Shaping a Portrait of Disaster Response
Filmed for presentation in IMAX 3D and 2D, Rescue plunges audiences into the hard, but inspiring work of saving lives in the face of a natural disaster. This documentary project began with a simple, if challenging approach: follow the training of individuals for disaster response and then follow them as they respond to a real disaster. But what individuals and organizations and what crisis might they end up responding to? Could the production team be ready to film an unfolding disaster? The filmmakers knew before starting that this would be a very fluid documentary—evolving with emerging opportunities and unknowable disasters.
The makers of Rescue had some hard choices to make about how to focus the film and how to get the footage to tell a compelling story about people who answer the call when disaster strikes. Responding to catastrophe inevitably involves many people and organizations of different specialities and capabilities. No group alone has the resources and expertise to respond to all the deep needs of communities impacted by a major disaster. Military actors have the hardware, training, mobility and organizational structure to respond rapidly to disasters in remote areas—acting as rescue technicians and helping maintain order in communities and countries fragmented by disaster. Civilian agencies and non-governmental organizations bring a strong humanitarian focus, international perspective, an ability to solicit resources from the international community, experience in supporting and managing refugees as well as a longer-term focus on redevelopment.
The final film Rescue is a journey of real-world disaster and emergency response captured (in 3D) with unprecedented scale and impact for the giant screen. Behind the scenes, the film follows a Canadian naval commander, two pilots, and a volunteer rescue technician as they train for action. When an earthquake strikes Haiti, creating one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of the century, the audience is swept along, joining with the massive effort that brings military and civilian responders and hardware from around the world.
Rescue was filmed in the North Atlantic, Halifax, Montreal, California, Nevada and in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Production began with filming aerial and naval action featuring some of the hardware typically used in major disaster response—C-17 transport aircraft, twin-rotor Chinook helicopters and navy ships.
Nine-days at Sea in the North Atlantic with the Canadian Navy on a training leg—traveling from the Irish Sea back to Halifax—gave the production crew a true immersion in naval operations on the high seas. The crew would occupy berths on the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan sailing under Commander Peter Crane. The team covered everything from man-overboard exercises to emergency medical intervention.
By remarkable coincidence it was HMCS Athabaskan under Crane and the frigate HMCS Halifax that would be sent mere weeks later to respond to the Haiti earthquake and the massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in its wake. The film crew would follow.
Heading into Disaster. The production team arrived on site in Haiti on February 2nd, 2010, two weeks after the initial quake in Haiti. The situation on the ground was still in flux — and dangerous.
Crew. In comparison to conventional crews, filming in a situation such as the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, where you’d have maybe a 2 or 3 person team, for IMAX® 3D, a crew of nine people was necessary. The camera itself requires more personnel, for rigging and so on. There was also some lighting gear, though minimal considering the situation — and all this equipment had to be mobile. When shooting stereo film, many elements are doubled: two film magazines have to be loaded instead of one and you’re carrying twice as much film at any given moment.
Preparation. To form a plan of action before departure, the production screened information from a wide range of sources — such as the World Food Program, the U.N., various NGOs and online sources — and they pre-established contacts with the Canadian Navy and the U.S. Air Force. But the information was inevitably incomplete — the actual situation on the ground in Haiti was simply too chaotic.
Where to go? The production team didn’t want to go into the heart of the disaster, where they might contribute to the confusion — and possibly get stuck and be unable to function. So a decision had to be made on where to go in Haiti and how to get there. It was decided against going by boat. Instead, the team went via the Dominican Republic. With the assistance of a production company on the ground in Barahona in the Dominican Republic, the team was able to organize the logistics of accommodation, vehicles and also how to get into Haiti. The Canadian navy ships the crew had been filming on had been sent to Jacmel in Haiti, so it was decided that Jacmel would be the crew’s prime destination. From there, they’d have to improvise.
Arriving in Haiti, a country with virtually no surviving infrastructure, was like arriving in a war zone. With a lot of military personnel and equipment from around the world present as part of the rescue effort — and crumbled buildings everywhere which looked like they’d been bombed out — it really contributed to the feeling of a war zone.
The production team did not want to impose itself on Haiti with the region already stretched for resources. It was decided the team would stay in the Dominican Republic, and everyone flew in and out each day by helicopter, meeting up at a pre-arranged location in Haiti with a flat-bed truck, hired from a local trucking company (which was completely out of work due to the quake). This flat-bed served as the production’s mobile base camp during the time in Haiti. A guide was also hired who spoke Creole.
The guide took them around, and they followed director Stephen Low’s “nose”; his instincts for where they’d find the right moments to film. Stephen wasn’t looking for anything bloody or shocking. He wanted to show the scope of the disaster and how NGOs and militaries from around the world were helping.
Going into places where there is a lot of misery, where kids pull at your shirt and say I’m hungry, you have to keep your armour up, so as not to just stop and break down; each day the team brought along a cooler with food, biscuits, granola bars, etc, but they felt they simply couldn’t eat in front of their drivers and other Haitians, so they gave all the food away, except for keeping some water. It felt wrong to be “stuffing your face” when you saw what was going on. Crew members came back deeply disturbed and upset. They came back with a lot of troubling memories.
