Friday, February 4, 2011

Meet Your Maker: Simon Moule

Australia has a long and excellent tradition of documentary filmmakers, camera people and photographers working in war zones and war-torn countries.

You could say, in terms of journalistic practice, it’s what we excel at…

Think of Roger East and the ‘Balibo Five’ who sadly gave their lives for their work in East Timor; in the 1970s; journalists Neil Davis, Mark Davis, Michael Ware, Ben Knight, Jill Jolliffe, (on occasion) filmmaker David Bradbury and TV programs 4 Corners (ABC) and Foreign Correspondent (SBS) – only the start of a very long list of programs and people who have previously made it their business to bring us confronting, truthful information and images of war, from all over the world, with sound reliability.

These images and stories are usually reserved for 'traditional' viewing platforms ie cinema screens, tv screens, inside books, not so often art galleries, any more, anyway…

That’s about to change at Stockroom.

In 2007-08 Melbourne filmmaker Simon Moule found himself in Afghanistan, working on a television documentary series as a "shooting producer/director" for a British production company.

Between filming he snapped a few pictures of his own. ‘Incidental Images - Afghanistan’ is a collection of still images and video he took of the beautiful and confronting things he saw there.

“It is not what you have seen in magazines and on tv,” stresses Simon about the exhibition. “This is more a ‘backstage pass’. It is the day-to-day, the mundane, the obscure, the beautiful and the sometimes shocking reality of life in a war zone.”

The show is in two parts: a collection of 60 photos of ‘everyday life’ and ‘behind-the-scenes’ in a military base in Afghanistan, and, a video installation. The video work comprises of split-screen video clips running simultaneously.

Former art school grad turns filmmaker… Simon Moule (right) sheds some light on what he found in Afghanistan and how it changed his view of the world.

Stockroom: How did you find yourself in Afghanistan?

Simon Moule: I had previously done some freelance work (shooting and directing a gangster-focused documentary series, ‘MacIntyre’s Underworld’) for a producer, who was commissioned to make a series about frontline medics in Afghanistan.

He called me and asked if I would be interested in working on it. I had always been staunchly anti-war (especially in regards to Afghanistan) so I jumped at the chance to go and see for myself. The second time I went, a production company called me having seen the first series and asked if I would go again to make a series about the military base in Kandahar.

SR: What did you find when you first got there - what was your very first overwhelming impression or feeling?

SM: Well, it was a surreal introduction to Afghanistan in that I flew in with the British military. They have a fairly confronting way of entering a war zone in that they turn all the aeroplane’s lights off, climb to an un-attackable height, and when they are above the landing area they perform a ‘corkscrew’ maneuver and descend as quickly as possible. That was pretty crazy.

On arriving however, the thing that first hit me was the overwhelming heat. It was about 45 degrees and stifling. You cannot drink enough water to keep up with the sweat. Once in the ‘arrivals’ area we were then briefed on a few procedures including what to do in the (fairly regular) event of a rocket attack. A military guy read a piece of paper, that he has read a thousand times, in a monotone drone, instructing us to ‘put on your body armor and helmet and lie face down on the ground as quickly as possible and await the all-clear siren.’ All in all, it was a fairly confronting experience.

SR: Had you been in an ‘official’ war environment before? And did it change you being there?

SM: I had not been in a war zone before but had been in some confronting situations before with the gangster stuff. I had also done a week of hostile environment training in preparation for Afghanistan but needless to say, witnessing some of the things I did, had an effect on me. When I returned home I didn’t have any trauma counseling but maybe I should have.

SR: Being in a war environment, how were you able to “snap” personal pictures – was it difficult to arrange?

SM: As I was there to film, with pre-arranged military clearance ‘to secret’ as they very militarily called it, access wasn’t a problem. In fact we were the first (and to my knowledge the only) film crew that could freely wander about with a camera.

