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



Sources and Methods #14: Gregory Johnsen

Johnsen%2c Gregory D credit Jeff Taylor-1-3.jpg

Gregory Johnsen 101:

Gregory on Twitter

Gregory on Buzzfeed

Gregory's book

Waq al-Waq

Show Notes:

3:39 -I’ve had the idea of writing the book since 2002, and the book wasn’t finished until 2012, so it’s been a 10 year process and the last four of those are writing… I had to throw

4:31 - One of the things that’s really benefited me is reading people who are much better writers than myself. I really love Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, which is on Al-Qaeda and the leadup to 9/11. And I think he does an excellent job of telling a very complicated story in a way that’s very readable, and it has narrative, and it has drama.

5:01 - When I first started writing, I was obsessed with sentences, with making really beautiful sentences. And then I started going back and looking at books I really enjoyed and found that the sentences were often very simple, but that the narrative as a whole just sort of carried you along.

5:50 - Something that keeps people reading that page, it’s what I try to do.

6:40 - I’m trained as a historian, not a journalist or a writer....But I don’t tend to enjoy most of the academic writing that I read. It seems almost designed to keep people out - the language that’s used, the theories discussed, the sentence structure…. the academy does not reward readability.

10:22 - Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land is one of my favorite books, and my favorite book on Yemen.

14:55 - Junior year in college, I studied at the American University of Cairo.

15:34 - [On having someone to review your work] Any time you have an audience that you know particularly well, and an audience that knows writing structure and writing form, you can see yourself progress over the years

17:45 - Yemen is a very small country, so the longer you go there, the more people you meet, and eventually you start to meet people who know different things. It’s also a country that’s built on personal relationships, so the longer I spent there, the more people came to see me as I grew in my understanding of the culture and history and language… At one point, I’d been chewing qat with a guy for six months, seven months… and one day out of the blue, he’s like ‘hey, you know, my family has all these old records from the Ottoman period in Yemen that if you ever want to take a look at you can just swing by the house and we’d show you all these things.’ And that’s sort of how things in Yemen work, once people trust you.

19:04 - One of the things that also helped was the amount of stuff that Al Qaeda itself published. They would publish these ‘martyr biographies’ that would go into incredible details about this person’s life… all of these things were really sort of excellent resources for me as I’m going through this material...obviously you have to be careful with how you handle this kind of material, but they aren’t the only source, so you can do a lot of triangulation. And there are also Yemeni journalists that sit down with Al Qaeda, and I was able to know these [Yemeni journalists] who were welcome and gracious… I couldn’t have written the book without the help of all of these Yemenis who were just so incredibly giving.

22:40 - Fieldwork is essential.

22:50 - The American Institute of Yemeni Studies

29:44 - I scribble things on scraps of paper that then end up in Ziplock bags, which is as disorganized as it sounds… and then I use Microsoft Word, and I sit down and write.

31:46 - I don’t typically do a lot of outlining, but I do do a lot of re-writing… I’ll be at my desk by 9am and just write until - well, I know myself well enough by now to know the point at which I’m not going to get any more productive work done, and that’s usually around 4pm or so, and then I go for a run, and then the day is over… The next day, I typically read back through everything that I have, and as I read back through it I tend to find places that just don’t work… and then I spend time fixing those.

37:38 - Buzzfeed is one of the few media organizations I’m aware of that would fund something like [his fellowship] to the degree that they did and give me the flexibility and the freedom - things that I really value.

39:50 - Gregory’s great story about one sentence: 60 Words and A War Without End

50:57 - I could not have written the book that I did without Arabic [language abilities].

Greg’s Books:

Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 by Hunter S. Thompson

Matt’s Book: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

Greg’s Film: It’s a Wonderful Life

Alex’s Book: Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy by Jonathon A. C. Brown

Greg’s Music: Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony: