War correspondent Michael Ware never set out to make a movie. Back in 2003, when he swapped his hometown of Brisbane for Baghdad, to cover the invasion of Iraq, social media was yet to take the world by storm. Pen, paper and telephone were the tools of his trade.
Yet after picking up a small handycam on the black market in Kurdistan, Ware found it to be an indispensable tool when reporting from the frontline. 'First and foremost, it was a notebook,' he explains. Finding barely enough time to scribble amid the confusion of a bombing, or in the midst of combat, Ware found that keeping the camera rolling was a cinch by comparison.
War correspondent Michael Ware. Image Yuri Kosyrev.
Iraq was supposed to be a three week assignment. However, as the conflict in the region escalated, Ware, who'd had previous stints in East Timor and Afghanistan, stayed for seven years. On his infrequent returns to Brisbane, he would dump the handycam tapes in a plastic storage container at his mother's house. It wasn't until many years later, upon reviewing the footage, that he discerned the shape of a powerful story embedded in those tapes.
The result, distilled from 350 hours of footage, is the unflinching 80-minute documentary Only the Dead. Speaking at an advance screening of the film in Brisbane in October 2015, Ware acknowledges it is a difficult and demanding film to watch, for Only the Dead documents not just the horrors of war, and the birth of the terrorist organisation now known as ISIS, but the corrosive effects of war on the human spirit. Quoting an unnamed soldier, Ware narrates that 'there are certain dark chambers of the heart that, once opened, can never be closed again' and, he believes, this applies to him too.
Soldiers attacking from a rooftop in Fallujah, Iraq. Image Yuri Kosyrev.
Indeed, the war in Iraq took its toll on Ware, both physically and emotionally. Colleagues were killed. Ware suffered repeated concussions as a result of exploding roadside bombs, and has now lost his sense of smell. Only the Dead also documents how Ware was kidnapped at gunpoint and almost beheaded by Al Qaeda before intercession by his guide. Yet amid the grim circumstances, there are moments of levity, including Ware's banter with photographer Yuri Kosyrev about purchasing real estate in the battle-scarred city of Ramadi.
Michael Ware during a lull in fighting. Image Franco Pagetti.
What I found most compelling, though, was the thorny and complicated relationship which developed between Ware and terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi hand-picked Ware, whom he described as 'the infidel', to be the recipient of Zarqawi's own videos, which depicted suicide bombings, beheadings and other atrocities. It was Zarqawi's intention that Ware share these videos with his Western audience in order to announce his arrival on the world stage. In Only the Dead, some of this footage is spliced in amid Ware's own - to grisly effect.
Only the Dead has been screened at numerous film festivals, including the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival, and will begin its Brisbane season in the Schonell Theatre from November 26.
So confronting is Only the Dead's subject matter that at the end of its advance screening in Brisbane, there was about half a minute of stunned silence, followed by thunderous applause. Yes, Only the Dead is an uncomfortable film to watch. But that's exactly why you need to watch it.
Only the Dead's cinema poster. Image courtesy Penance Films.