Media: Swindle mag 30-September-2005

Review: Swindle Magazine, Issue


The last time Brian Liu was in Afghanistan, he made a metal stencil with the word “Disarm,” giving it to local cops and children to spray it on the burnt-out tanks and walls of Kabul. At first, his translator was uneasy about doing the graffiti. “He didn’t want to get arrested. So we actually went to the police station and woke up the police chief,” Brian recalls. “It was very much a Jabba the Hut kind of situation. The guards shook him and woke the guy up. He straightened himself up and put his hat on, and he was like, “What, what? Yeah, it’s fine!” It was funny.

The footage was used in the title sequence of Disarm, a documentary about the global issue of landmines. Mary Wareham, a member of Jody Williams’ 1997 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), conceived and produced the film. Brian was an old friend of Mary’s, and through his design agency Toolbox DC he had done graphic work for the ICBL. She brought him into the fold early on as creative director, “just for advice, and to do the graphics, and maybe some still photography,” Brian says.

Some people say control freaks make the best film directors. Brian fits that bill, in that he is a meticulous perfectionist when it comes to work. When he tagged along with Mary to help interview prospective directors, Brian concluded that none of the candidates were appropriate for the job – so she suggested that he be the director.

Mary’s proposal frightened him. “I was nervous as hell,” he recalls. But he thought hard about it. He obsessively watched directors’ commentaries on films like Dark Days, the DJ Shadow-scored documentary about a subterranean community in Manhattan, in which filmmaker Marc Singer lived underground with his subjects for two years. He loved Spike Jonze’s atypical documentaries What’s Up Fatlip and Amarillo by Morning, and mulled over films by Jim Jarmusch, Michael Moore, and Wim Wenders. He accepted the job two weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin.

Mary started Next Step Productions expressly to raise funds for Disarm. She made it a non-profit to ensure that money could be generated with nonpolitical or financial agenda. They wanted complete creative freedom.

Mary is from New Zealand, and Brian is Chinese-American. The film’s editor is Icelandic, and their main field soundman was a Belgian expat living in Cambodia who had twice been a victim of anti-vehicle mines in Africa. With its intentionally multinational crew, Disarm approached the landmines issue from a global perspective.

Money came in from various governments: Canada, the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway. Conspicuously absent from the list was the U.S. Along with superpowers Russia and China, the U.S. is one of 41 nations that have not signed the ICBL’s anti-landmine treaty to date. With the third largest stockpile of mines in the world, the U.S. is the only NATO member absent from the agreement. To seek money from the U.S. State Department “would have been seen as hypocritical,” Brian says.

Filming for Disarm began in September 2003 in Bangkok at the annual diplomatic conference of the treaty banning landmines. The finished product was screened one year later at the Nairobi Summit on a Mine-Free World, the first review conference of the ICBL’s mine ban treaty.

It was a hectic schedule. Ten months of production and five months of post-production. Footage was shot in Afghanistan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Russia, Thailand and the U.S.

Conceived and produced as it was by a member of the ICBL for educational purposes, Disarm can be considered an advocacy film. A certain style is typically expected of a documentary like this: authoritative narration, a clear objective, and a firm point of view. Disarm has none of that. Scored by members of Fugazi, with help from Múm, Thievery Corporation, and the Flaming Lips, the film has a slow-burning aesthetic that is more art-rock than National Geographic. There is no narrator and hardly any text. With little didactic guidance, the images have the complex power of the best photojournalism, ambiguous and multi-layered in a way that forces the audience to interpret on its own.

Brian describes the film as “vibe-based.” Instead of instructing the viewer, Disarm dwells on the silent pall that hangs over communities living in mine-infested land. The film lingers on transient moments when people faze into the camera or reveal flashes of emotions: a boy on crutches laughing and playing, a Colombian mine victim sobbing after he speaks at a Town Hall meeting, an Afghan woman looking down in shame as she shows her prosthetic leg to the camera.

