Exclusive Interview: Behind the frontlines with filmmaker Ben Anderson.

October 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

ben-anderso_-and_jack.JPGJack: A Soldier’s Story, Tuesday 7th October, BBC 3, 9pm Alert Me

Ben Anderson is familiar with the front line. A documentary maker for 10 years, he started off as an undercover reporter for Channel 4, including a 9 month stint as an undertaker. He’s been undercover as an archaeologist in Iraq, a socialism student in North Korea and he’s been held as a spy in Iran. He’s travelled the dangerous west coast of Africa for a series called the Violent Coast for the BBC and last year he travelled to Afghanistan and spent three weeks travelling with the Queen’s Battalion as they fought the Taleban.

It has been tough getting an insight into the life of a British soldier in Afghanistan. Restrictions on access and a media focus on the war in Iraq has meant that our soldiers in Afghanistan have dropped from public view. It is, as Anderson describes it, the forgotten war. “It’s the most ferocious fighting the British have seen in fifty years and at that time we were not seeing any footage from there at all? he says. “It took me two years of endless meetings with just endless different bureaucrats and eventually I got permission.?

The footage he returned with was extraordinary. Daily life for a soldier; captured in all its banality and danger. “There was one day when we were ambushed by the Taliban that lasted for eight hours. Straight. So we came back and showed the BBC that footage and they just said it’s incredible…its commissioned.? This became ‘Taking on the Taleban – The Soldiers’ Story’, which was screened last year. In Tuesday night’s follow up, Anderson tells the story of Lance Corporal Jack Mizon, one of the Queen’s Battalion whom Anderson met in his original filming. Jack is a brave and decorated soldier who across three weeks loses one of his friends in a roadside bomb attack, another in a suicide attack on a convoy he is travelling with and spends an extraordinary 81 days out on operations.  Yet on his return to the UK he quickly finds himself on punishment duty for misbehaviour and is involved in several serious fights, eventually going absent without leave.

I ask Anderson why he chose to follow up on Jack’s story. “He struck me and everybody that saw the original film that he was an incredible character who’d been through really incredible experiences out there.  In the space of three weeks he’d been hit by a suicide bomber hit by a road side bomber and almost blown up by a bomb dropped from a British plane so his experiences were amazing but he was just also very articulate, I mean some of his mates, some of the other soldiers, they’d take the piss out of him for being thick but actually he understood the situation perfectly out there. There was one time where he said, at the end of an 8 hour gunfight we were sitting up against the wall, completely exhausted and he said ‘how do you fight against people like that? How do you fight against people who think that when they die they’re going to heaven where they’ve got loads of virgins waiting for them. If I die I’m just going back to Tottenham.’ That sums up the difference in mentality between the Taleban and our guys out there.?

What happened to Jack, why did he change? “I mean for me you can almost see the transition out there, the first time we got ambushed by the Taliban afterwards he and his friends were quite excited by it, you know they’d done really well, they’d won, one soldier had been shot in the neck but he was ok. And they almost seemed to be loving their life as soldiers out there. A month later after the suicide bomber and the roadside bomber and a few really long days, the reality of war had really hit home and you could see that he had been traumatised by his experience and actually I think by that point it had become too much?

I ask Anderson if Jack’s is a typical story. “I mean you are talking about regular soldiers rather than officers? he is careful to point out, “but yeah, I think absolutely. I mean, he probably had it worse than most soldiers out there; he really was on the front line. His unit were out on operations for 81 days straight which really is exceptional and that is reflected in the fact that he did get a special commendation but at the same time there are a lot of people going through similar experiences out there and I don’t feel like it’s really getting reported back here, not very often anyway.? Having spoken to many soldiers from many regiments he says he has not yet had one who didn’t say anything other than that the original film captures exactly what it’s like.

Ex SAS and writer Andy McNab recently claimed that Britain is sitting on a time bomb of mental illness and depression amongst veterans of the war because of the lack of aftercare. I ask Anderson what he thinks of this. “For someone who has been through the experience that Jack has been through, they should be forced to counselling sessions… The soldiers in Afghanistan, they had this amazing ability to just keep on going no matter what and just to tough it out and achieve incredible things and have an unbelievable work ethic and so when they get home they are going to apply that same ethic to any psychological problems they have, they are going to think that they can tough it out and unfortunately I think a lot of them cant. So yeah I think they should be forced to attend counselling sessions rather than it be there IF someone comes forward and asks for it. Because a lot of them won’t.?

Watching Anderson’s documentary you cannot help thinking that Jack’s story is an important one not for its uniqueness but for its universality. It is unsettling to think how little we are prepared for the psychological consequences of war on our soldiers, even in how little we hear of their stories.

I ask Anderson what he hopes that people will get out of his film. “Well I hope that it will make people realise how hard the task is out there and how long it’s going to take if we are going to achieve the goal that we have set for ourselves and I hope it also makes viewers realise how hard it is for the soldiers out there. I’d like to think that this documentary shows a lot more that we should be thinking about not just the guys who come back in coffins but also the guys who come back without arms without legs or just with psychological problems as a result of what they’ve been through.? It certainly does this, and as Anderson says “the ones who don’t the get the medals, the ones who don’t get killed, you know, often seem to be forgotten about?. Anderson’s documentary will definitely help us remember them.

By McGee Noble