'Darfur' team was on front lines

Insurance woes, surveillance, airlift exit all part of Sudan shoot

One thing filmmaker Ted Braun never got used to was the surveillance.

Braun, in Sudan making his documentary "Darfur Now" for Warner Independent Pictures and Participant Prods., expected phone calls and e-mails to be monitored. After all, he and his small crew were in a war zone. But he never really knew how closely he was being monitored until he stuck his watch — which has an altimeter — out of his hotel window in the capital Khartoum to get an altitude reading.

"Within two minutes, the phone rang and it was the police," Braun said. "They said, 'You don't have a permit to film out the window like that without somebody with you, what are you doing with that device?!' Two minutes later!"

At least surveillance meant that you were relatively safe under the watchful eye of government agents. Surveillance meant that armed nomads wouldn't take you on a one-way trip to a crowded local market, or that you weren't going to have to be airlifted out because in the shifting sands of warfare you suddenly found yourself on the front line.

In fact, Braun and his crew did have to be airlifted out while filming "Darfur." The film tracks six individuals connected to the mass killings in Darfur — a humanitarian aid worker, a tribal leader, a female rebel soldier, an activist from Southern California, actor Don Cheadle and a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court — from three continents in a attempt to bring to life the actions of people who are trying to resolve the tribal and ethnic conflict that sees the government and nomadic militia known as the Janjaweed fighting rebel forces.

The airlift incident took place after the production had overcome the mountainous obstacles of getting there in the first place.

One of the hardest parts of making the film was obtaining permission to get into the war-torn African country. Because the U.S. has an embargo against the country — with all trade activities overseen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control — the production could barely use its own money and relied on nongovernmental agencies for things like lodging.

Getting insurance and bonding was another headache. "Crash" producer Cathy Schulman, making her first docu, was told time and again that her movie was uninsurable. She dealt with many international carriers and subcarriers before getting AON, a risk-management and reinsurance company, on board. It wasn't cheap.

"The single largest line item in the budget was the insurance," Schulman said.

On the flip side, the production also needed to obtain permission from the Sudanese government to enter the country through its capital and then secure travel and photo permits in order to film outside the city. The permits had to be approved by such offices as the Ministry of the Interior, Military Intelligence, National Security and the Humanitarian Affairs Commission, all of which would be tracking the crew. That was on top of the "minders" the crew found themselves saddled with during much of their three- to four-month shoot.

"At any given time, there were six different agencies keeping track of what we were doing," Braun said.

That still didn't prevent so-called misunderstandings like the one that occurred when a camera, filming a "beauty" shot along a dusty road, accidentally pointed at the local police commissioner's office. The result: the arrival of a truckload of officers bearing AK-47s and a trip to headquarters.

Braun was about three-quarters of the way done with the shoot when it got real hairy. Just as the crew was going to film in rebel territory, they discovered that the road they were on — the only road into the territory — had become an open war zone. The crew's security consultant, hired from Omnis, recommended an extraction, something that had been planned for if safety was ever in jeopardy.

Schulman and Braun, who because of the surveillance learned to talk in code, discussed it. The filmmaking heart in them wanted to stay; if they left, there was a good chance that they would not be let back in and would not finish the movie. Extraction also was going to be expensive and cause a delay in the delivery of the film.

But the mind won out. Safety first.

A private airplane flew in and got the crew out and back to the U.S. Almost a month later, Braun and his team returned for more filming.

"I thought (making this film) was going to be a side job while I would do other things," Schulman said before using a skiing analogy. "It turned out to be the triple black diamond of all documentaries."