The view from a Baghdad bunker

April is the cruellest month……

1st April, 2008, Baghdad

On the 1st of April 2008, I found myself hunkered-down in a bunker in Baghdad during a rocket attack, with my friend Scotty Lee, the founder of Spirit of Soccer, a charity who are known as “football’s very own special forces” for their humanitarian work in war-zones.

All that I can remember about that particular incident is that – even though we didn’t think it at the time – it was a close call.

And that the joke certainly was on us that “April fools day”

Scotty Lee in a Baghdad bunker

I can remember feeling the jet streams of rockets and mortars passing over-our heads and then the terrifying booms and echoes from explosions, impacting on concrete and human targets close-by.

And then just like now – in a different kind of war-zone – the sound of ambulance sirens.

Un-exploded Ordinance or UXO

But then what were a football coach and film-maker doing in Baghdad under siege in the first place?

Even if we were stuck in a siege, at least we had the choice of being there – unlike the locals – and even some of the mercenaries (or “security contractors” as they’re known in corporate speak) whom we’d got to know and shared our fear with, while laying on the floor of the barracks canteen, as the bombs and rockets came raining down from Sadr City.

On another occasion – and the only time I broke my own rule and went out without a camera – we found ourselves in probably the worst place you could be during a rocket attack:

A fuel dump in Baghdad’s green-zone, close to the insurgents real target for their rockets which were – for the most part – falling short: The American Embassy compound

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US Special forces apparently

We soon lost count of the rocket and mortar attacks and eventually managed to get out of Baghdad and Iraq. And as well as coming away with some great and very human footage of a war as a filmmaker, I’d also learnt – as a human – that you never beat or really overcome your fear – no matter what the likes of “Eastenders” actor-turned-war-hack Ross Kemp might say or “daring-do” – but instead, you end-up learning to live-with and respect fear.

Even if you do end up joking about it in ways that are politically in-correct.

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A message from Baghdad

And even though films by aging, white, male filmmakers, about white, middle-aged men doing something useful and important in war-zones, are a tough-sell in an increasingly feminized and ageist documentary scene, I’ve been returning to the Middle-East – whenever I have the resources – to film with Scotty Lee and the Spirit of Soccer, on a story about Men, War and football, that I’ve been filming since we first met in Bosnia in the 1990’s called: Minefield

In June last year, I also reached what’s often considered a landmark as a cancer patient: My 5 year check-up, only to be told that in the case of thyroid cancers, the medics like to continue monitoring you for a further 5 years.

My “Onc-Doc” – a decent, kind and wizened man, whose dedicated his life and probably his death to the NHS – said that I shouldn’t see this as a negative thing, but more as an opportunity for a yearly health check. Which I guess was reassuring in some ways, as well as being an important and poignant reminder of what the NHS is there for:

To look after us all from the cradle to the grave.

I’d also reached what I thought was the end of a 5 year cycle of near-daily filming on another project – an existential surf trip, that’s related to my cancer called: Legacy of an Invisible bullet.

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Artwork by Halfdan Pisket from: Legacy of an Invisible bullet

Its been a film-making process which has involved turning my camera’s gaze around onto my own life and world; Which in itself has been a challenge for someone whose become as desensitized as I’ve become over-time, and whose hidden behind a camera and observed the world.

To some extent this film-making has – like all creativity is in the end – been a form of occupational therapy. But then it’s also been an opportunity to record, rant and talk directly about the state of things, as well as an opportunity to re-connect with an archive of films, words, ideas and images that have obsessed me since my teenage years.

The “content” of which – a term which I hate – would otherwise because of the way that documentaries are being made now and who gets to make them – have just disappeared into the fog of time, or – once I can no longer afford the rent on a storage room in Glasgow – a land-fill site .

Artwork by Halfdan Pisket from a work in progress

And so at the start of a year that’s turned into something that none of us expected now, I had hoped that the time was right to make sense of that period of my film-making. Resolve it, find closure and also set about dealing with all the other “unfinished business” I have on projects I care about like Minefield. Even if in doing so it means pissing people off and never getting to make another film again.

From the outset Legacy of an Invisible bullet was never going to be yet another (boring) formatted TV documentary about cancer. In fact I’m not entirely sure it’s a documentary in the current sense, but instead more of a kind of “Poor cinema” that’s been made with the same punk/DiY spirit of my early work as a video artist, and using whatever resources I happen to have available.

From a motivational perspective too – let alone a professional one – the last thing I’ve ever wanted to make is one of those “cancer journey” films, while I’m also not really a huge fan of short films – Even though Legacy of an Invisible Bullet will be made up of in the region of 170 of them, structured into 15 chapters (like a graphic novel series)

Since I started filming, Producers whose work I respect have also become involved and – inevitably – cultural-funders from both Denmark and Scotland. As a result things started to become something that – just perhaps – was out of keeping with the projects “punk spirit” and it instead started turning into the kind of film production – rather than film-making – that’s subject to the whims of risk-averse TV Execs and Film commissioners. One of whom – having strung me along for more than 2 years – finally decided to back-away from the project, sighting as her reason for bottling-it her “responsibility to the industry” before suggesting that as “professionals” we could and should understand her position .

