Writer and editor

Filming undercover in Bahrain

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

It’s 7.30 pm in the Four Seasons hotel in Doha and May Ying Welsh, the recent owner of a George Polk award, is about to tell me how she made ‘Bahrain, Shouting in the dark’ – an undercover documentary for Al Jazeera English.

It's the first time she's being interviewed at length about the film, which was considered so sensitive that when it was aired, it didn't include credits so as to protect the producers' identity.

We're in a plush tea room, the decor is gold and the chairs are covered in velvet. We have just moved from a busier section to avoid potentially offending people with the conversation that's about to be served.

She speaks quietly at first, but by the end of the two-and-a-half hours, decibels increase and she couldn't care who hears her. It's that fearless spirit that helped her make the 51-minute film about Bahrain's uprising, the one which her voice tells us in the introduction was 'abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West and forgotten by the world.'

I'd been warned by the head of Al Jazeera English's PR team that I'm only allowed to talk about the documentary, which I take as a warning to steer clear of discussing politics of either the Gulf states or those at the television network.

May was given full freedom to make the film, which also picked up the Foreign Press Association's Documentary of the Year Award in November 2011, and a pat on the back by Executive Producer Jon Blair, who told her it has the 'power to change the world'.

There were a few days of promotion ahead of the first of eight broadcasts. But after the initial airing on August 4, a prime time 11 pm showing on a Thursday night in Ramadan, a social media firestorm overtook the internet.

Tweets poured in with the Bahrain hashtag attached as users aired their views. In the three hours after the film had ended, thousands were debating, to put it lightly, whether the film was provocative anti-regime propaganda or the first real insight into a disregarded revolution.

“Everybody waited to see it. I know a lot of people in Bahrain were just sitting there waiting for it to come on,” says May. “It was like the Gulf went mad...People started attacking the son of the (Qatari) Emir. They attacked him to such an extent that he sent out a tweet saying 'Please. Stop it. I'm not the spokesman for Al Jazeera English.'”

People loved it or hated it. One who sat firmly with the haters was Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Khalid Al Khalifa who tweeted twice, almost immediately after the film. The first read that it's “clear that in Qatar there are those who don't want anything good for Bahrain...this film on Al Jazeera English is the best example of this inexplicable hostility.” The second said the film was “an entire hour of exclusive rights for Al Jazeera English to show a one-eyed opinion while cancelling the opinion of the majority of the Bahraini people… you deserve an Oscar.”

Later, in a newspaper column, Faisal Al Sheikh, a Bahrain State TV presenter would write the film “professionally excites people’s feelings as if we were talking about the Scots revolution against the English in Braveheart for Mel Gibson Movie…Our kingdom could have been dethroned.”

But negative reviews were in the minority.

Time Magazine called it “an extraordinary documentary”, Foreign Affairs said the film “pits the individual struggle of frustrated citizens on the street against the wider, high-stakes global maneuverings of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the powerful Saudi leadership, and the West,” and BBC Arabic, among others, used adjectives such as “mesmerising,” to describe the film.

There is no doubt it soured relations, at least for a while, between Qatar and Bahrain, which banned anyone who had ever worked for Al Jazeera from entering the country for some time following the film's release. Two of the scheduled broadcasts never appeared on Al Jazeera English, without explanation. It remains online though, and has been watched over half a million times, more if you include pirate versions, and within 36 hours of it being broadcast on the network's English channel, someone had filmed it on television, added Arabic subtitles and uploaded it on to YouTube.

“The film definitely had the status of a banned book or film in the Gulf,” says May, an American who speaks fluent Arabic.

The journey started in mid-February 2011. The news-desk sent May to Manama to join a colleague, roving reporter James Bays, and asked her to produce a film.

“At that moment Hosni Mubarak had just fallen, it was clear that Bahrain was the next revolution that the world was going to focus on,” she tells me.

But when she arrived, no-one was really focused on Bahrain. There were no satellites for broadcasts and only a few, mostly print reporters, gathering news.

May, her field producer Hasan Mahfood and the small Al Jazeera team were “the only TV journalists who remained to follow their journey of hope to the carnage that followed,” she tells us in the film. She entered three times on a tourist visa from February to April.

