Life at war captured through the eyes of soldiers

By Louise Coletta
BBC News


Soldiers have been filming themselves on duty in Afghanistan for years. The Ministry of Defence has now released this powerful and uncensored footage to the BBC for a documentary series.

When Private Chris Gray was killed in Afghanistan in 2007, he was not being followed around by a television camera crew.

Yet, the moments just before and after he was shot by the Taliban were captured on film because his platoon sergeant was wearing a helmet-mounted camera.

"We knew it was going to be a tough, tough tour… I chose to film it, you know, to look back on in years to come… a bit of posterity, history," says Sergeant Simon Panter of 3 Platoon, 1 Royal Anglian Regiment.

Sgt Panter filmed the whole six-month tour and his footage is among thousands of hours recorded by soldiers on duty in Afghanistan over the last five years.

"I don't really share and show the footage back here," Sgt Panter says.

But in order to help tell the soldiers' extraordinary stories from the front line, the Ministry of Defence and all of the young soldiers involved have given their permission to the BBC to use some of this footage for a BBC Three television series called Our War.

Our War was made to mark the 10-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, telling the story of the conflict through the words and images captured by the young soldiers themselves.

'Man down'

Private Gray was one of 19 young men from 3 Platoon on duty in a remote area of Helmand Province in 2007.

On Friday 13 April, they embarked on an operation to clear an area called Sorkani - a Taliban stronghold - and it was during this operation that Private Gray was shot.

Corporal Christian Kisbey recalls the moment he became aware they had a casualty. "The whole world came down on us. All I could hear was rounds going off, grenades going off.

"As soon as we heard 'man down, man down'... it's the worst thing you can hear as a soldier."

Sgt Panter's camera captured these events as they unfolded, and as a viewer, it is an intense experience.

While some soldiers concentrate on getting Private Gray on to a stretcher and out of the area, others continue to defend their position against the Taliban.

"It puts you in a really uncomfortable position when you sit and watch people in extreme situations," says executive producer Colin Barr. "It raises quite a lot of questions about what you should and shouldn't see."

'Completely unvarnished'

Helmet-mounted cameras are not new but they are being used more and more in modern-day conflicts.

President Obama, for example, was able to watch real-time footage of US Navy Seals as they approached Osama Bin Laden's compound in May, using this technology.

The cameras can go anywhere the soldier goes and once set recording, can easily be forgotten.

They are small, wireless and tape-less. And fitted only with a memory card, they can run for three or four hours at a time.

When Sgt Panter returned to base on the day Private Gray had been shot, he was surprised the camera was still running.

"[The footage] is completely unvarnished in that respect, nobody is acting-up for the camera," says Mr Barr.

"It feels like you're in somebody's head. When they look left, you look left. When they look right, you look right. And when they run, you run."

When she heard of her son's death, Private Gray's mother Helen said she "needed to know everything", but should we?

The kind of unmediated experience this footage offers the viewer is undeniably a powerful story-telling device.

But it can also be quite disorientating.

"There's a helplessness in it," continues Mr Barr, "you don't quite know what's going to happen next."

It is inevitable that, as viewers, we will see an increase in this kind of footage because of its compelling nature.

But does it have the potential to render the "embedded video journalist" redundant?

Mr Barr argues not and sees the films as "another layer of material" for journalists and film-makers to use to tell the story.

"If you're an embedded cameraman, you're filming with an eye to telling the story as you go and you're thinking about that all the time. If you're looking at this footage, it doesn't have any of those values in it… and without the interviews underpinning it, it would be meaningless."

The real danger, he says, is that this footage is not treated with the respect it deserves.

That people get so used to seeing it that it almost loses its point, a little like the way undercover filming was abused 10 years ago. Suddenly everybody was doing it.

"The worst thing for me would be if this material ended up just becoming part of a kind of casual palette of war, like archive that's just used and re-used and almost loses its meaning because of that… it has to be so carefully handled."

"It does bring back memories and I do find it a little bit hard," says Sgt Panter about the films he took.

"Just because I'm a sergeant, doesn't mean I haven't got any feelings."

Our War, episode one, will be broadcast at 2100 BST on 7 June, 2011, on BBC Three.

Read more about the series and see over 35 exclusive self-shot films, exploring a decade of conflict in Afghanistan.

Read an account by Bjorn Rose, Private Gray's commanding officer at the time of his death.

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