“My secondary message was for the film to explore a social aspect,” Brian says. “It’s much more about ‘we’re all in this together,’ with ‘this’ being very vague–not really specifically about landmines. Because right now more than ever on the United States, there’s an attitude of ‘you’re either with us or against us. You’re either here or you’re there. You’re either us or you’re them.’ That’s fucked up. Everybody is just trying to live their life as best they can. Some people find themselves threatened; some people find themselves the threat.”

The Iraq sequence is especially unusual. Iraqis arrive en masse at a picnic site, joyously clapping and dancing to loud music blasting from their car radios. Only brief shots of a woman handing out educational flyers on landmine safety suggest that the site is a partially cleared mine field. The subtle pacing and ambiguity is a departure from the Iraq shown in the U.S.’s mainstream media. It shows the humanity of Iraqis celebrating and getting on with life in the midst of a war.

Citing Jim Nachtway, one of his photojournalist heroes, Brian says, “For this kind of work, it’s not about being afraid, it’s how to manage your fear.” But while shooting man-on-the-street interviews in the Iraqi city of Erbil-footage that didn’t make the final cut of Disarm-Brian felt truly scared for the first time.

“We were aggressively doing street interviews in Iraq. I went into the city alone, with no soundman, and noone else except for two bodyguards who were armed to the teeth. They gave me the rules: Always keep your back to the building, so you can see 9out; don’t stand in one location for more than 10 minutes at a time; don’t let the vehicle out of your site because someone will put a bomb under it. I’m pretty good in bad situations, but I was nervous. I was always looking at rooftops, because information travels quickly. If some guy sees you, they’re going to run across the roof and tell another guy and before long, ‘bang bang.’

Landmines are psychological weapons, eroding people’s sense of security. As a deminer in one of the teasers for the film puts it, “[When] you see the mine, the fear comes. As they say, ‘the soul hides.’”

In Bosnia, Brian’s audio technician was a local man who had lived through the war. He had been infected by the landmine-induced terror. “He was all ready to do the job,” Brian recalls. “We go to the edge of the minefield, and he stopped and said, ‘I can’t go. I’m afraid. I hope you don’t think badly of me.’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You just spent three years under siege. You’re living in Sarajevo. Shit is flying everywhere, you’re funning between containers to go to the punk rock show, you don’t have food, you don’t have cigarettes, you’ll smoke anything you can get, there are snipers everywhere, and you’re telling me you’re afraid to go into this cleared minefield?’ ‘Yes.’”

Scenes from Afghanistan fade into Colombia, then bleed into Belarus. Rather than being confusing, this is unifying. The film meditates on the universal cycle of war and peace, in which the line between “good” and “bad” is not so clear. For instance deminers featured in the film are former soldiers who are now clearing away the weapons they themselves buried during the conflict.

“What is considered ethical can change over time,” Brian says. “We wanted people to understand that there is no wrong or right. It’s more of a continual question of ‘what is civil in warfare?’ There was a time when walking across the battlefield shoulder to shoulder and shooting straight ahead at each other was considered civil. There was a time when mustard gas was dropped. We dropped the nuclear bomb, you know?”

Mary’s celebrity in the world of demining ensured access to the minefields. But once there, her diplomatic status could actually make things challenging. “Mary is considered one of the architects of ICBL. Because of that, she was the perfect executive producer. She could get the funding, and she got all the doors open. The only occasional hindrance was, when she was in the field, the demining teams were aggressively by the book. It was often difficult to get anything interesting on film. Standard Operating Procedures, S.O.P.’s-say you’re not supposed to be closer than 30 meters from a working deminer. And there’s a reason for that. Some of these mines have a 30-meter kill radius. If Mary Wareham or any member of the team is injured, that’s the end of all the funding for that particular demining agency. That’s the way they looked at it. They watched their words, too, because there’s a lot of politics in demining, like any other NGO (non-governmental organization).”

