— by ALEXA MILAN —
Director, writer and cinematographer Ben Pearson didn’t always want to be a filmmaker, but he knew how to recognize a compelling story when he saw one.
In his latest film — “Kabul 24” — he chronicles the trial and imprisonment of eight aid workers from the German-based Shelter Now International who were accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity and were thrown in jail mere weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In this interview, Pearson discusses his path to filmmaking and his journey through the world of “Kabul 24.”
Tell me a bit about your professional background. How did you become a filmmaker?
I’ve been involved as a photographer for many, many years. I guess my filmmaking started in 1993. A friend of mine who is now a director, Steve Taylor, called me up and said “Hey man, I just got a new deal with Warner Brothers and we’re going to do a long-form video. You and I are going to go around the world and it’s going to be great.” I called him back the next morning and said “Hey pal, I really appreciate you calling me, but you need to hire somebody who’s done this before.” And he said “Man, just do what you do with your Nikon, it’s just that the film’s going to be traveling through the camera a lot faster than you’re used to.”
So that’s kind of where it started. I started doing music videos with Steve after that and eventually ended up directing on my own. Then in 1997 a dear friend of mine, a singer-songwriter named Rich Mullins, was killed in a car accident, and in processing that I was listening to all these stories people were telling about Rich and I was like “I’m going to make a documentary.” So that was my first real documentary, “Homeless Man: The Restless Heart of Rich Mullins.”
How did you first learn about the Shelter Now International workers and their story?
In 2002, a friend of mine called me and said, “Hey do you remember the folks that were captured by the Taliban last year before 9/11?” After about five minutes of telling me some of the details of the story he never heard about on the news, my jaw was kind of dropped on the floor. He said, “Listen, these people have been approached by various production companies in Hollywood and they don’t really feel good about anybody they’re talking to. I told them that if they talk to you they could trust you.” So I met with some of the folks from Shelter Now and we hit it off.
At that time I thought they kind of wanted a dramatic treatment like “Black Hawk Down,” but what they were really most comfortable with was a documentary. By less than a year after that, I was in Kabul starting the base interviews with the Germans and gathering B roll for the documentary.
What was it about this story that made you think it was one you had to tell?
The archetype of the prisoner, I’ve always identified with that kind of iconography. One of my favorite movies is “The Shawshank Redemption.” I’ve always identified with that character, of being unjustly imprisoned and making it out alive. But what got me most about the story was the fact that because these people were put in prison in an unjust way, there were Muslims who started to help out and even the Taliban prosecutor, who was a man who was forced into service by the Taliban, he saw the injustice, and basically told his superiors “These people are not guilty. Why are you holding them?”
Of course he didn’t know at that time that the towers were going to come down and that they were set up to be captured and arrested, accused of proselytizing, because al-Qaida and the Taliban needed bargaining chips because they knew America would retaliate as soon as the towers happened. But I think it was that in the midst of this tyranny and this oppressive situation, the fact that humanity from all walks of life, from different belief systems, people helped each other. And that’s always fascinating to me when that happens.
What did you do next? What was the beginning of the film-making process like?
A friend of mine, Matt Slocum from the band Sixpence None the Richer, he actually got me my camera and got me a plane ticket to get over to Afghanistan. I thought I had funding in place but it just hadn’t arrived yet. So not only did Matt score a wonderful score on the film, but he also was the co-producer and is the reason I was able to get to Afghanistan. I thought I had funding in place when I went to Afghanistan and about half a year after I got back I realized that wasn’t really the case. Michael W. Smith caught wind of it and I showed him some footage, and at that time he was pulling together his production company. And he called me up in a couple days and said, “Let’s make history. Let’s do this film.”So Michael stepped in as a producer in a really big way and will always be wearing a white hat and riding a big white horse in my life. Then I found out about Michael’s relationship with Jim Caviezel. I had already talked to Liam Neeson’s voiceover representatives about having him narrate it and they were interested. But we always knew we needed a name actor to do a voiceover and I said, “Michael, why don’t you just run it by Jim and see what he thinks.” And he called back immediately and said, “Bro are you sitting down? Jim’s in and he loves it.” So that’s how that came together.
