Rachel Beth Anderson, a Sundance Award-winning cinematographer, has filmed around the world in several conflict zones, including Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Turkey, and South Sudan, for PBS’s Frontline, the Sixth Annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute, Human Rights Watch, and the independent feature documentary E-Team. Her directorial debut, First To Fall, was borne of a seven-month journey spanning the Libyan civil war.
Living and working as a journalist in Cairo, Rachel worked as a cinematographer and field producer for PBS’ Frontline during the 2011 Egyptian revolution and 2013 coup, as well as for Gigi’s Revolution, The Brothers, and Egypt in Crisis. Her footage from the uprising is also included in multiple longform documentaries, including the BBC’s This World, Egypt – Children of the Revolution and PBS’ Before the Spring: After the Fall. (Press materials)
First to Fall will play at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 17 and 18.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
RBA: Two young friends abandon their peaceful lives as students in Canada for a war in their homeland of Libya. Hamid (26) and Tarek (21) have never fired a gun, but in 2011 they run recklessly toward the frontlines, fueled by their hatred of Muammar Gaddafi and their desire to be a part of history.
Once they arrive, their paths diverge. Hamid blazes ahead with fearless enthusiasm, and with a camera in hand he is invited to film the front lines by rebel forces, easily fitting in with the boyish camaraderie on the battlefield. Tarek’s journey is more difficult, introspective and unsure, consistently plagued by obstacles. He fights relentlessly against his destiny, ignoring all warnings that suggest his single-minded ambition to reach the frontline may have tragic consequences.
For eight months, I documented raw moments of personal and breathtakingly dangerous acts of war and sacrifice as Hamid and Tarek joined the rebels taking on Gaddafi’s army. The film captures the chaos and giddiness of revolution, the brutal loss of lives and innocence, and a deeply intimate view charting the young men’s descent into war as they discover who they are and what they are capable of. In Tarek’s words, “The end of the story is different than what I thought.”
W&H: What drew you to this story?
RBA: I had been living and working in Cairo as a journalist prior to the Arab Spring. When the Egyptian uprising began in 2011, I found myself filming my own friends as they turned from everyday civilians into revolutionaries. The world as they had known it was quickly consumed by protests, tear gas, and risking their own livelihoods for hope of a better future. I was fascinated by how quickly they rose to this “call to action,” never wavering as danger increased, until the dictator was removed and they were celebrating what they felt was a victory.
It seemed natural to me that I should cover the next country, which happened to be Libya, where everyday people were rising up. Following the youth in Libya was an entirely different experience than in Egypt, because they weren’t just battling tear gas, but were up against Gaddafi’s army, which had turned its guns on its own people. Specifically, I found myself fascinated by stories like my main protagonists’, Libyan expatriates Hamid and Tarek, who were young men my age, studying at university like I did, living a free and comfortable life. They felt it was their personal duty to give up everything, travel thousands of miles, and go to war as untrained soldiers.
I didn’t know where these young men would end up, but felt compelled to follow them as they attempted to achieve their goal of becoming a soldier on the frontline. I had thought that Libya would be similar in length to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, lasting only a few weeks, but as cities across the country turned into active frontlines, the few weeks turned into eight months. I stayed for the majority of the war because, as the fight waged on and the news cycle changed, this meant journalists were sent elsewhere, but people were dying and the civilian struggle wasn’t over. I knew there needed to be a visual document of the transformation of Libya and the young men who were fighting.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
RBA: Where to begin? To start, I didn’t have all the equipment I now use when I’m in the field, and that caused a few logistical issues. For instance, only having three working memory cards, there were days I would be filming on the frontline while simultaneously transferring footage from my computer (left inside a rebel car) onto hard drives so I wouldn’t miss a moment with my guys on camera. Another complicated challenge was finding a way to capture the day-to-day events in my characters’ lives while staying safe. Trust with my characters was the most important element in the process.
At certain times in Libya, I had no choice but to depend on them to provide food, put a roof over my head, and to be my ear to the ground, as they were my main sources on the current situation on the ground. What made the trust work was respect, as they knew I was taking a risk just being in Libya, and they protected me like a sister. But the most challenging part was that in spending almost every waking moment with one of my characters, it became incredibly tiresome to keep shooting, as your mind is constantly analyzing each passing moment: Should you be filming and doing your job, or do you sometimes need to turn off the camera and just be a friend?
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
RBA: Trust your instincts. It is hard when you’re surrounded by a lot of strong opinions in a male-dominated industry to stick to your guns, but in the end you’re the one who has to live with the final product. It is your name attached to every frame, and the message of your film.
One thing I had to deal with during the entire process of making the film was avoiding being put into the story. There is nothing wrong with the filmmaker becoming an element in their film, but I feel it has to add to the overall purpose of the storytelling. I felt that if my image, or even my voice, alluded to my presence behind the camera, it would’ve altered the immersive experience of this particular film. In this instance, I’m incredibly happy I trusted my gut and allowed Hamid and Tarek to tell their own story.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
RBA: It’s not necessarily a misconception, but people always have a hard time putting together the fact that I’m originally from North Dakota but found myself in the middle of the Libyan revolution and continue to travel to conflict zones. For me, it isn’t about the excitement and the adrenaline of the situation, but about the combination of feeding my own curiosity while contributing to a worldwide dialogue. I’ve now found myself addicted to the tangible aspects of storytelling and how my images have the potential to become a catalyst for expanding knowledge and societal change.
W&H: Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?
RBA: This is something I’m currently diving into, as there are so many amazing films that exist but fewer and fewer slots available for broadcast. I’ve started looking into more options for independent distribution such as VHX, which will allow pre-sales and provide “extras” to help audiences get involved in a more personal way to your film.