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Handycam footage becomes chilling Only the Dead

Journalist Michael Ware explains how he turned his Handycam footage from the Iraq War into chilling documentary Only the Dead.

When Australian journalist Michael Ware first began working in the Middle East, he bought a $300 Handycam on the black market “almost on a whim”.

But it quickly became a kind of visual notebook to capture the chaos that was unfolding during the Iraq War, as US troops invaded the country and the newly created Islamic State (IS) began to take hold.

“Particularly as the bullets are flying or as you’re running from a mortar, the camera was able to record the things that I couldn’t. You can only scribble so fast,” he says.

“And each year I would come home on leave from Iraq and I would dump that year’s batch of tapes into a tupperware box under my mother’s bed.”

After seven years in the Middle East, Ware had collected hundreds of hours of tapes, capturing moments he can’t even remember happened.

“When I finally sat down with this tupperware box and all the tapes that were in it, I felt compelled to honour the lives that were contained in those tapes,” he says.

“So part of me was driven to tell the story.”

That story became the documentary Only the Dead, which follows Ware as he embeds himself inside insurgent militia and Al Qaeda, and watches as Islamic State is formed under the violent leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Rated R18+ Only the Dead contains graphic footage of some of the shocking murders and death Ware witnessed.

Several times the work nearly claimed his own life. At one point Ware was captured and nearly beheaded by Zarqawi’s men in Baghdad, and also faced chilling moments while travelling with US troops.

But Ware points out Only the Dead is so much more than a film about the Iraq War.

“The other part is the story we discovered buried within this archive… of the light and dark that lives within all of us.”

“It’s an age old story,” he says. “It’s something that Joseph Conrad wrote about in the 1890s in Heart of Darkness. It’s something that Francis Ford Coppola turned into Apocolypse Now in 1979 and it turns out its something I filmed by accident in Iraq.”

Ware hopes audiences who watch Only the Dead might think about how far they would go in any of these situations, “and wonder what parts of you lurk within, that you don’t yet know about”.

“I know I certainly found dark recesses of my own heart that I didn’t know existed and I know many of the soldiers around me found the same thing.”

It took Ware some time to realise what the story of Only the Dead was, and a further hard 18 months to two years of editing down the footage.

And it was not always an easy process. Some mornings Ware would just need to “tap out”, although he says it became easier as time went on.

There are things from Ware’s life in Iraq that will stay with him forever.

He will never get his sense of smell, or much of his taste back, following a bombing in 2009.

But he prefers to see the positives of it.

“They say that smells can be one of the greatest triggers of memory and part of trauma, but I lost my sense of smell in a bombing in 2009, so I think I managed to escape that.

“(And) it helps me changing the baby’s nappies,” he says, laughing.

Now the doco is finished, Ware is also facing a new kind of dread – being interviewed by media.

“As a journalist it’s horrible being on the wrong side of the notebook,” he says.

“It’s like sulphuric acid on my skin. Quite frankly I’m still getting my head around it.”

Ware says he’s been a professional storyteller his whole life – first as a print journalist working for Time magazine, then in broadcast news for CNN and now in film.

“So I’m just trying to stay focused on that sense of continuity that I’m still just telling stories, even if it is now on the wrong side of the camera.”

And Ware is already looking at the next story, saying there are so many still left untold. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to say them.

“Perhaps in doco form, but also in scripted form, be that film or television,” he says.

“What I’m discovering, is in so many ways, I can tell greater truths in fiction than in documentary.”

While he can’t give any more details about what might be in the pipeline, one thing is for certain: watch this space.

Michael Ware will present Q&A special event screenings of Only the Dead, rated R18+, nationally across Australia from 20 October 2015.