As soon as she arrived, she headed straight to Pearl Roundabout, jumped on an RV and filmed thousands of protestors.

“As a media person, I understand that something is very wrong with this picture. You have this large number of people making a revolution, demanding the fall of their regime, risking their lives to come out and say that, and I'm the only camera there?”

Early footage which fed into regular news updates quickly became dangerous. The regime used it to identify many of the protestors, round them up, imprison and often torture them.

By the middle of March, following the arrival of hundreds of Saudi troops and after Bahraini security forces had occupied the Salmaniya Medical Complex, news took a back seat and May became fully committed to producing the documentary. The crackdown had made the story she was going to tell more compelling.

It was at this point that May then moved out of her hotel, which she suspected was giving the information ministry tips on her whereabouts. A business card from an official of King Khalifa's office slipped under her door, she understood, was also a clear sign she was being watched.

The need to flee was intensifying but she wanted more interviews.

“All the people that normally would talk to me now no longer wanted to talk to me because talking to Al Jazeera had a consequence.”

Lawyers and doctors sent her text messages saying things like ‘I am in trouble. Please don’t ever contact me again. Pray for me.’ One medic let her know that he had been dragged to the hospital morgue, forced to lick soldiers’ boots and beaten until his ears bled because they suspected he was talking to a journalist.

“I started going to people's homes without calling them on the phone first, going there in Abaya, Hijab, my camera and my phone in a feminine purse - no tripod of course. I'd go to their house and see if they would talk to me without identifying themselves. I started filming people's hands only, and doing silhouette interviews. Even with those precautions, some people still didn’t want to talk.

People were scared that even their silhouette would be recognised.

Tales of torture had spread among protestors, raising the fear that they could be next. Beatings, humiliation, sexual abuse and murder were meted out to those demanding the regime's fall.

“Everybody started to know what they were doing to people. Shoving people's face in a toilet, forcing them to drink urine...things that would make you say to yourself, 'do I ever want to protest again if this is the price?'

Those who were tortured were asked 'why are you ruining the image of Bahrain?'”

One brave dissident rounded up eight “traumatised and emotional” activists as May borrowed two lights from a passport photograph shop to set up a makeshift studio in her new apartment. They came without passing through reception, ensured they would be disguised in the film and then left through the back door.

“Very shortly after those interviews, a huge mob of police came looking for me...they trace everybody through mobile phones.”

She escaped to the home of a high profile activist who she thought was almost untouchable due to their notorious reputation. She doesn't tell me who.

Not long after, a helicopter started an hour-long circling of the house.

“Finally one of the people in the house said to me 'May, please, please take the sim card out of your phone.' I took it out and the helicopter went away.”

Now, just one interview with Zainab Al Khawaja, Bahrain's notorious activist, was all that stood between May and a flight back home to Doha.

That out the way, one cab ride later and she is predictably picked up at passport security, ushered into a “small white room, festooned with pictures of Khalifa,” and interrogated for one and a half hours. She “plays dumb” at first, pretending her repeated trips to Bahrain were vacations, until finally admitting she was making a film. Of course, they already knew. They knew every one of her moves, every person she spoke to and every place she had been.

She doesn't incriminate Al Jazeera for the fear that anyone who assisted her might be punished. She will be blacklisted, she is told, never allowed to return to Bahrain.

She's released five minutes before the plane is due to leave, the boarding gate is closed and her luggage has been dragged off the aircraft and fastidiously inspected.

“I knew before all of this happened that they would look through my tapes, so I had arranged to get the tapes smuggled out the country separately from me...We left it with somebody in Bahrain and sent somebody after I left. It was really very well arranged. There was a bathroom drop.”

After receiving the tapes weeks later, May began the editing process. Following months of work and still trying to shake off the heavy burden of combined guilt and responsibility for the protestors' she sat down to watch her film.

“I really honestly thought the film sucked...I thought it sucked so bad that it was going to destroy my reputation,” she says, in a signature style of self deprecation.

The people at George Polk, who contacted Al Jazeera to request a submission, obviously thought otherwise.

Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 26th March, 201