There are a lot of miracles in the story and there are a lot of miracles about the making of the story. It’s still very surreal to me to hear Jim Caviezel’s voice on this documentary. Because of his experience in “The Passion of the Christ” and just his love of language, the pronunciations and everything was spot-on from the beginning.
What was it like filming on location in Afghanistan?
At that time, it was the late summer or fall of 2003, which was right before spring time when we went into Iraq. So I would get people that would stop me on the street and shake my hand and say, “Tell America thanks for retaliating against the Taliban. Do you think your government will follow through with the aid they promised?” And I was like, “I sure hope so.” There was a real attitude of hope. When I was in Afghanistan there were no car bombings like you hear about now. That was pre-Iraq and it was a very vibrant, hopeful attitude. And I think that’s slowly coming back now.
Were there any major challenges you faced during filming?
I think the biggest challenge was the fact that we knew from the beginning that it wasn’t the kind of documentary we could just throw a budget at and churn out in six months to a year. I started in Afghanistan with the German interviews, then waited and got in touch with the two American women next, then about a year or so after that I had questions compiled that weren’t answered in Afghanistan that I was able to ask the American women. And at that time too, they’d had more time to live with what just happened to them.
Like when I was interviewing the Germans, they were always very polite about Heather (Mercer, one of the American hostages). They would say nothing negative, but I kind of caught wind that she really had a lot to deal with the first five weeks of captivity and that she was really freaking out. But everybody was really polite and they wouldn’t really address that. By the time I got around to interviewing Dayna (Curry, the other American hostage) and Heather, Heather had really come to grips with what her experience was. And she very honestly says in the film, “I didn’t do so well in captivity.” But the beautiful thing about the arc of her character in the film is that it’s a definite arc. By the end of the film, she’s one of the strongest personalities in the group and she’s encouraging others, whereas just weeks before she’s totally flipping out.
It was very difficult knowing that I couldn’t go any faster than I was going. But Michael said, “Do what you’ve got to do. Don’t worry, we’re going to get it done.” So having that kind of encouragement coming from your producer, that’s everything. I had people telling me two years in “Well, it’s kind of a dead story.” People being unjustly imprisoned and making it out alive, I don’t think that’s ever going to be a dead story.
How long did it take you to complete the movie?
Things started when I was in Afghanistan in August 2003. Now here we are in 2009 and it’s just released. It’s incredible. It’s taken awhile.
In addition to the interviews and footage from Afghanistan, you use some creative animation techniques to depict the trial and other events that couldn’t be captured on film. How did you decide to use that technique?
As it’s been said many times, the secret to good directing is surrounding yourself with really talented people. My friend Jonathan Richter is an animator and a basic genius. He’s very savvy in programs like Maya and After Effects, but he has an incredible natural hand for sketching and painting and drawing.
I told him about what our problem was here and I said I didn’t want to do reenactments but I wanted to do something beautiful and creative, and he came up with this technique where he did these charcoal drawings of the scenarios that are depicted.
He came up with a process where there was motion in those drawings. Basically he would wet a piece of water color paper, put it on glass, backlight it, set the camera up and he would touch this watercolor paper with India ink from a brush and it would make these insane patterns. Then, through After Effects, he’d reverse things out and add that over the top as a layer of his hand drawings.
Have you followed up with any of your subjects since filming wrapped?
Yeah, I have. The Germans especially, and of course the Australians. The two American women are going to be back in the country pretty soon. They’ve been overseas. I just got an e-mail from Georg Taubman (one of the German hostages) about two weeks ago saying “We just showed the documentary in Dubai at our conference and we just watched it in Kabul last night and everybody is so happy.” That was good to hear.
What are some other projects you have lined up?
I’m in the midst of polishing up a screen adaptation of a book called “Blue Like Jazz.” Don Miller, Steve Taylor and I co-wrote the script and the powers that be are shopping for funds right now. Steve will be directing and I’ll be doing the cinematography, and we hope to be rolling, I’m praying, by April of this coming year.
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Special thanks to Rebekah Hernandez of Edify Media
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Follow Alexa Milan on Twitter at http://twitter.com/alexamilan.