Added to this. Brian felt that landmines themselves didn’t necessarily translate info compelling filmmaking. “The whole nature of demining or planting mines or any of it is not exciting. It’s just this thing that sits in the ground. How am I supposed to intelligently and cinematically show mine fields. Do I just pan an empty field and go ‘watch out!’?”

He came up with the idea of attaching a helmet camera to deminers, even though “they’re technically not supposed to have anything attached to them to distract them from their work. I lover that we got that thing to work, because it puts you first-person.”

The most gripping demining footage was shot in Afghanistan. Brian says, Mary had to leave, so she wasn’t with us for most of the Afghan shoots. The teams eventually said, ‘Look, you’re obviously into something different. You’re not like the rest of the media. You’re actually really interested. So, sign here, and you sign your life away.’ And these guys let me get very, very close. When it was just me and the soundman, we were just smoking cigarettes and drinking tea in the minefields with these guys for days for days. That’s why a lot of the footage was so compelling. The highlight for my entire process was getting to know this issue through the eyes of the people that were affected, rather than reading about it, and getting the diplomatic approach.”

Brian’s philosophy of life and work is tied to his Washington, D.C. roots. Born and raised in the D.C. area, He moves in the city’s niche world of independent music and art-the flipside of the capital’s political scene.

“I love this city. You have to make and effort to understand the beauty of living in this town,” he says. “D.C. is very conservative and extremely transient. People don’t usually invest any sort of soul into this town. You’re here for X number of reasons: politics, international business, law, or journalism. You’re here for maybe four years and then you’re out. So where does that leave the people who live here? It’s interesting, because the most successful modern musicians to come out of D.C. have been Fugazi and Thievery Corporation. Both of them own their own record labels, both of them are fiercely independent. That says something about this town and the people that are actually trying to do something here.”

Brian’s first “real” job was working at the Peace Corps director’s office. Sill in college, he went to volunteer, but got hired at the headquarters instead. “It opened my eyes to the ‘industry’ of humanitarianism, and the darker parts of D.C. It was a valuable experience, but it was a government job. It sucked.” After five years at the Peace Corps, he “woke up and realized how much I hated my life. I hated my job so much because I realized I wasn’t inspired at all.”

At 24, Brian walked away from his 401K and vowed to “never work for anybody again.” Inspired by Ion, a now-defunct Washington D.C. design firm started by members of indie rock bands Edsel and Tuscadero, Brian launched his own creative agency. He named it Toolbox DC.

As an artist living in a political town, Brian is weary of aligning himself too distinctly with one political point of view. He prefers to dwell on complexities. In a town of black and whites, he revels in the grays.

Brian’s appreciation for ambiguities and his mixture of dogged work ethic and outsider/punk attitude made him the perfect creative foil to Mary Wareham. She was an internationally connected anti-landmine activist with explicit political and diplomatic biases. Brian was the wild-card creative guy with no clear affiliations.

“We were a very good complementary team,” Brian says. “She had a great idea, got all the doors open, and she was a great field producer, Incredible. The faith that the donors had in her-the creative license and the complete trust-she put on me. I can’t even tell you. For somebody to trust me with a project like this is an amazing thing.”

Disarm is now on the film festival circuit, whether it will snag a theatrical release is yet to be seen. “It’s difficult to get any sort of attention for an advocacy film,” says Brian. “I wasn’t hoping for anything other than to build something I was proud of, that made Mary [proud, that the campaigners were happy with, and the deminers were happy with,” Brian says. “I wasn’t on a specific warpath to push this cause, but I wanted to do them justice: the deminers, the victims, the people that risked themselves for me, whether it was professionally or life-and-limb.

“This project, for me personally, is a culmination of everything I have ever done, and everything I have ever learned. It’s great to be able to wrap your soul around something. To use what we know how to do for something worthy that might make a difference.”

By Anne Keehn.

Photos by Brian Liu, Rob Myers

Illustration by Josh Cochran

© Swindle Magazine