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One on One: PBS Frontline Documentarist Olly Lambert

As part of our ongoing effort to talk to journalists covering the Syria crisis, we reached out to Olly Lambert, the filmmaker behind PBS Frontline’s new documentary “Behind the Lines.” The London-based Lambert spent five weeks in Syria creating both that film and a shorter piece, the 36-minute Frontline episode “The Bombing of al-Bara,” a gripping real-time account of a regime attack on a rural village. Lambert’s full-length documentary, re-titled ‘Syria: Across the Lines,’ will air on the UK’s Channel 4 on April 17 at 10 p.m.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Here, he talks to Syria Deeply managing editor Karen Leigh about the political tensions revealed during filming and his surprise that his work from the war-ravaged country has gone viral.

Karen Leigh: There’s a moment towards the end of the piece where a man brings you over to his car and really lays into the Alawites, saying they’ll kill civilians. Which is something I fear will happen to the Alawites.

Olly Lambert: I sensed this kind of tension within both sides, within themselves, about whether they would give into those sentiments. There’s a real discomfort about talking about one’s religious grouping, let alone someone else’s. There’s a real taboo. It’s ‘we are one Syria,’ but in an argument or among extremists, it would come out.

There’s an embarrassment that these feelings are being felt, but with each bomb that falls, there’s less and less resistance towards having that [we are one] kind of mentality and that kind of outlook. I am sure that guy in the documentary would have woken up the next morning when he was calm and been ashamed.

KL: How did the film come about? At this point in the Syria story, it’s rare to see something so in-depth getting so much attention.

OL: That 36-minute film was a last-minute idea a few weeks ago. My editor in London said the rushes of that airstrike are so extraordinary, because I never stop recording. When you watch it, it does play in its own way and it becomes immersive, it’s real time and you feel like you are there.

Originally, I went to meet the team at ‘Frontline.’ They’re extraordinary. They jumped at the idea and took it over. It was my idea to just give commentary, because there’s things [on film] that aren’t clear to the naked eye. I just sat and watched the full 60, 70 minutess with a microphone and talked to myself.

I’ve been really surprised by how viral it’s gone. I’m getting calls from all over the world and people are Tweeting about it, it’s a really extraordinary experience. It’s made me realize that people really do care. People aren’t watching it because of guns and ammo, they’re watching the extra human tragedy of what civil war looks like. People realized that that was just one small part of one major documentary that will be out there. And this one bit of straightforward filmmaking captured people. When it gets going, you feel like you are actually in the room with these [Syrian fighters]. You’re getting a taste of what that fear and what that reality is like. It’s deliberately unproduced. There were points where the camera’s still got the lens cap on and stuff, so of course we cut that out.

KL: How much time did you actually spend in Syria?

OL: I went for five weeks over two trips. I went via Turkey into the south and lived there for three weeks. It’s a valley w the Orontes [river]  in the middle, this very beautiful valley. The river’s become a fault line. In May last year it divided, and Sunnis on one side fled to the other. And now the river is a line you can’t really cross. This one valley, it’s a microcosm of a bleak possible future — and increasingly likely future —  for Syria. The bizarre thing was that on both sides of the valley I could see my other filming locations.

On the rebel side I went with a farmer into the land between the two sides, and we were shot at from a regime checkpoint. And when I went back to the regime side, I interviewed a regime soldier whose gun position was exactly the same.

KL: Before you went in, how much did you prepare? Could you prepare?

OL: The most important thing was the location. The trick is to find a tiny prism to look through at the situation. When I heard about the valley and how it was divided, that was what I was looking for. I spent months looking for people who’d been there and plugging them for information. I knew I wanted to find characters on both sides who would be similar to each other and speak to each other across the line, so to speak. I knew I wanted to find a young soldier who had a story to tell and wasn’t a nut job.

Amhed [a character in the documentary] was a perfect character. I filmed him for three weeks and saw his radicalization, from a wet-behind-the-ears-young fighter, to wanting to join Jabhat al-Nusra and wanting to be martyred. The last time I saw him he’d been wounded by a bomb.

The film crisscrosses between one side and the other. These people are incredibly close to each other, but they can’t go see each other. And it’s very sad, because you know they used to hang out.

I wanted to find characters who had parity on either side. I wanted to see lots of Alawite funerals but none happened while I was there. Not that I would have wanted anyone to get killed, but they’re very dramatic affairs.

The village I was in was swamped with refugees. I got terrifyingly close to the brutal reality of the conflict.

KL: How did you get up to Alawite areas, to regime checkpoints?

OL: I was escorted by two [regime] security officials. I was wondering if two regime heavies were going to be an issue, with people not wanting to talk to me. Ordinary Alawite civilians are absolutely terrified, they are convinced that they are going to fight to the death, and that if the regime falls they’re done for. So they are fighting to the death, and it’s a very dangerous motivation. They’re frightened and suspicious and the presence of a foreigner was very problematic, and my security officials would step in and assure people that I was there with the knowledge of the regime and with its blessing.

And then they were desperate to talk about their hopes, their sadness that Syria had become like this, of their conviction that the footage of air strikes was all foreign government sponsored propaganda. Eventually we had to leave because the security guys got nervous. We were on the front line and they were desperate to get back to Damascus.

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