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Olly Lambert on filmmaking in conflict zones

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17 January 2014

Olly Lambert, the director of the award-winning Channel 4 doc Syria: Across the Lines, on filmmaking in areas of conflict
 
"The hardest thing about making Syria: Across the Lines wasn’t bombs or bullets, but the isolation. I had people around me, but witnessing what people can do to each other was a profoundly lonely experience.
 
"It was the fear of falling short that woke me early every morning, rather than the physical dangers.  I could never believe that my little camera and I could ever do justice to the complex tragedy around me.
 
"As a filmmaker, I am not remotely interested in war or conflict. War is usually very dull, and at best slightly comic, and then occasionally painful and tragic. What I am interested in is how ordinary people’s lives are affected by vast, external events.
 
"All my films tend to focus on ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. They’re kind of the opposite of freak shows – I like to think that they feature beautifully ordinary people caught up in freakish environments or bizarre situations. 
 
"There is one scene in the film in which a double air strike kills almost 20 people and leaves many more injured. In the aftermath, I briefly filmed a family of refugees packing up their semi-demolished house, probably half deaf from the sound of the blast they just escaped. They were trying to work out whether to take the mop or not, and a little boy is upset because his flip-flops don’t match. I really regret not following that family in their search for refuge. I am not interested in the bomb. I am interested in how people can pick up the pieces of a life and carry on living.
 
"We are all story-consuming machines – it’s in our DNA to listen to them. And that’s an instinct for filmmakers to play with.
 
"I’m drawn to complex stories, but they easily overwhelm me. I’m always telling myself to simplify the story to allow the complexity to make sense.

"I look for the tiniest window with the biggest view, the smallest story about the biggest subject. Without that I feel very lost, and I think the audience does, too.

"Finding the right characters is instinctive, not scientific. It’s that gut feeling you get at a party when you meet someone who interests you. Do you like them? Are you interested in their life and, more than that, do you want to find out what happens to them?
 
"You need to have a quick mind, but slow feet. Chasing a story rarely works. The trick is to stay calm in the right place, and let the story play out around you.
 
"First and foremost, I’m a storyteller.  The directing, the journalism and camerawork all come after that. The Syria film was about the rise of sectarianism in Syria, but it begins like a simple fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a young man called Ahmed.



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