Before the Arab Spring, Yaron Deskalo had produced E:60 stories from India, Liberia, Serbia, England, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Not bad for a guy from Milwaukee.
And then Bahrain erupted in six weeks of protests, which left 24 dead and 400 missing. Its Sunni royal family imprisoned and tortured elite soccer players, as well as workers at the Formula One racetrack, many of them Shias, who dared to protest. Bahrain is a mere speck of a country on the western shore of the Persian Gulf, but not too small to escape Deskalo’s passport.
Shooting in a foreign country, particularly one in upheaval, requires a detailed plan.
“I might have 12 things on a list, but I have a sense of four things we really want, and I prioritize,” said Deskalo.
Nothing gets done without a “fixer” - someone who lives there and can act as a guide, intermediary, translator and reporter. Deskalo hired Lubna Takruri, a U-Cal Berkeley Masters of Journalism graduate (2006), who had reported from the Middle East for CNBC and Irish Radio. While Deskalo, reporter Jeremy Schaap and shooters Bill Roach, Joel Edwards and Jessie Edwards applied for media visas, Takruri reached out to potential interview subjects.
“In a foreign country if you don’t speak the language you’re only as good as your fixer,” said Deskalo. “At the end of the day if you can’t communicate your vision to the fixer she can’t communicate to the government and you will have a hard time getting what you need.”
A tight budget limited the shoot to 5 ½ days. First came Oman, another Persian Gulf country slightly larger than Bahrain. Two of Bahrain’s top soccer players, the brothers Alaa and Mohammad Hubail, had been banished to Oman. Late in September, after 20 hours of travel, Deskalo’s crew arrived in Oman. At Customs he was told he did not have the proper papers for ESPN’s gear.
“We were screwed,” Deskalo recalled. “It was Wednesday night and Thursday and Friday is the weekend in Oman. My fear was that our gear would be in the airport for two days.”
In the morning Deskalo appealed to a press officer at Oman’s ministry of information, and his gear was cleared, but half a day was wasted. Still, he got what he needed, in a day and a half.
Next came 3 ½ days in Bahrain, which could be difficult, he worried, if government officials suspected a critical story. Officials were told the story would show “how the uprising affected sports in Bahrain, and how the country was moving forward”, Deskalo said. They were told athletes who were in the protests - and subsequently tortured - would be interviewed.
But at the time Bahrain was alone among Arab Spring countries to retain the backing of the Obama administration. This likely worked in Deskalo’s favor.
“I didn’t’ get the sense that they were concerned about a sports network,” said Deskalo. “There was no video of torture, and no wounds remained on the athletes. There was a level of arrogance from the royal family in terms of acknowledging the situation.”
On the first day he interviewed a soccer official whose comments were too guarded, so Takruri lined up alternative interviews. On the second day, driving to the U.S. Naval base, Deskalo thought a helicopter was shadowing his vehicle, but nothing came of it. Coincidentally, the government handed down prison sentences to several doctors who had protested. Takruri knew the attorney of one of the doctors, and secured an interview.
“You have to adjust on the fly - you only get one opportunity because you’re not flying back to Bahrain soon,” Deskalo said.
Overall the E:60 crew shot 13 interviews and ample scenery and color. On the last morning, before his flight out, Deskalo still needed an interview with a Formula One official but his request had been ignored. Finally, he took his crew to the lobby of the Formula One office. A flak told him the official was unavailable.
“We can’t go back without him,” Deskalo insisted.
The flak went into a back room and then returned.
“You can have 10 minutes in his office,” he said.
Schaap interviewed the official, also a member of the royal family, who pleaded ignorance to the plight of 27 of his former employees who claimed to have been tortured while in jail. The man in flowing white garb did his best Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing” impersonation, but his furtive eyes spoke otherwise.
“A good moment,” said Deskalo.
Posted by Steve Marantz on November 22, 2011