Foreign Stories: The Remix – by Nancy Updike

January 18th, 2011
Nancy Updike

Nancy Updike

In Iraq this summer, another reporter—Larry Kaplow—and I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to a city called Baqouba. Everyone hated going to Baqouba: our translator, our drivers, our guard, us. Larry, who reported from Iraq for six years and has seen a lot of jacked-up places, muttered one day as we were walking past the algae-covered sewage in the Baqouba market, “Jesus, what a shithole.” We were on our way back from an interview that had ended disturbingly: as I’d started asking my last question…

…an IED exploded in a nearby mosque. We left as soon as it seemed safe, and we found out later that our guard had wanted us to leave much earlier. While we’d been interviewing the guy in one room, his four Sunni guards had apparently been hanging out in the other room discussing which Sunni gang was better—the one that three of them belonged to, called 1920 Revolution, or the one that the fourth guard belonged to, Al Qaeda.

No joke, the happiest person we talked to in Baqouba was a doctor who’d survived a recent suicide attack that killed dozens of people around him. He cheerfully showed us a DVD of the attack, taken by a hospital security camera.

The doctor pointed to a man in uniform—a fake Iraqi police uniform, it turned out—and as the doctor fast-forwarded through the video, the suicide bomber was the only one who was always in the frame, as others moved in and out of the hospital’s emergency room and parking area. For 41 minutes, the man is there, waiting. The police commander shows up at one point.

None of this made it into the hour-long show we did about Iraq.

We aired the show months ago, and I’m still re-cutting and re-writing all the stories in my head. That’s part of foreign reporting for me, I’ve realized. With foreign stories, so much gets pushed out, even if I’ve got a whole hour: time gets eaten up trying to orient listeners, cover key backstories, explain conflicts, mix in translation. Good tape gets chucked—and then, if you’re me, it gets chewed over in your brain later.

For instance, the explosion that happened while I was interviewing the guy. At first it seemed like, of course we’ll use that. But then I decided that we wouldn’t use any of the interview with that guy, so what would the purpose of that moment of the explosion be? To show that Iraq is still dangerous? OK. I tried putting it in a couple of different places, but it felt flashy to me—like maybe it wasn’t saying something about Iraq, but was instead the radio version of the TV reporter in a war zone making sure the camera shows him in his flak jacket.

The doctor with the suicide DVD? We didn’t put him in partly because his happiness was so anomalous; he didn’t represent the vast majority of what we saw in Iraq. Even so, Ira and I seriously considered spending the Sunday after the show aired rewriting part of the script to include him. Then we realized we both had way too much else to do.

I’ve got a dozen of these what-ifs in my head from the Iraq show, some that are halfway settled, and others that are questions I keep asking myself. Should we have made room for the embed Larry did, including the memorial service for a medic, Sgt. Jamal Rhett, who was the second-to-the last US soldier killed during the official combat mission in Iraq?

After the speeches at the service, they did roll call, calling out two names, and getting responses, before calling out Sgt. Rhett’s name.

Should I have said somewhere, “The Iraq War, even its successes, has been a series of short-term decisions by the U.S. in a region full of countries that think very long-term”? Should I have found a place for this quote from former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker—it’s dry, but I keep thinking about it, since this is the man who, along with General David Petraeus, helped turn Iraq from a war we were losing, into one we felt comfortable turning away from.

And what about this, which I cut and put back into the show half a dozen times before finally axing it, even though it was one of the first notes I wrote to myself when we were in Iraq:

War can unify a country, but only if everyone agrees on who the enemy was. Or is. In Iraq, people have been killed in too many different ways by too many different groups. There is no unified sense of grief, or grievance, here. And what people can’t agree on, they fight over. That’s why people worry about Iraq.

Nancy Updike is a producer at This American Life, and she has reported from the Middle East for several years. Her hour-long radio documentary about private contractors in Iraq, “I’m From the Private Sector and I’m Here to Help,” won a 2004 Scripps-Howard National Journalism Award and a 2005 Murrow Award.

4 Comments on “Foreign Stories: The Remix – by Nancy Updike”

  • Brit McGinnis says:

    I completely understand what you mean about having a surplus of material, of having too much that you WANT to include but can’t (whether because of time restraints or anything at all). A few times I’ve resisted adding foreign language elements into my pieces because the translation would have been to tedious for my listener’s ears.
    I’m curious, though: how do you resist the temptation to just make a bunch of different pieces from the same material? For example, why not create a side piece about the doctor who survived the suicide bomb if you couldn’t include it in a T.A.L. show? I know you must be a very busy woman and probably can’t do whole separate projects because of how much time they consume, but it seems like it would be maddening to just SCRAP material that you clearly love, even if it has no place in the main show.

  • Anjie Rosga says:

    I really appreciate your providing a few of these out-takes. I actually think (for me at least), they answer Brit McGinnis’s question (and yours) about what to do with this excellent, but un-included material. I often feel tormented by inclusion/exclusion decisions — in writing or video editing. But as an avid listener to both of your Iraq pieces (“Iraq After Us,” and “I’m from the Private Sector…”), I can attest firmly that I think you’ve made superb editorial decisions. These bits you reveal having cut from “Iraq After Us” are, yes, amazing. But I don’t believe they would have added anything to the piece that’s not fundamentally already there, in spirit if not explicitly in sounds & words. This is extraordinary work. I love that you shared the out-takes, but I’m also glad they’re the out-takes. It gives me even more confidence in your editorial judgments. Thanks to all of you at TAL for your valuable labors.

  • Amanda Gooe says:

    I think you should tell every story from Iraq that you can find the time and energy to produce. Thank you for your diligent, conscientious work.

  • Nancy Updike says:

    Thanks for the kind words. About the idea of making a story from leftover tape: I’ve never done it. Am I in the minority on that? Are other producers out there making great stories from their leftover tape? Even when I was freelancing and trying to squeeze as many stories as possible out of my reporting, I never made two different radio stories from the same pile of tape. A print story and a radio story using the same tape, yes. Two radio stories, no. Having said all that, I might be about to attempt it. So, wish me luck.

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