Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on a film project I’ve been working on through my entire career as a “professional” film-maker.
I’ve included a final sampler reel, along with some old, some new and some previously unseen clips to illustrate the words.
Minefield: A final sampler 2017.
Two decades are a significant chunk of anyone’s life.
Especially if it involves those crucial years when – having left the innocence of childhood and survived the confusion, sweat and anger, dreams and passion of youth – you go on to experience both the successes and disappointments of an adult life; Before starting the descent into your “autumn years” and a time in life – which you increasingly sense – will at best involve contentment, obscurity and the gathering of wisdom or – at worst – a day-job that you hate – because it’s an admission of failure – before finally your winter years arrive.
By which point all that there’s left to think about are the things that you should have done with your life: The crashed dreams and unfinished business that we all leave behind us in this world….
But then….at least I can say that it’s been through those crucial, wild and beautiful decades – the ones that really matter in anyone’s life really – that I’ve also been working on a film about a footballer called Scotty Lee from a place called Hatfield in England, who ended up in a war, driving humanitarian aid convoys…..a film which first “turned-over” on a bomb-cratered, football training ground in a shell-shocked Sarajevo at FK Željezničar (or Zeljo) at the end of the Bosnian war, more than 2 decades ago.
First filming encounters: Shortly after the War, Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Since the day that I first pointed a camera at Scotty Lee – at first a reluctant but always opinionated and charismatic subject – and started filming the work of his Mine Risk Education (MRE) charity the Spirit of Soccer we went on to make 2 TV documentaries together Louder than Bombs! that filmed in the lethal aftermath of the Bosnian conflict between 1995-98 and A Different Pitch which was set during the conflict in Kosovo between 1999 and early 2000.
DVD cover for Louder than Bombs! and A Different Pitch
Both of these films were originally supported at the time by an understanding and enlightened Lottery Film Officer at what was then the Scottish Arts Council Film fund: Jenny Attala when no-one else cared, and would eventually go on to screen on TV in the late 1990’s and early “noughties” of the 21st century on the UK’s “least worst” public-service broadcaster channel 4 – a station which is perhaps better known these days as the channel that likes baking cakes and hates poor white people.
After what turned out to be a tough-assignment in Kosovo, Scotty and I went our separate ways:
Me to different wars and filming adventures in the Caucasus, Kurdistan, Syria, Lebanon and even in my own troubled “heartland” of Glasgow, while he after getting married and starting a family, returned to Bosnia to finish off what he’d started as well as begin a new mission in the killing fields and minefields of Cambodia.
We eventually hooked-up again in April 2007 to film on spec’ in Baghdad and immediately found ourselves in the middle of a war that has never ended really – and we’ve been filming on-and-off ever since – mostly in the Middle East, but also in the former USSR, the UK and Cambodia.
I always knew that we might make a third, longer and much more accomplished film together – not as the third part of a trilogy – but more as a stand-alone story: an epic that embraced and explored the archive of material that I’ve filmed over those crucial decades,to tell a story about War and Football, friendship and even about learning to be a “proper film-maker” and all the successes, failures and baggage that comes along with it.
It would be a story too that would cross time as well as territory…
But…a story that would be told our way, in the only way that I know how:
Run and gun style and written directly with a camera.
The only problem with it was though:
I wasn’t sure where, how or when it might end.
Which made it a tough-sell to either the unsympathetic Creative Scotland Film officer that I now had to deal with who was obsessed with narrative arcs, “talent development” and something he called a real “Cinematic Scottish Documentary” or to a channel 4 Nations and Region Controller who had a remit to develop life-style TV formats rather than what he had initially described when he first saw my rushes from Minefield as a guaranteed “Sundance Film festival selection”
But then it probably didn’t help the “sell” either that I wanted to keep-on filming, even if our trailer had a copyright cleared Mogwai soundtrack – something which I had my doubts about from the start – and have heard used and abused in many films since….
Original Minefield trailer with Mogwai sound-score.
Over the decades that we’ve been filming, I’ve seen Scotty Lee’s football dream with a serious, brutal message grow from being just him, a bunch of second-hand footballs and a brilliant young football called Vederan or “Veds” whose professional playing career was lost in a wartime basement near Sarajevo airport – into a million-dollar US State department funded NGO, which runs hearts, minds and land-mine awareness missions in conflict and post conflict-zones all-over the planet.
But….as well as documenting how a kid from a single-parent family in Hatfield who had a troubled youth, has managed to make something special from his life, it’s also been a human-success story which has come at a high personal cost, and a price that might not have been worth paying even.
In-between Rocket attacks and curfews, Baghdad, 2007.
Sometimes when I look through my camera’s viewfinder now at Scotty what I see – along with someone who can “walk-the-walk as well as talk-the-talk” and who is a master at one-liners, but whose become a bit too media-savvy now for my liking as a “truth-seeker” – is also a man who has hardened and armoured himself because of what he’s seen, where he’s been and what it is he does and – allegedly – doesn’t do.
Then when I look again – back in my edit-suite in a safe European home after an assignment – I also see a conflict weary friend who has over time become like a family member – and someone who is losing his patience as he gets older with what’s happening in the world and with what it is he does – even if he: Scotty Lee, a footballer from Hatfield still loves a game that he first discovered as a kid, respects and cares for – despite getting angry with – the men and women coaches he works with, but above all still passionately believes that it’s the kids he takes his message to out on the real front-lines of a conflict – in refugee camps and living in minefields – that really matter.
Some people – mostly film-making types – who’ve viewed my rough-cuts – all 5 hours of as they currently exist – quite often because of what I’ve written about here – have ended up asking me the same question:
“What’s Scotty Lee hiding from us…?”
