia was a bigger story. He wanted to get Brabazon on board. "He is both smart and funny--two qualities you really appreciate when working under tough circumstances," says Stack.

In addition, Brabazon had already filmed with the LURD rebels and had earned their trust and confidence after many weeks of living with them in the forest. "I took the same risks as they, walked as many miles as they did, and was subject to the same privations," he recalls in an e-mail. "After experiencing battle with them, they saw that I was willing to risk my life to document their lives."

Brabazon's access gave the filmmakers the rebel's side of the story. Stack's challenge was to create the same access on the government side. "Access is gained by offering the subject," Stack explains. "In this case, a man indicted for war crimes, something he wants; trust is earned by delivering on the promise of what you've offered."

Stack told Taylor that he wanted to chronicle this period of Liberian history, to make a film that was not news and not biased. Taylor opened the doors for Stack, while Brabazon kept him posted of LURD army movements.

Brabazon's training as a photojournalist and filmmaker prepared him to capture the human dimension of the fighting. War demands flexibility, and Stack was thrust into the role of cameraman after his cameraman went home. He'd never videotaped before, but he had no choice; he had to shoot or abandon the story.

The results of the filmmakers' combined efforts are remarkable. We're transfixed by the fly-on-the-wall view as Taylor and his associates discuss their plans, and we crosscut to the rebels readying for the assault on the capitol. The story unfolds as the two sides move inexorably toward the final conflict. It is a fate that the United States is being asked to help forestall. The US Ambassador echoes Washington's position that it will do nothing until Taylor leaves the country, while Taylor refuses to leave until United Nations peacekeepers arrive. Rumors that the Catch-22 stalemate has been broken and that "help is on the way" send Liberians pouring into the streets. They rejoice because they believe that the US is finally sending troops to restore order. Instead, they're met by Taylor's security forces and told to go back home.

Liberians feel they share a special relationship with the United States, one that dates back to the early 19th century, when Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society (ACS), which sought to relocate free American blacks to Africa. The ACS was both altruistic and racist. Some of its members believed that blacks would never achieve equality in the United States and would be better off in their own nation. Others hoped the move would strengthen slavery and help keep the United States a purely white country. In 1822, the first blacks arrived in what would later be called Monrovia, soon to be Liberia's capital.

Stack and Brabazon show us that this dream has devolved into violence, to the point where child soldiers roam the streets and a decaying infrastructure contributes to the misery of its two million citizens. We sense that Brabazon sympathizes with the LURD.

"It is natural for people who are constantly exposed together to the likelihood of imminent death to form unusually close bonds," Brabazon admits. Yet he was also horrified by some of the actions he filmed, including "summary executions and even ritual cannibalism." This predicament created a complex array of feelings for him. "It is hard to be sympathetic to someone who commits murder, and it is hard not to be sympathetic to someone who has lost their best friend in combat that day--even if that someone is the same person," he maintains.

The filmmakers give us an unflinching view of young boys and girls shooting automatic weapons and soldiers mutilating bodies as they march 300 miles from their encampment toward Monrovia. All the while, the people wait for America to come to the rescue.

Stack and Brabazon were afforded unprecedented access, but they never lose their objectivity. They provide a clear window for us to watch a tragedy unfold. Liberia: An Uncivil War is a reminder of why it is so important for documentary makers to sometimes risk everything to bring back the hidden stories of people consumed by conflicts.

As Brabazon states, "I think that their voices need to be heard so that we can be informed and learn from them."


Michael Rose is a writer/producer/director and member of the board of directors of the IDA.