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Combat filmmaker goes ‘outside the wire’

In the warzone, the only thing Alison MacLean shoots is her camera. But in her hands, it is just as powerful as the weapons of the soldiers she’s working alongside.

Back in July 2010, the independent documentary filmmaker spent three weeks embedded with Canadian troops through Operation Athena in the Kandahar Province. From her footage, she created the documentary, Outside the Wire.

“Outside the wire” is a military term used to describe when those in a war zone go past the perimeters set up around operations and camps. They do so at great personal risk.

Blatant and with no-frills, the 55-year-old South Surrey resident brought in an unbiased angle, highlighting women in the Canadian and coalition troops working in Afghanistan.

“These people are the frontline soldiers of change on all levels and I know that women embrace that, and they embrace this new job and they go forward with it,” MacLean said.

Over the last five years, MacLean has made a point of featuring the stories of women in combat because she feels that they have been underrepresented.

Not everyone working in Afghanistan is a frontline worker. she mentions a “legacy of care” that female doctors, nurses, logistics workers and consultants bring to ensure the operation is free of mistakes.

“Everyone on base has a job to do, and there really isn’t one job that’s more important than the other,” she said.

Reception of Outside the Wire has been a positive one, from military personnel as well as the general audience, after it aired on the W Network in November 2010.

“I’m really happy viewers gravitated towards the people,” she said. “I wanted them to see and hear the many different voices and arrive at their own conclusions.”

As a filmmaker, MacLean says her goal is to bring stories forward without manipulating them, “highlighting people, doing what they do.”

MacLean’s focus with Outside the Wire centered on her wanting it to feel like she was taking you on her “learning curve journey through the war zone.”

She aimed to document the real image of what was occurring in the moment.

“I want people to kind of see from what they call ‘wheels up’ – what it’s like right from when we get the call for the emergency, getting into the Blackhawk, getting into the air, getting to the soldiers or whomever needed help,” she said.

Working as an independent filmmaker gave her more of an opportunity to do this. Although going on her own was a risk, it was also an advantage, as she was able to travel more with the troops than larger media corporations would have.

“The benefit of being on my own is that there’s usually always one extra seat on any troop flight going out,” she said.

Yet being able to move around more meant MacLean was often put into situations of increased danger. She has been in some tense situations where her only advice is to be resilient, and not panic.

MacLean is no stranger to this kind of action.

While working as a camera person for TSN, she was in conversation with CNN about going to Iraq for combat camera work.

Two weeks later, a drunk driver collided with her vehicle head-on, causing severe head, neck and spine injuries. Rehabilitation took five years for her to be able to feel and function like she did before.

“Sometimes life can really throw a lot of curveballs and you have to decide how resilient you’ll have to be,” MacLean said.

Working in combat zones wasn’t in MacLean’s mind until leading up to her 50th birthday, when she joked with some of her male colleagues that all she wanted was a titanium knee and some body armour.

Shortly after, she was given the chance to embed and film the stories of women in combat and those working on the frontlines.

Outside the Wire was the beginning of getting into the war zone film market for MacLean, who isn’t new to featuring the role of women in combat situations. In 2002, she released The Power and the Grace, which featured women of the Second World War.

MacLean’s latest documentary is Burkas 2 Bullets, which has a tentative fall release date. She’s hoping the new documentary will educate audiences about the after-effects of war in Afghanistan. The film is centred on women being trained to serve in the National Security Forces in Afghanistan, which is an initiative that came from the mentor programs NATO operates, and in which the RCMP takes part.

Many Afghan women involved with the forces, especially in rural areas, are not respected or given proper uniforms or equipment. MacLean said they face a lot of adversity.

She returned to Afghanistan in September 2012 to film, and the inequality between the police force resonated with her.

With all her films, she said that even though she’s there to document, she would never hesitate to put her camera aside and put people first.

Back in Canada, she used some of her own profits and partnered with several Rotary Clubs. They raised $6,500 to pay for uniforms for 100 policewomen in the city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Both Afghan groups and military entities have invited her back to Afghanistan, but MacLean doesn’t see that happening in the near future. Instead, she wants to focus on her future project of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide among veterans, which she plans to start shooting in the fall.

“War is hell. War is not pleasant, so you have to be psychologically prepared to discipline yourself to the ugliness of it,” MacLean said.

The filmmaker has also done documentary stints in Russia and Romania. Her company Tomboy Productions can be found at www.tomboyproductions.tv.

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Originally published by the Surrey Now

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