Mary Wareham, Washington DC, May 2005
Since I started working with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1996, I've seen a lot of films on the mine problem and efforts to address it, but none that really moved me. As global director of the campaign's research wing, I've worked hard to increase our power to document this issue, but at the same time I'd come to fear that the campaign is becoming too smart. Speaking in acronyms and through 1,300-page reports and a multitude of fact sheets has placed us in danger of losing our audience. I didn't want the creative and financial burden of making a film on behalf of the ICBL or about the ICBL, so I decided to make one in my own name that showed my views on what the major challenges are in the battle against landmines.
With no experience in filmmaking, I read a couple of books recommended on amazon.com and talked to some experienced friends before drafting a budget proposal. When I emailed the project proposal to the ambassador of a government I've worked with closely for years, he wrote back 15 seconds later to say, 'this sounds like a great idea. I'll see what I can do.' His government came through with funds, as did four others who recognized the potential of this project and trusted me to shepherd it through to an on-time completion. None of them placed any requirements on the creative or political aspects of the film, however. With some pro-bono legal assistance, I established a non-profit, Next Step Productions, to accept the funds and we started filming.
It has helped that I was part of the core team that received the Nobel Peace Prize back in 1997. The co-recipient of the prize that year was supervisor at the time, Jody Williams, who fished me out of New Zealand to come help her with the campaign as it entered the most critical period of its short life. Since receiving the prize, Jody has used her newfound status to speak out about more than just mines, to draw attention to broader issues of conflict, economic injustice, and social inequalities. I knew Jody would be essential to help the film address critical issues confronting the world right now, which are of course not limited to landmines.
I knew I wanted to make a global film in keeping with the scope of my work, the problem, and the international treaty banning mines. To show the mine problem has not disappeared, we returned to Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina to interviewing deminers and aid workers, mine victims and families living with this and many other problems. To highlight the rise in landmine use by rebel groups using mines, we tackled the equally worrisome mine problem in Burma, Colombia, and Iraq. To look at the root of the issue, we entered warehouses stacked with thousands of mines in a Belarussian location some seventy miles from Chernobyl. To show the continued resistance to the mine ban we interviewed Chinese diplomats and others, most notably the United States. By chance, we caught the Bush administration's first policy announcement on landmines during one of the few times we were actually home in Washington DC.
The end result is a film that defies conventional notions of filmmaking: we show 'both' sides, but my views against mines ultimately define the nature of the film.
Brian Liu, Washington DC, July 2005
Longtime friend Mary Wareham originally contacted me to consult as the creative director for her film concept. Despite residing in the midst of Washington DC's hotbed of documentary filmmakers, I eventually fell into the roles of Director and Director of Photography.
Never having done a feature documentary before, especially one on such a relevant and sensitive topic, it was very important to me that the style accurately reflect and respect the content. In order to avoid any ties to hidden agendas, political, financial, organizational or otherwise, we set up a separate non-profit outside of the official landmine ban campaign to produce the film.
I have been a photojournalist and designer since 1989 and was beginning to experiment with video. As a still photographer, I have always felt that videographers and their crews were overly intrusive and stripped a recorded moment of its soul. With Disarm, I searched for any way to combat this and let my largest insecurities and hesitations with the medium push me even harder. I attempted to create something visually compelling, an artistic statement, an appropriate environment and a vibe or mood; getting to know the complexities of a disarmament issue through an emulation of experiences, rather than just basic information regurgitation. Acknowledging the risks, we focused on making a memorable advocacy documentary of a different sort.... something less obvious and less academic.
My secondary message for Disarm is one of sociological exploration. In this time and place, more now than ever, there is a sickening abundance of social separation. There should be no differentiation between, "here" and "there," or "us" and "them." I wanted to show that we are all people, that we are all in "this" together, trying to live our lives as best as we can.
Rather than taking a predictable approach, focusing on the landmine as a weapon and the obvious evils therein, I felt that it would be more thought provoking and appropriate to take a quiet and reflective approach. Showing something horrifying in a beautiful context is much more intellectually engaging than simple facts and figures. Seeing and hearing the demining experience first person through a helmet camera evokes more emotional impact than providing a lesson in demining. Disarm takes a broader look at landmines, using them as a basis to analyze the lifecycles of weapons and their use, and the constant evolving debate of what is considered civil and humane in warfare. Rather than approach the demining sequence simply as a man prodding dangerous ground, Disarm reveals the desperate attempt of a country’s post-conflict return to normality. Rather than a standard victim portrayal, Disarm shows the socio-economic implications of being a victim.
This project gave me an opportunity to express myself creatively, collaborate with my visionary team at ToolboxDC, and produce a unique product for something worthy that might make a difference. It also represented the integration of everything I have ever done professionally, from photography, design, graffiti and music to government, international issues, and conflict resolution.
Ultimately, I sought to create a product which raised more questions than it answered. This humanitarian problem does not disappear when the TV is turned off. I owe a great deal to Mary Wareham for trusting my creative vision, to the people who gave us unprecedented access to locations enabling us to obtain never-before-seen footage, and especially to those who kept us safe on location. Hopefully, we did this cause some justice...