Dorset filmmaker's Iraq marshlands film wins award

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Swanage filmmaker, Stephen Foote, filming in southern Iraq. Copyright of Bruce Chadwick.
Image caption,
Stephen Foote said security issues became part of the documentary's story

A wildlife documentary about Iraq marshlands filmed by a Dorset cameraman has won an international award.

The US version, called Braving Iraq, filmed by Stephen Foote, won a Gold World Medal at the New York Festivals International Television & Film Awards.

The 50-minute film was broadcast in America in November 2010.

An hour-long British version, a BBC Natural World special - A Miracle In the Marshes of Iraq, was shown in January 2011 in the UK.

'Garden of Eden'

Mr Foote, from Swanage, described the opportunity to make the film as "unique".

He said: "It was a chance to make a positive film about Iraq, because everything that has come out of the country, news and documentary-wise, has been about the conflict.

"When you think about Iraq you think about people shooting each other, desert, sand and heat.

"What you don't think about is the fact there's a marshland there that was once the size of Wales.

Image caption,
Marsh Arabs returned to the area after the fall of Saddam Hussein

"It was what was referred to as the 'Garden of Eden' in the Bible."

The Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq were once home to thousands of marsh Arabs, millions of birds - and rebels fighting against Saddam Hussein.

In the 1990s he ordered his engineers to drain the land as a punishment, turning the land to dust.

Now conservationist and environmental engineer Dr Azzam Alwash, who appears in the documentary, is attempting to restore the marshes.

Mr Foote said: "As soon as you take the water away from the marshes you've got no wildlife. Everything dies.

"In 2003, as the statue of Saddam was being toppled in Baghdad, the marsh Arabs returned to the marshlands with diggers and they started excavating holes in these dykes [built by Saddam Hussein], and the water started flowing through.

"Within six months the reeds started returning, but it's a very fragile ecosystem. It has to build itself up again from scratch and that's what the film is about."

'Endangered species'

The documentary was filmed during January, March and May 2010.

"We filmed frogs and lots of different species of bird, including the Basra reed warbler which is one of the world's endangered species," Mr Foote said.

"I think one of the most spectacular things we saw was a flock of maybe 40,000 marbled teal.

"They migrate through the marshes and marsh Arabs haven't seen flocks of birds like that for many, many years.

"A sight like this makes you realise that things are going in the right direction."

Image caption,
Mr Foote described the local people as "fantastic"

Mr Foote, who has been a filmmaker and photographer for 30 years, said filming in Iraq was "no simple task".

"Nothing you do in Iraq is very easy. The security defines what you can and cannot do," he said.

"The difficulty of making this film became part of the story.

"For example, we couldn't set up hides in the middle of the marshes for three days to film a particular species, because the security situation didn't allow us to do that.

"This also meant we weren't really getting enough footage of birds to sustain an hour's documentary, so I did appear in front of the camera on several occasions talking about the difficulties we [the crew] faced."

During filming the crew were based in Tallil and the old British military base at Basra.

"It is a completely secure facility with bomb shelters, where we could go if we came under attack," Mr Foote said.

"I was certainly apprehensive [about filming in Iraq], but if you start letting the fear get in you don't get anything done.

"Thankfully we never came under attack, but the threat was always there.

"During the making of our film we [the crew] found the local people fantastic. The Arab way of life is very hospitable."

Braving Iraq won in the Environment and Ecology category of the New York Festivals International Television & Film Awards on Tuesday.

Both Braving Iraq and A Miracle In the Marshes of Iraq were produced by David Johnson, who travelled to Iraq with Mr Foote during filming.

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