On the frontline of history

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A chance encounter in 2010 between two South Africans, producer Markus
Davies and multi-award winning war journalist Adil Bradlow, resulted in the first
production in the world to be filmed with the United States Marines during
combat in the final stages of the battle in Afghanistan.

Before production could start on what is now known as Battleground
Afghanistan, a five-part, 48-minute documentary television series, Davies
travelled around the world three times, pitched the programme 68 times and
had to deal with extreme bureaucracy before the Pentagon would grant him and
his crew permission to film the Marines in combat and at their most vulnerable.

“I lived and breathed this story for two years,’ says Davies who was committed
to bring the Marines’ point of view to the world.

With no income and with very little chances of breaking through endless red
tape, Davies soldiered on while his core team Adil Bradlow (DOP), Hamilton
“Tony’ Wende (story producer), J.J. van Rensburg (post supervisor), Richard
Starkey (editor), Stef Albertyn (final mix) and Jahn Beukes (original score) had
other projects on the go but were on standby for Battleground Afghanistan.

Bradlow says: “This was the first time combat video blended with documentary
style camera work and as this was a new realm it grabbed National
Geographic’s attention.’

Then things finally fell into place and production commenced with Captain Ben
Middendorf (winner of the Alan Paton Award for best soldier in the USA) and his
men of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines.

Eight months later the footage was ready to be broadcast on National
Geographic and the documentary series has screened worldwide to critical
acclaim with record viewership.

“The chance that we would get to make this was one percent,’ says Davies.
“But even if you only have that, don’t give up. We managed to capture a part of
history.’

Into Hemland province

The whole team met in Doha for a five-day pre-production workshop and then
Bradlow, Wende, William Bonnett and Travis Ervin flew to Kabul and from there
by military flight to Camp Leatherneck.

Ironically, the team was put with the 2/5 Marines, which is the same unit that is
featured in Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s movie about the battle for Hue
City in Vietnam.

On arrival, Bradlow and Wende were told that they were going out with their
company of Marines into a very “kinetic’ (i.e. lots of shooting) operation for 17
days into Helmand province.

“This entailed two 50-year-old guys walking through some of the most
dangerous and inhospitable territory in Afghanistan with a company of young,
highly energetic, fit Marines,’ says Wende. “In the end it turned out to be a 15-
day op because some huge dust storms made it impossible for the helicopters to
take off, but still it was a very challenging experience, but very rewarding
too.’

After four weeks back in South Africa, Wende and Bradlow returned to
Leatherneck to film the Marines again and this time they went out on a very
kinetic three-day op, which also entailed walking all the way through parts of
Helmand province, coming under fire frequently from the Taliban. As a result,
these two trips gave them plenty of real action from which to make the series.

Wende continues: “My main responsibility was to keep finding the story lines
and to keep focusing on what was happening, how it was unfolding and where
the stories might go as the days went by, especially when we were out on
operations with the Marines.

“I kept detailed, but ultimately very scruffy, sweat-stained, notebooks of what
happened, so that when we came to editing the series I had a very clear
chronological record of the operations.’

He also collected maps and got detailed descriptions of the operations – after
they were over – from Captain Middendorf, Lieutenant Neal Jones and
Lieutenant Dave Marshall. “All of this information was invaluable when we
started scripting and editing in Cape Town,’says Wende.

An honest portrayal

Wende says the stories developed on their own. “The trick with this kind of
series is to get loads of footage and to keep asking the Marines a very simple
question on camera: “what’s happening now?’’

According to Wende the Marines are all incredibly articulate and willing to share
their thoughts and feelings, so he and Bradlow managed to get them to tell the
story mostly in their own words. Of course some narration was necessary in the
end to carry the story for the audience, as they could only broadcast less than
five hours of what were days and days of real time footage.

“There was no scripting, no expectations of what should or should not happen.
We simply filmed what we saw and asked questions about what was taking
place, so as Corporal Unis said in some interviews in the States when the series
first came out, “The series really shows an honest portrait of the modern day
infantryman, and what he goes through on a daily basis.’’

Wende says: “Our approach was very simple: to allow them to be themselves
and let them get used to us as things went along. Going on kinetic missions was
way beyond our comfort zone, but Adil and I have both covered numerous wars
in Africa and other parts of the world, and we just did it without thinking or
agonising over it too much. The reaction from them was sceptical at first but we
held our own and got the stories and I believe earned the respect of the
Marines in doing it.

Extraordinary discipline and humanity

“They were just amazing guys, doing an incredibly hard job with a high degree
of discipline and humanity. War is war and it is awful, but the discipline and
traditions of the Marine Corps is an extraordinary thing to witness.’

No one in the company got killed or seriously wounded on the operations they
went on and Wende attributes this to the excellent planning and execution of
the operations by Captain Middendorf and to the discipline of his officers and
men.

“By way of comparison – more people were killed in 10 minutes at Marikana
close to Rustenburg in August last year than were killed by 2/5 in the weeks
that we went on operations in Helmand; and they were accompanied by Harrier
jets, helicopters, C-130 Spectre gunships, tanks and high explosive artillery, and
they were being shot at many times a day by their enemies,’ comments Wende.

Discipline, adherence to the Rules of Engagement and restraint were the things
that struck him most about the Marines.

The odyssey

“It was very scary, very physically challenging and exhausting,’ he recalls. “Ben
Middendorf said to me before we went out on the first 15-day op that it was
going to be a physical, mental and spiritual odyssey and he was right.’

Wende remembers the constant state of dehydration, lack of sleep and low-
level anxiety that would suddenly morph into active terror from time to time
when they were attacked. “We flew into a place called Keshmeshkahn on the
first op and landed in a poppy field at about 03:00 and we watched as the
second wave of helicopters were shot at by the Taliban with RPGs.

“Then we walked until dawn and took shelter in a compound. At daylight the
Taliban started working out exactly where we were and when we stepped out
we were ambushed and trapped under fire in another poppy field.’

The bullets were literally zinging over their heads and the Marines were
struggling to identify where the firing was coming from.

Wende mentions, “We were at a serious and dangerous tactical disadvantage
for about an hour lying trapped under hostile fire.

“The Taliban were firing at us from a bunker built during the days of the Soviet
invasion and it was only when Middendorf brought in a couple of tanks that they
managed to dislodge our attackers. That was only in the first 24 hours and we
had 14 more days of that ahead of us!’

Wende concludes: “One of the best moments was some few days into the 15
day op when Sergeant Bryan Barrow looked at an exhausted Adil and myself
and said; “Wow, you guys can really hang!’ That’s when I knew we had done
okay, earned the guys’ respect and were going to make a great series.’

Battleground Afghanistan has been broadcast in 155 countries in 38 languages
reaching 550 million households to date. The series is still being aired globally.

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