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Published by DV.com magazine, June 15, 2010
By Iain Stasukevich
In October of 2008, the BBC News Web site published a story detailing a NATO-Afghan initiative against the Taliban-friendly opium trade in Afghanistan. The story included a map of the country, color-coded to indicate the level of security risk and dotted with markers pinpointing the provinces involved in illegal drug manufacturing. The whole southeastern region of the country was swathed in red, indicating the most extreme level of risk, with the biggest marker on the map - suggesting a total of 103,590 hectares (roughly 256,000 acres) of illegal opium production - resting directly over the extremely risky southern Helmand province. This is not what you would call the safest place in the world for a civilian, a notion that no doubt crossed the mind of videographer Thierry Humeau (seen below) as he first set foot on the desert's cracked and brittle surface. Luckily, he'd have some backup on this mission.
Helmand is also home to the U.S.M.C combat outpost "Camp Leatherneck". Roughly the size of a small city - 20,000 U.S. soldiers strong - Leatherneck is the base of operations for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, aka MEB-Afghanistan aka Task Force Leatherneck, and is responsible for supplying and training the thousands of additional soldiers stationed across the southern province. Humeau was on assignment for National Geographic Explorer to document the daily lives of these soldiers at rest, at play, at war.
"National Geographic is a peaceful organization, and we were careful that we didn't pay too much attention to the military itself - we didn't want to get into the politics of war or create a kind of recruiting film for the Marines," Humeau explains.
Accompanied by a two-producer team and a sound op/camera assist, Humeau equipped himself with the Sony XDCAM PDW-F800 and PMW-EX1 camcorders. He'd seen war before, during a short assignment in Sarajevo, but it was nothing like this: one week on base, five weeks in the desert with embedded with active field patrols. They busied themselves for the first week recording the sometimes-mundane logistics associated with daily base operations: training, shipping, receiving, building and repairing. For a while, the greatest dangers to Humeau and the crew were environmental in nature in the form of heat and dust. Particularly dust.
"In some parts of the desert, the ground is covered with something like a thick crust and when it breaks it releases the soft, volatile layer of 'moon' dust beneath, Humeau explains. "Sometimes it gets all the way up to the knee, and then it settles into every corner of the gear. I tried used rain covers but these were not very practical and I stopped using them. At least the disc door on the F800 has a tight seal, so at the end of every day there was zero dust in the disc compartment.
"The lenses are another story," Humeau adds. "Eventually, I just stopped cleaning them. At least the dirt on the lens gives you a sense of how rough the environment really is." Despite the relative safety of a U.S. military base, every once in awhile the man-made dangers of the ongoing conflict threatened to spill over the perimeter. "We were filming a convoy of trucks bringing supplies from Pakistan," Humeau says. "The trucks have to go through a screening process at the checkpoint before they can enter the base. We were filming that for the better part of the day. Two days later, at that same checkpoint, a suicide bomber posing as a truck driver blew himself up. At least one Marine was killed and a good 20 people were injured."
Life outside the camp proved to be as hard as anyone might expect. There's little shelter from the harsh conditions, air transportation between the forward operating bases and the remote combat outposts doesn't come easy, and the danger quotient is substantially larger. On the ground, Humeau and his team traveled in MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles and were outfitted with custom armored ceramic vests and Kevlar helmets. The vest was stiff and heavy - around 50 lb. - and the helmet with its goggles made operating with the cameras' viewfinder frustratingly difficult.
For their part, the Marines were more than welcoming. Humeau recalls: "They're very happy to have you along, but you're on your own. They'll fight for you, but you can't whine or complain. We had a nice relationship with our unit, Fox Company. At night we'd hang out. They were really nice, just a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old kids. The commander was maybe 24-years-old and responsible for maybe 100 soldiers."
Humeau started his days as early as possible because "either things happen early in the morning or late at night. That's when people are out, because it gets so hot in the day." His primary camera was the F800 (in deference to NatGeo's HD standards), which offered him up to 100 minutes of high-quality MPEG-2 video on 50GB discs. (He used 16GB SxS media for the EX1.) The F800's extended dynamic range also allowed him to shoot his subjects against the sun without blowing out the background. When he wanted to get up close and personal, he used the EX1 with a Sony 0.8x wide angle adapter. "It can be challenging," he says. "Like the time I was following these guys through a field while they were looking for IEDs. I'm right behind them with the EX1 and I have to be careful about where I step and at the same time watch what I'm shooting."
Footage was sent out every week via FedEx after the files were backed up to eight 500GB hard drives. At the end of the six weeks, Humeau had filled up 40 50GB XDCAM discs and 10 16GB SxS cards. "I'll never turn back from file-based shooting," he remarks. "Imagine having to back up all those tapes every day."
Somewhere in all that data is the difference between the real Afghanistan and the one people see on the nightly news. "This was my whole motivation for coming here," says Humeau. "To reveal the human side of the war. It puts everything in perspective."
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