Having now worked for over 40 years in the “industry” that I think she refers to, as everything from a runner to a Director, Camera, Editor and Producer, I’m still yet to receive a formal written rejection that I feel my professionalism deserves from that particular individual, whom also happens to be a stalwart of an out-dated international film“pitching” circus, which seems to be more about film prevention and the vetting of filmmakers than it does about actual film-making.

Even though rejection is something you accept and get used to in the film, TV and art worlds, this time around it’s been particularly tough. Not least of all because of the intimate nature of the project and the huge amount of blood sweat, toil and tears that have been shed getting it into the shape that it’s in, but also because of the outstanding pool of professional, and creative talent – from the “industry” that I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with.

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Getting a cancer diagnosis is a tough moment in anyone’s life. It takes a while for the reality of what you’ve been told to sink in – especially if you happen to be as thick-skinned as I am. It’s like being in that Baghdad bunker all over again, only – this time – a rocket or bullet with your name on find its target.

There then follows a period of denial and self-pity and – once you’re through that – you reach a point of enlightenment, that takes you to a place where you can start to breathe, look at things differently and discover a clarity that perhaps was missing in your life and world view. It’s a place too where things that you thought mattered – which in my case was my work and recognition as a filmmaker – aren’t really that important after all.

Then there’s a past too that you need to reflect on and make atonement for. A past which although full of wounds and scars, is also a reminder of all of the good things you may have shared with those whom you hurt, in ways that you did and didn’t realize, in pursuit of your self-obsessed dreams, unreasonable behavior and professional ambitions.

Finally at some-point in your treatment, there’s also a realization that – despite what life coach’s and lifestyle TV might try and tell you – the power of positive thinking isn’t all that it’s cracked-up to be. And that in the end, it’s not about your strength of character, resilience, breeding or whether you are or you’re not a fighter.

Because you never “beat” cancer – the crab – or any other life threatening or life changing illness come to think of it. And you’re certainly not a stooge/celebrity in a reality TV show that’s obsessed with winners and losers.

The reality is you/we/I can and will only cheat things for so long, to get a bit more of the precious time that you thought you might not have – before eventually coming to terms with oblivion. And at least with cancer – unlike certain other cruel illness’s of old age: At least you know what your invisible bullet is…

Legacy of an Invisible bullet: An existential surf trip

As I write – or rather revise this blog – the sun’s shining outside, which is a bastard. Because despite being near perfect weather for SUP and surfing “April has really been the cruelest of months” for the human race.

So instead of working on my films as I’d hoped and wave-chasing, I’m probably like you are – if you happen to care about other people – in lock-down and will be for a while, because of an illness, which in my best Baghdad bunker humor I’ve come to refer to as “Bat-flu.

At first I thought I was down with the usual seasonal flu I suffer in the winter months – which is something I’ll always associate with discovering a lump on my neck after a winter surf trip – as well as the result now of a compromised immune system after the removal of my thyroid, tumors and cancer treatment.

So instead of being pissed-off and angry about the rejection of my film-making talents by someone whose probably never looked through a viewfinder, I instead still find myself out on the “bad (existential) surf trip” that Legacy of an Invisible bullet is all about. Only the world is now a completely different place to the one that I started filming in 5 years ago.

And while some people still seem to be carrying on with their lives as if things are “normal” – whatever that was and means now – others are dying or – like me – are ill with a virus which although it can’t be cured, can and will be survived by many of us.

And – just like with cancer – it’s not about the “strength of character” of a charlatan Prime Minister, or being the fighters, winners and losers in a reality TV show, it’s about: Being Human.

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Copenhagen, April 2020: The view from a different bunker

I’ve been ill for over a month now with fever, night sweats, a dry cough, sore throat, disorientation and have had trouble breathing. All these symptoms have come and passed and then come and gone again, which obviously creates uncertainty and anxiety and pushes you into survival mode.

And so on 1st April, 2020 – another April fools day – I took the covid test, along with my partner Marie and got a result that had tested positive.

Corona virus test site, Copenhagen Denmark, April 1st 2020

Thankfully I’m through the worst of it now – I hope – and can feel I’m recovering. And unlike many back home in Glasgow, having been tested, it’s been good to know exactly what I’m dealing with. While it was also reassuring that my partner/soul-mate Marie tested negative, even though she’s had bat-flu symptoms and should really perhaps test again – even though she does now appear what the danes would call “fit and fighting” 3 weeks later.

Today, I can feel the sun on my back through an open window and I’m attempting to finish what’s become more a “slog than a blog”, mostly because my focus and brain have been “mince” as they say in Glasgow, since before I tested.

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I’ve also started practicing surf pop-ups on my board and doing deep breathing exercises which have helped considerably to get oxygen into my blood stream and lungs over these few hard weeks – which have reminded me a lot of the “hold-down” that you experience after a surf wipe-out, before eventually surfacing.

So hopefully I’m in recovery now, although physically I feel weak and know that it will take some time to build energy levels to even close what they were.

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I know things won’t, can’t and perhaps shouldn’t be the same as they were before this plague entered all of our lives and that from all this mess another, better world really is possible now.

Hopefully I’ll be back on a board and “walking on water” again soon too once the lock-down’s lifted. But before then, it’s time to get on and make films again and finish all that “unfinished business” by “all means necessary”

As for dealing with the “bat-flu” well, I’ve been in this place before …..