Perhaps what they should be asking is:
“What’s Scotty Lee protecting…”
Out-reach, little Baghdad, 2007.
At one point – at the time of the 2010 World cup final – and amid the sectarian divide, hatred and sniper threats of Kirkuk, Iraq, I really thought I had an ending to our story. That I’d found the “closure” that a script doctor – or nurse – would go on about on a talent development scheme, or the “narrative arc” that makes something a “cinematic Scottish Documentary” or the jeopardy, expose and resolution that a TV life-style documentary commissioner insists on these days before you even get to turn a camera on and start filming.
I was wrong…..and being wrong is – as I’ve learnt – a hard but necessary part of this game that some of us play called film-making….
A Film-makers vlog, 2015.
Because of what’s been happening on our fragile planet and in my life over the past few tough years especially, I’ve come to realize and eventually accepted that the story I – or rather that we – are telling – because in the end it has been more of a 22 year-long conversation than a conventional observational of a character – will never have an ending…
That the issues and themes we’re dealing with in Minefield won’t – and don’t – have closure to them in a Hollywood or even a “Cinematic Scottish Documentary” sense, because the narrative of perpetual war which we’re all bit-part players in now – will continue long after we’re all no longer of this world.
So…as a result, I’ve found myself continuing to film Scotty Lee and the Spirit of Soccer through-out the Middle-East in wars that I can’t see any end to; wars without any winners but only losers – despite what the Americans or British might claim.
Wars too that are now being fought not just against 1 Saddam Hussein, an Osama Bin-Laden or an Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi but against a 1000 or more monsters which the west has helped create.
The Middle-East, 2014.
But unlike the state of perpetual war we all live through now, I can see and sense we’re reaching what they call in chess-terms an “Endgame” if not an ending to our filming…..and that even if Scotty Lee continue his work long after I finally say “that’s a wrap” – and to be honest I’m not really sure what else he can or needs to do – that our endgame will involve perhaps the most difficult assignment we’ve undertaken, before we return to the place where we started-out filming together decades ago, on a football training ground in Sarajevo.
But instead of an end it’ll be a return to a beginning of sorts, or – what’s called – a “Balkan circle”: a state and sense of perpetual and eternal return.
But to even reach that stage, I need now to pitch what I have onto a far from level playing-field and out into a documentary world and digital media landscape that’s changed completely from when we started filming together.
Yet despite my cynicism generally about what and how hollowed-out my profession has become, I’m far from negative…and my gut-instinct tells me that even if my days as “talent” or as a “Scottish Documentary maker” – cinematic or otherwise – are long gone, that in my heart and in my head, that there is a popular audience out there for our story.
But having funded the last 2 filming assignments we’ve been on from my commercial work – or what I call “my plumbing jobs” – as well as with practical, occasionally financial, security and logistical support from Scotty Lee and the Spirit of Soccer’s team of dedicated coaches, my own resources – which also now include another broken camera – are like my time-frame, fast running out….
Broken Camera, return from Iraq and Kurdistan, 2016.
There’s also – as I’m fast discovering – a different minefield to navigate a safe passage through too, in the “Dog-eat-Doug” world of the documentary-business where what I’m being told the “market reality” is that other TV Production companies are now chasing my story.
And while Scotty remains loyal to what we’re doing, he’s also being pushed because of his success by a sports management/PR agency that represents him, into considering other options from a list of “content re-appropriators” as they like to call themselves these days that include many who we’ve been to in the past for help with the Minefield project, including premier-leaguers like the: BBC, Discovery, ESPN while in Scotland even Tern TV – the makers of such hard-hitting/radical television as “Songs of Praise” and the “Beechgrove Garden” (!) are also all in on what was once a difficult pitch. Dazed and Confused/Vice too who – until recently – had said that what we’re doing wasn’t”front-line” enough for them but then it could be in their case one of the fools rushing-in where others have dared to tread…?
But then at least I can say that I’ve tried…
An unexploded mortar grenade in my edit-suite. Jalawala, Khaniqin Province, Iraq, 2016.
There’s always been too what I would call a kind of politically correct/privileged and gender-jaundiced view among some of my fellow professionals in the documentary world about what we’re doing.
A view which tends to treat all white working-class males, even if they’ve got something to say about the state of the world as “dodgy geezers” rather than old school “working class heroes” and that what I’m doing in Minefield is after all just another story about a “boys game” that’s played by multi-millionaire tax-dodgers who are far from being role models for young people.
That even if Minefield is well a bit “existential” – Albert Camus was a misquoted goalkeeper remember – than it’s hardly the stuff of a “serious” documentary which needs after all to be about much “darker things” than a game that boys and girls, women and men play with a ball in-between life and death.
But a game that can – if you allow it – take you for a while at least to another place. Into another dimension even that’s populated by your dreams and imagination…a place too that’s far-away from war, horror, fear and trauma.
Another place – schematic sketch. My edit-suite. Winter 2016-17
In the end what we set out to do with Minefield as well as tell Scotty Lee’s story without an ending, is to create a portrait of war, masculinity, football, friendship and even what it means to be a film-maker and why I/we continue to do these things with a football and a camera in a world that’s falling apart.
It’s a portrait too of the beauty and trauma of childhood, the lost and last sweat of youth and about all those magical things that I’ve now – sadly – left behind in my own life.
But above all Minefield is a story with a big heart and message about how ordinary people in extraordinary situations can still not only dream, but also create for themselves the potential for a better world – Even if does happen to have involved filming for more than 2 decades a football coach with a bunch of second-hand football’s and a game that people play in-between life and death…