I was recently given the opportunity to ask the amazing James Brabazon, author of My Friend the Mercenary, a few questions about the life of a reporter/documentary filmmaker in the field and learn a little more about him. My favorite answer is #2. Enjoy!
1) Were you always an adventure seeker? How did you get started in war reporting/documentary film making?
I think that everyone is born an adventure seeker – watching my son take his first steps reminded me of that. But the urge to explore, to push boundaries, can get bred out of people very quickly – especially in young men who have no outlet or ritual in modern society to mark their transition from childhood to manhood. Somehow I managed to hang on to my wanderlust, which was fed by the older generation in my family, and turn it into the basis of my profession. I was brought up by my grandfathers: story tellers and adventurers who had not just had amazing travels in their youth, but who had also fought in a war of national survival. Their adventures were not just exciting but also explicitly moral. And that is why I became interested in war reporting – I wanted an adventure, that would live up to the example set by my grandfathers because it would be suffused with moral purpose. I do the job because I’m passionate about telling stories that come from the ragged, violent margins of society. It began with taking photos as a student – and now I write and make films to communicate what people tell me, to describe how they live.
2) You discuss in the book that you developed a bond with your Grandfather and was able to understand him a bit more because you had seen war firsthand. Can you describe this understanding and how it felt?
My father’s father once told me that, paradoxically, war was the only arena in modern society where men were allowed to love each other unconditionally. The bond that forms between friends who have saved each others lives is unique, profound and enduring. When I came back from the war in Liberia I realised that, and with it an understanding that the reasons that men go to war, and the reasons they stay at war are usually very different.
3) How hard was it for you to not cross that line between journalism and making events personal, in Africa?
There is no distinction. In war there will come a point at which you will inevitably have to exercise your natural and inalienable right of self defence: to do so to any degree means that you are no longer an observer but necessarily a participant.
4) Where are you at present and what are you working on?
I’ve just finished making a film about the UK oil company BP. It was a six month investigation that took me to Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, Azerbaijan and Berlin. I’m now in London, planning my next film.
5) Has getting married and starting a family changed/affected the way you approach your work?
Yes, insofar as I now calculate risk very differently. When I was in Liberia I expected at times to be killed filming. I accepted that was not just possible but probable. My survival became a statistical aberration. Now I have something to come home to beyond the story. My children are now my most powerful motivators.
6) What did you think when you first saw Nick?
“I’ve been tricked! This is a con!” – he looked so unassuming I had no idea of the vast amount of military experience behind his very mild-mannered countenance.
7) How often do you see/talk to Nick these days? Do you ever get to South Africa to visit him and his family?
We write and talk very regularly by phone. I’m hoping to see him in South Africa this summer, if not before.
8) How has Nick been faring in his new life? Has he gone back to his mercenary ways?
He’s doing well. He has a good job, and is enjoying life again. Nick’s days of soldiering for money are over. He was the only person involved in the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt to show remorse and contrition. He accepted that what he had tried to do was wrong – and that’s important, because people can change, do change: Nick’s done his time and then some – and feels himself a better man for it.
9) It seems that you have experienced firsthand the worst parts of people. How does seeing these wars right in front of your face affect your views on humanity?
I have witnessed arguably the worst things that human beings are capable of doing to each other – and yet I also saw the people who committed those atrocities act with kindness and compassion towards other people, including me. Where there exists even the slightest spark of empathy there exists the possibility for redemption: not necessarily in a religious sense, but in a human sense. To believe that we are not capable of changing is too dark to contemplate. I have seen it with my own eyes, starting with my friend the mercenary, Nick du Toit.
10) When do you think you will get out of war reporting and what do you plan on doing after?
I am interested in conflict in whatever form it takes: physical, intellectual, moral… Why do people fight? What makes one person hate another? And what would it take to stop it? When I can answer that, I’ll quit.
Start reading My Friend the Mercenary now.
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