The film crew flew from Barahona into a little airport near Jacmel, meeting up with the Haitian drivers and guide on a daily basis. It was a little crumbled up airport. On the first day of filming, the crew linked up with DART (the Canadian Disaster Assistance Response Team). From there, the production went with whatever was presented or seemed interesting, for example going to an orphanage being rebuilt by the Canadian Navy. Daily improvisation was essential.
Communications were spotty in Haiti, and the team was often in the dark during the day. They remained in contact through the main base in the Dominican Republic where they returned each night, checking in with the production company in Montreal. For example, they’d receive a message in the Dominican Republic forwarded from Ottawa, sent from the Athabaskan, saying the navy was ready to greet the film crew and show them around Leogane. A lot of this was done by text messaging; for some reason, Blackberry texting worked while cell phones did not. Even the military said that texting was their main way of communicating! Suffice it to say communications were a bit complicated. It was the same with the contacts with the U.S. military and Air Force. The K2 co-producers (American based) would get word from the 82nd airborne regiment from L.A., which would be transmitted to the Dominican Republic and then the film crew would arrange to fly in by helicopter to meet with the 82nd.
Just getting a helicopter was a task in itself. First of all, the Spacecam mount doesn’t fit on just any helicopter. And a lot of helicopters in the immediate area around Haiti were being used for rescue operations. The production eventually found a suitable helicopter in Puerto Rico, so they had to fly the Spacecam from L.A. to Puerto Rico, and then the helicopter had to make short refuelling hops to reach Haiti. They shot for four days using the helicopter mounted Spacecam, with the director on board. Meanwhile, the rest of the film crew in Barahona prepared for shooting on the ground in Jacmel.
For getting authorization to fly in Haitian airspace, the U.S. military base unit SOUTHCOM had to be contacted. SOUTHCOM was in charge by request of the Haitian government. Their reply to the production team was: come on in — just wing it! It was a free for all. You had to be careful with radar, watching for wandering aircraft. You had to observe by eye. Mid-air collisions were a real concern … and the helicopter had to fly frequently into Port-au-Prince for refuelling.
Shooting the Spacecam footage gave the team a sense of what was happening and what route to take for further filming. The aerial footage also yielded an extraordinary, detailed high-fidelity record of the disaster and its impact across the region.
It was on one of these refuelling trips that the film crew met Stephen Heicklen, a volunteer emergency manager with a number of disasters under his belt. Through force of personality, Heicklen hitched a series of rides on the production’s helicopter to Port-au-Prince. He “hijacked” the documentary crew, which was fortunate; they later filmed him organizing a medical evacuation, and Heicklen became one of the principal characters in the film — an example of a documentary film being a true work in progress. At the same time, the production was not satisfied documenting the disaster from the sidelines, but contributed to the relief effort by donating the use of their helicopter to airlift victims of the earthquake.
Training for Disaster
Beyond the weeks spent in Haiti covering the immediate aftermath of the Earthquake, the production team filmed a variety of training activity related to the work of the individuals profiled in the film.
As Rescue opens we are introduced to the film’s featured personalities and are thrust into some of their remarkable training, at sea, in the air and on the ground, discovering something of their backgrounds, pastimes and motivations. The film follows the stories of four main personalities: Canadian Navy Commander Peter Crain of HMCS Athabaskan; United States Air Force Captain Lauren Ross, pilot of a C-17 military transport airplane; U.S. Army Major Matthew Jonkey, pilot of a CH-47 helicopter and; Steven Heicklen volunteer Emergency Manager.
Commander Peter Crain, is the captain of a Canadian Navy destroyer (HMCS Athabaskan) — a prized assignment for the career Navy man who grew up in boats, but never learned to swim. For Crain, it’s a career that has taken him around the world, policing the seas, protecting the coastline. For Crain every day in the Navy has been an adventure.
Captain Lauren Ross, the young pilot of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster II has flown her jet around the world on a range of missions; at the controls of the giant transport aircraft she is realizing a childhood dream and following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather.
Steven Heicklen is a multi-talented concrete contractor and volunteer fireman who builds swimming pools for a living, but in responding to fires and disasters at home and abroad has discovered a new outlet for his managerial talents and his skills with concrete and heavy excavation equipment.
Major Matt Jonkey is a Chinook (CH-47) helicopter pilot from the Nevada Army National Guard, who left home and joined the army to make something of himself and never looked back. Now he trains others in the unique skills of crewing giant twin-rotor choppers and accomplishing challenging missions, like water and desert landings and high-altitude rescues of injured mountaineers.
Rescue By Air
Rescue By Sea
Rescue has been exhibited around the world, providing audiences with the first giant-screen bird’s-eye-view of an unfolding international disaster and a sampling of the diverse training, discipline and unique commitment of responders. The film was marketed in collaboration with the American Red Cross and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).
Rescue is exhibited in select giant screen theaters and is available on Blu-ray. See “Where to See Rescue 3D“.
Visit the official Rescue film site: www.rescue-film.com
The American Red Cross
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org.
Ten cents from every Rescue ticket sold has been earmarked to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief to help those affected by disaster anywhere in the world.
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) is the leading nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS, and rescue services. The NVFC serves as the voice of the volunteer in the national arena and provides invaluable tools, resources, programs, and advocacy for first responders across the nation. Learn more at www.nvfc.org.