Documentary filmmakers often turn their noses up at television — but Brian Conley is embracing the medium (or at least the computer version of it) to showcase the daily lives of Iraqi people, called "Alive in Baghdad."
Conley, a bearded, soft spoken 27 year old, studied Arabic in college with an Iraqi professor and says he's felt a strong connection to the country since the first Gulf War in 1991. He visited Baghdad a couple years ago to collect interviews on tape, intending to bring them home and share them with others during a speaking tour. During his travels in Iraq, he met a young man who convinced him to do more: start an Iraqi TV network, not run by political or religious groups, but by Conley himself. The idea was to have no agenda beyond focusing on what life is really like, as seen through the eyes (and inexpensive mini-DV camera lens) of local storytellers.
Conley received funding, bought a few cameras, gave them to a few budding correspondents and taught them how to use the equipment, then set them loose in their own neighborhoods to gather material and ship it to the states (DHL, from Baghdad to Philadelphia in five days). The content is loaded onto e-mail files and translated overseas, then sent back to Conley and his colleague, 23-year-old film school grad Steven Wyshywaniuk. The pair cut the material down to long-form news package size, edit with subtitles on laptops and put it on the Web site.
Conley says he's hired Shiias, Sunnis and Kurds, interviewing everyone from an insurgent infiltrating the Iraqi military, to car bomb victims to hospital guards, to young furniture makers, to a kid who sits home and plays video games all day. He says he has no agenda, and tries to keep the finished stories free of bias. He discusses assignments with an Iraqi coordinator before handing them out — and they don't always turn out as planned, but the material is often riveting, terribly upsetting or remarkably uplifting, like a recent story about celebrations over the Iraqi soccer team's success.
Conley and his crew don't have much money. He and Steven work in a cramped 2nd floor office in a south Philly rowhouse that Brian also calls home, and their $2,500 a month salary depends on the kindness of benefactors, since the site isn't generating much income. But, Brian says he will do a live in Baghdad as long as he can, and hopes to expand his "small world news" concept around the globe (there is already "Alive in Mexico" — and "Alive in Sri Lanka" could be next).
"I see myself doing this forever" he told me. "This kind of production, with journalistic training of locals, you can tell stories you couldn't tell before. It’s part of the future of news."
Rick Leventhal has been a New York-based correspondent with the FOX News Channel since June 1997. You can read his bio here.