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Pulled from the Rubble

Margaret Loescher
18 March 2005

openDemocracy: What led to you making Pulled from the Rubble?

I had been making documentary films for about five years and I was just about to go to America to shoot a film about the poet William Carlos Williams (who was a relative of mine), when my father went to Baghdad with his colleague Arthur Helton, was severely injured in a suicide bomb attack and almost lost his life.

I initially picked up my camera for two reasons. The first was that I was amazed at his rehabilitation, as were most of the medical people involved and the rest of my family and friends. He was making an incredible recovery helped by his very positive outlook, and I wanted to record some of those moments. I didn’t know at that point whether the film would be for a wider public. I thought it might just be a record for the family.

The second reason I picked up the camera and started filming was because that’s what I do, and I was trying to return to some kind of normality; to recover something of what life was like before the bomb.

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The wreckage of the UN headquarters, © Timothy Sopp

openDemocracy: How did your family react when you said you wanted to make the film?

Margaret Loescher: Well my family is always incredibly supportive of what I want to do. I did have continuous conversations with my family and sometimes quite heated ones about the film and about what I was filming. Their main concern was that the film had become my way of dealing with what had happened and that maybe I was distancing myself from certain situations that were happening, and getting behind the camera rather than just being there as me. But at every point, at every stage of the filmmaking process when I was making decisions about editing it, about who would see it, about whether it was filmed for us or for a public, I would always discuss those issues with them.

I think that now they are very proud of the film and proud that I’ve made it. They do find it difficult to watch because it reminds them of a time that was really hard.

openDemocracy: So how did you balance your professional interest in film with your personal motivation of what you wanted to record?

Margaret Loescher: I was filming in order to have a record, but at the same time, being a film maker, I had confidence in the material and a sense of “this would make a good film”.

There were situations where I had to make a judgment about whether or not to film, but there were no situations where I thought “I want to stop, I don’t want to do this”.

There’s one scene in the film which is very upsetting. It’s where Claire, my sister, is reading the statement that was written by one of the paramedics who helped to rescue my father from the rubble. And she’s reading it to my parents. And I decided at that point to film. I had already read the statement, it was initially given to me and I had handed it on to them. So it was the first time they had seen it.

To this day I’m not entirely sure about filming that scene. I pulled the camera down half way through the scene. It’s a very personal moment and the film is full of these kinds of moments, and they work and they give an integrity because of my connection to the family.

openDemocracy: There’s also a lot of humour in the film.

Margaret Loescher: Throughout this whole experience, my family has been incredible at being positive, keeping happy and being a strong unit. It occurred to me the other day that there’s actually three barbeques in the film, which seems quite peculiar for a film about a terrorist attack.

That’s an example of how watching the film triggers my memory and I remember also all sorts of different levels that aren’t in the film. It’s a bit like photographs of certain moments from your childhood, do you remember those moments because of the photograph or do you remember them because you actually remember them? That is something that I often think about when I take photographs and make films: how much of my experience is controlled or formed by these records that I’m keeping?

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Gil learns to write with his left hand, © Margaret Loescher

openDemocracy: How difficult was the editing process? Did you already have a narrative in mind, or was it something that came as you pieced the film together?

Margaret Loescher: I basically separated the making of the film into two parts when I was shooting it. I had initially decided that I wanted to make a film about the UN bomb; both from my father’s perspective and the perspective of the other survivors. I wanted to make quite a political film about the controversy that was surrounding the UN bomb, the things that the UN could have done to protect themselves and didn’t. The issues concerning the miscommunication between the UN headquarters in Baghdad where they felt a kind of daily threat and were beginning to realise that the safety that the blue flag presented no longer existed in that part of the world; and the feeling in New York and Geneva, that people were completely ignorant of the fact that there was a risk of such an attack.

