Sources and Methods #24: Ben Anderson

Ben Anderson 101:

No Worse Enemy (

The Interpreters (

Ben on Twitter

Show Notes:

3:58 - (On where curiosity about the rest of the world started) It was the Invasion of East Timor that I read all about, and how Britain supplied weapons to Indonesia. I wrote to John Pilger, and he wrote back to me at 17 years old.

5:00 - I had dreams of being a novelist, of being a writer. I eventually switched to journalism.

One of my first big stories involved funeral homes, which I secretly filmed and exposed. After this, got contacted by the BBC and Donal MacIntyre.

7:03 - When George W. Bush made his Axis of Evil speech, John Bolton then added three more countries to the list, so there’s an A List and a B List. A List was Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, and B List was Syria, Libya and Cuba. [So I went to all of them] with a small handheld camera, went and filmed reality there, life from the streets up. It ended up being a really popular film, and that’s almost what I’ve been doing since.

8:15 - (On the importance of journalism / film school) - If you can go somewhere  and learn the basic tools, then great. I’m not sure you can be taught to have the curiosity you need to really do this job well, you need the kind of curiosity where it’s your entire life, where you’re willing to go somewhere for months on end and endure all kinds of hardships and possibly sometimes take on some risk as well. I’m not sure you can teach that. Curiosity. Empathy. An ability to genuinely listen and not just have views confirmed.

If there’s somewhere you can learn how to edit, how to shoot, the basics of writing, then great, but I’m pretty sure of all the people I admire the most, much of them didn’t go to journalism school.

9:50 - I copy writers far more than I copy filmmakers. George Orwell was number one hero.

11:53 - An important thing was figuring out the story while I was recording, so as a result, the story felt far more vibrant than a lot of the stuff you see which is clearly set up and controlled.

12:20 - You look at a lot of people in American TV news, and the whole point of going [wherever] is that they get seen with a flak jacket on somewhere vaguely dangerous. It’s probably a military base, which is probably one of the safest places in that country. And there’s probably nothing happening behind them except helicopters taking off and landing, but you know the point is to get that live shot that looks like they’re reporting from the front lines. I think that’s almost worse than not going at all, because it gives the impression they’ve actually been out and seen something, so what they’re saying holds validity. I’ve seen some shocking things [regarding this]. I’m amazed at how common this seems to be.

14:06 - (On writing a book after making films) If you asked me to come up with 10 documentaries that changed my life, I’d struggle. But I could name 100 books right away that I would say you have to read this before you do anything else. I’ve always respected writers.

I just want to get everything I’ve seen into one place so that if someone is curious enough, it’s there, somewhere. I’ve heard people say in the past that they ‘had to write a book’ and I was always skeptical when I heard that, but I really did feel like I had to just to, as simple a form as possible, just get it all down on paper in one place so that if at any point someone does want to know what this actually looked like from 2007 to the present day, then there it was. I don’t know how much of a difference it actually made, but it felt very logical to do it.

15:53 - The great thing about making documentaries is that you can make a living do it (in contrast to writing). Some documentaries are seen by 20 million people, whereas I think my book sold 15,000 copies. And the publishers were happy with it as well, but I thought it was a depressingly low number. But when someone reads a book, you assume they’re focused on reading it, rather than watching TV, where they could be making tea at the same time.

18:33 - (On returning again and again to Afghanistan) It was never my intention to go back so many times. I think Afghanistan is probably second only to Israel / Palestine in terms of once you get there and actually talk to people, it’s so far away from the country you read about or see reported. That made me keep wanting to go back. To try and show some side of what it’s actually like. As you know, the people you meet in Afghanistan are some of the most hospitable, wonderful people in the world, and I wanted to tell their stories.

24:55 - El Snarkistani on Twitter (on statements that are ludicrously removed from what’s happening on the ground, specifically in Afghanistan).

27:45 - I don’t know how much of what I see is what journalists are able to do vs. what they can do. I know for many, the idea of them being sent to Helmand for a month or two without even knowing without they’re going to do, I don’t know many people who would get that level of support. I’m grateful for the support I get here at Vice.

38:01 - (On how the book came together) It was embarrassingly simple. I’d got to the point where I’d had a few really close shaves and thought it was time for a bit of a break. So I got all of the footage I’d ever shot in Afghanistan and sat down with a really good friend of mine who was a translator, and got everything I’d shot translated word for word, which I’d always wanted to do anyway, and I rented a small house in southern Italy, and watched every single tape from start to finish and wrote down everything of interest, or worth describing.

Then I would go through it and remove as much fatty tissue as possible, again and again. The first draft is always ugly and clunky, and you go through and polish and polish and polish and eventually there are passages where you think, actually, I’d like someone to read this. Very chronological order. I started off very innocent, without having an opinion.

41:38 - (On sources of emulation) George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. I read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson.

44:50 (On prepping for a project) If it’s somewhere I’ve been before, then it’s just talking to people I know on the ground, reading whatever has been written recently, trying to rest as much as possible. The 2-3 days before you leave are always the worst.

If it’s somewhere new, that’s fairly daunting, I see if any of the writers I love have written anything about this. I read everything there, and that gets my curiosity going and I usually really want to go, start seeing possibilities of what I might be able to film.

Also, I don’t think it’s all about courage. It’s really all about curiosity. If you’re curiosity is right, then that just takes over above fears for your physical safety. You want to see things that much that you becomes more important than concerns about safety.

52:14 - The only thing I read cover to cover each week is the New Yorker, but otherwise I read pretty much what everyone else would read. But that’s just what starts the curiosity. Newspapers and magazines are starting points. Twitter is an incredible tool.

53:55 - With that, the Twitter abuse is quite difficult. And arguing on it is completely pointless I’ve learned. Which is a shame. It’s turned into this playground fight all day long instead of the free flow of information.

59:22 - It’s of course easy to make fun of Fox News, but the left-wing ones are almost just as bad. [I’ve gone on a few of these shows and] It’s like you have to be a trained actor by which you respond with these few canned lines, there’s no discussion on any of these. News coverage, particularly election coverage, is almost like sports commentary. The talk about ‘tactics’ is leading. The talk of actual policy is almost non-existent.


Ben’s picks:

Book: The Complete Essays of George Orwell

Film: Benda Bilili

Music: Manteca - Dizzy Gillespie


Matt’s Book:

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty Year Conflict With Iran by David Crist


Alex’s Book:

Deep Work by Cal Newport