Most of the time I was filming for the documentary so the snaps I got are more like what you might take on a holiday rather than photo journalistic stuff. I snapped a few here and there when I could or when I had put the video camera down for the day. Any of the real ‘war-y’ stuff I had to film so the photos are more ‘behind the scenes’ type stuff.

SR: Were people wary of cameras – especially soldiers – or were they grateful to have the reality depicted – a voice given to the situation?

SM: The military is kinda funny. Although I’m sure there were people that didn’t want to be filmed, because their commanding officers had "okayed" the doc and briefed the soldiers about us being there, they were obediently, extremely accommodating.

As with any documentary you get a feel for who wants to be on camera and then more importantly, who works well on camera and then tend to leave the other, not so willing people alone.

There were of course some things and some people that couldn’t be filmed. Special forces guys (or beardy weirdies as I came to know them) were definitely off limits as were Afghan translators. Devices used as defense against attacks and the screens that showed what the unmanned aircraft (predator and reaper) could see, were also taboo. The military were worried that if those pictures got into enemy hands then they could figure out a way around them.

Otherwise everyone I filmed was keen to tell his or her story. Most people felt that the public didn’t know anything about the realities they were facing and indeed felt as if their efforts were of little interest to the people at home so were happy to be involved.

SR: As a documentarian, do you have a particular approach?

SM: Gee. I don’t know. I guess I just listen. Listen and keep an eye out for anything interesting that may be about to happen. Asking an annoying amount of questions helps too.

SR: How would you describe your new show ‘Incidental Images’ as in what is it about? How many different works are in it – and what kind?

SM: Incidental Images – Afghanistan, is a collection of images I managed to snap while working in Afghanistan. It is not what you have seen in magazines and on tv. It is more a backstage pass. It is the day-to-day, the mundane, the obscure, the beautiful and the sometimes-shocking reality of life in a war zone.

The show is comprised of two parts; a collection of about 60 photos of ‘behind the scenes’ and everyday life in a military base in Afghanistan as well as a video installation. The video work is a split-screen of two video clips that run simultaneously for about 13 mins. On the left of screen is a sequence I shot from a Chinook helicopter, of some of the astonishingly beautiful landscapes of Afghanistan. The footage on the right of screen is an un-edited tape (that I sneakily copied before handing it over to the production company) of an experience that particularly affected me, where we fly in a med-evac helicopter to collect two British soldiers after they have driven over a roadside bomb. It is an exploration of beauty and horror and the relationship between the two.

SR: Have you shown any of these images before? Or is this the first time?

SM: This will be the first time I have shown the images to anyone bar a handful of friends.. The video has had a couple of seconds used in the doc series but has never before been shown in its entirety.

SR: What kind of reactions to the work in ‘Incidental Images’ are you hoping people will have?

SM: I hope people are surprised, informed, tickled, saddened and appalled.

SR: Did you learn anything about yourself – or anything else you might like to share – when you were in Afghanistan and taking these photos?

SM: I learned many, many things from my experiences in Afghanistan. Many of those things would be better suited to the pages of a political, anti-war novel than to the walls of a gallery.

Some of these things you can learn by typing ‘Afghanistan profiteering’ or ‘soldiers post traumatic stress disorder’ or ‘Afghanistan land mines’ into Google...

But one thing I learned about myself and indeed humans on the whole is that we are extremely adaptable. If we are thrown into a situation (a teenager into battle, me into a helicopter or an Afghan farmer into crushing poverty and unwanted occupation) it doesn’t take long for it to become familiar and manageable and even normal.

I’m not suggesting it is without (often dire) consequences but it is interesting to find that flying at tree-top height in a helicopter doing 200kph, taking enemy fire and evacuating a kid with a bullet hole in his chest can become ‘just another day at the office’.

'Incidental Images - Afghanistan' shows at Stockroom 19 March - 10 April, 2011.

Opening: 4.30pm - 7pm, Saturday March 19.

Stockroom, 98 Piper Street, Kyneton, (03) 5422 3215.

Words: Megan Spencer. Thanks to Simon Moule for the interview & images.