I wanted to make a film about that. Now I’m not a hard-nosed journalistic type so when I tried to do that it didn’t work very well. I went with a cinematographer to Geneva and to New York and we interviewed lots of UN employees. I really wanted to edit those and make them into some kind of film. At the same time as that, I was filming at home, which was much more intimate and personal. When I came to editing the interviews with the UN staff, I realised that for the most part, they wouldn’t make the most interesting film. What I really needed to do was tell was my own story, my father’s story, my family’s story. And that’s how I arrived at the narrative.

I worked very closely with the editor Barbara Zosel, and I couldn’t have done it without her. Partly because she’s a great editor, but also because it was very difficult to separate myself from the material and to be objective.

openDemocracy: Do you see it as a political film?

Margaret Loescher: Yes, although there are only two direct political statements made in the film. It is a subtly political film. Individual stories are very important as they’re able to make statements that more wily, and more traditional approaches to politics aren’t able to.

I went to New York with my cinematographer and we met with one of the US army paramedics, Ralph Embro, who had helped rescue my father. We had a very interesting meeting with him, which is in the film, in which he describes my father’s rescue. And then when I leave there, the film narration (which is done by me) reflects very briefly on that meeting. I basically say that meeting Ralph had “strengthened an unlikely connection” with the US military. I didn’t believe in or support the war in Iraq, and yet here I was meeting a man who had made it his career and his life to support the American government and work for the military. I had mixed feelings about meeting him as in any other situation I wouldn’t really have had any connection to him, but because he saved my dad’s life, I did.

The second political statement is made very eloquently by Ann, my mother. We are meeting with one of the survivors, Salim Lone, who was UN staff. He came to visit us at our home in Oxford. Salim is complaining about how the UN just wasn’t really prepared for such an attack, though maybe the staff members feared an attack like the one that happened. And my mother says something along the lines of “Don’t you think that the UN was being used and was placed in a situation that was obviously very dangerous, and was encouraged to invite people like Gil and Arthur, as a means of saying the war is over in Iraq, and the occupying forces have made this a peaceful country?”

openDemocracy: Are there any people in particular that you want to see the film?

Margaret Loescher: I don’t see it as a sort of film that will change American foreign policy, and I don’t get these urges where I think “I wish George Bush would see Pulled from the Rubble”. It’s the kind of film that people will watch and interpret in their own way. It is about survival, about pulling through. I think it’s just important for everybody to see it.

It doesn’t demand a particular audience. But there are certain groups that I think the film would benefit. It’ll speak to people who’ve perhaps experienced things similar to this, about surviving something horrific as a family. People have come to me and said “it makes me think about my relationship with my father and my family”.

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Maggie and Gil, © Margaret Loescher

openDemocracy: What do you feel you learnt the most from making the film?

Margaret Loescher: That’s an interesting question. Because this is my first feature documentary, for a first feature documentary it’s done very well at international festivals and been picked up by lots of people. I’m doing Q&As after the screening, and interviews, so I’ve definitely learnt the whole experience of how to get a film seen, what happens once it starts being seen and talked about. From that perspective professionally, I’ve learnt a lot about how to make a film.

More personal lessons, I suppose I surprised myself that I could pick up a camera in those situations and film. I’ve learnt that I can do that. In those situations the camera becomes another part of your body, and it’s just something that you do very naturally.

openDemocracy: What are your future projects?

Margaret Loescher: Well I want to make another film with my father. He’s hoping to go back to the field and visit some refugee camps in Africa and East Asia. I’m going to accompany him on one of those trips and make a film about his return to the field but also about protracted refugee situations.

After Pulled from the Rubble does the festival circuit (it’s going to Greece, Madrid, Silverdocs and Human Rights Watch in the US, and It’s all true in Brazil) I’d really like to take it on a tour of universities and hospitals. I’d really like to show it in hospitals, maybe in Orthopedic centres to people who’ve lost limbs. But obviously I need to find some way of funding that.

Pulled from the Rubble had its British premiere, organised by openDemocracy, at the British Library on Human Rights Day 10 December 2004. It’s now screening at the International Human Rights Watch Film Festival, London on 23 March at 20.45 ICA Cinema, and 24 March at 21.00 Ritzy, Brixton (Closing Night). Maggie will be present for post-screening discussions.

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