A Documentarian Volunteers to Become Part Of His Own Syria-Set ISIS Documentary
A Filmmaker Ventures to Syria to Document the Fight Against ISIS, Only to Become a Part of His Own Story, in AT&T Audience Network’s Gripping Two-Part Series “The Volunteers”
It’s one thing to go to Syria to make a documentary about the volunteers risking their lives to take up arms against ISIS. It’s another thing entirely, however, to become an active combatant in that battle. For River Rainbow Hagg, the producer and cameraman of AT&T Audience Network’s new non-fiction series "The Volunteers" (premiering as a two-night event on Veterans Day weekend, Nov. 11 and 12, at 10 p.m. ET/PT), achieving the former was only possible if he agreed to do the latter – no matter the peril it entailed.
In order to get into Syria and join up with YPG, a Kurdish militia (bolstered by Arab and Western fighters) waging war against ISIS, Hagg first travelled to Iraq, where he got in touch with a Kurdish individual who was supposed to aid his entry. Yet as he quickly learned, his baggage was most unwelcome.
“I’ve got a big medic bag with me, I’ve got a big rucksack, and I’ve got my camera,” Hagg recalls. “I’m standing there on the street corner, and this tall Kurdish man walks up to me. He’s looking me up and down – I’m wearing nondescript clothing, but you can tell I’ve got good military gear – and he nods and says, ‘You River?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ And then he looks down to my right hand, where I’m holding my camera, and he says, ‘What is this?’ And I say, ‘Oh, this is my camera.’ He asks why I have a camera, and I say it’s because I’m a documentarian, and I’m supposed to come across and do a documentary on the YPG and the foreign volunteers. The YPG knows I’m coming, and they’re supposed to let you know that I’m coming. And he goes, ‘No, no, no, no – I cannot take press. You cannot come.’”
A harrowing deal was soon proposed. “He says, ‘I’ll take you if you join the YPG for six months as a fighter, a soldier.’ I was like, ‘No, I can’t stay for six months – I can only stay for two months!’ He says, ‘Sorry my friend, I can’t help you,’ and he turns to leave. I’m like, ‘Wait a second! The YPG knows I’m coming!’” Without any other means of realizing his goal, Hagg accepted the impromptu proposition. “I took a deep breath, and I said ‘F--k it, I’ll join for six months.’”
Hagg’s ensuing odyssey took him to the northern Syrian region known as Rojava, and is documented in intense first-person detail by "The Volunteers." The show is executive produced by Ricky Schroder, who previously collaborated with Hagg on the AT&T Audience Network docuseries "The Fighting Season" (2015) and "My Fighting Season" (2016), both of which were set in Afghanistan. Motivated by his experiences on those non-fiction projects, as well as by the Syrian horrors he was witnessing on TV, Hagg turned again to Schroder for "The Volunteers." Regardless of the obvious danger in which he was placing himself, "I felt like this was something that I really needed to do," he remembers. "So I just made this decision that I was going to do this. I sold my motorcycle, paid a couple months' bills, and bought a one-way ticket with frequent flyer miles to Erbil, Iraq."
Once embedded with YPG, things didn’t get any easier for Hagg, as depicted throughout "The Volunteers’" blistering up-close-and-personal snapshot of the chaotic conflict. Initially there to simply document these brave men and women’s efforts to oppose ISIS, Hagg – who’d had some medical training during his Navy tour of duty – found a new role after being asked to work as part of the unit’s depleted medic team. “They told me, ‘We need you. We’re going, and we need everyone we can get.’ I was really, really humbled that they asked me.” Of course, that decision altered the entire series. “That’s when the documentary really changed,” Hagg says. “That’s really when I started filming myself as part of the unit. And I was really concerned that the quality of coverage wouldn’t be good enough to actually make an edit out of, because my priorities shifted from the camera to the casualties.”
As evidenced by "The Volunteers," Hagg handled that undertaking with courage and skill, despite being forced to use things like seatbelts and plastic bags to create makeshift tourniquets and devices for sealing chest wounds (“an amazing success!”). Even on his worst day, in which the majority of patients turned out to be children – “It’s a really tough scene to watch, and it’s even harder to live through for sure,” he states – the cameraman trained an incisive eye on the war against ISIS, whose “insidious” tactics included using human shields and surrounding cities with trenches laced with mines in order to prevent escape.
If that weren’t traumatic enough, Hagg’s exit from Syria proved an ordeal unto itself. Detained at the border, he was locked up in an Iraqi jail, in a 16-by-35-foot concrete cell populated by 80-90 men. “We were packed in so tight, we slept on top of each other, head-to-toe. We had three rows of people like that, and you could step in-between people to go use the hole in the back that was the toilet.” Surrounded by menacing figures, and with torture an ever-present feature of the facility, Hagg suffered for twenty-one days until, finally, he was freed. Luckier still, he was then able to make his way out of the country with his wartime footage intact – thus allowing American audiences to relive his harrowing experiences via "The Volunteers."
Now stateside and focused on writing a novel about his time in Syria, Hagg hopes "The Volunteers" suggests a positive path forward, both for those fighting ISIS, and for those here at home. “It’s even more important for us to reach out, to volunteer, to help our fellow neighbors,” he advise. “There’s been a lot of divide in this country recently, and I hope our country can reach back a little bit towards that. Because that’s what I saw in Rojava. I saw Christians, Muslims, atheists, anarchists, communists, and we were all together on one side fighting a common enemy. If we can do that there, we can do that here.”
Go inside the fight against ISIS like never before, with AT&T Audience Network's "The Volunteers," premiering Nov. 11 and 12, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.