May 23, 2024

In Vita Maria Drygas’ doc “Danger Zone,” war is for sale. And there are people who can afford it.

“The very idea of ‘war tourism’ was shocking to me. Armed conflict is not a stage: you don’t buy tickets to watch a show,” she says ahead of the premiere at Warsaw Film Festival.

Produced by Vita Żelakeviciute for Drygas Film Production, “Danger Zone” is co-produced by Next Film and Dogwoof, the latter also handling sales.

She first came across the controversial, world-spanning phenomenon when filming mid-length “Piano” during the Maidan revolution in Ukraine.

“I was surrounded by people who were fighting for their freedom and the future of their country. My focus shifted from merely making a film to actively supporting their cause. Then I saw this ad: someone was offering tours to the frontlines. At first, I thought it was a provocation by the separatists.”

A darker side of the tourism industry, it remains hidden. But business is booming, thanks to people like Eleonora, AJ or “the most extreme war tourist” Andrew Drury, demanding real ammunition and real menace.

“Many tourist agencies don’t openly admit to offering such tours and it remains underground. There were a few of them that declined to participate in the film. Later, I saw them in Andrew’s video diaries, taking selfies on the frontline with him,” she says.

“This makes it difficult to assess the true scale of this phenomenon, but Rick [Sweeney], the owner of War Zone Tours, didn’t have to actively promote his business at all. He kept receiving numerous calls, daily, from individuals interested in war trips.”

Drygas approached her thrill-seeking protagonists without prejudice, however.

“I come from a family of documentary filmmakers and we always talked about ethics. Someone is putting their life into your hands. I feel responsible for it,” she admits.

“You could call them ‘anti-heroes’ and they are aware of their privileged position. But I needed them to understand I wasn’t going to judge them. I was coming with an open heart. Andrew has been doing it for 20 years. It took him a long time to finally trust me.”

Eventually, he did open up.

“It would be easy to just ask him: ‘Why are you doing this?’ We decided not to use ‘talking heads’ in the movie, but we actually recorded a long conversation. I told him about myself, about the suffering I have seen. He told me about losing his brother as a child. From then on, he wanted to live two lives: for himself and for his brother. Every story has many layers, even though you can’t always include all of them in one film.”

After dedicating seven years to the doc, Drygas can list various reasons as to why people are attracted to war tourism.

“Desire for extreme experiences, quest for adrenaline, temporary escape from a stable life and a bigger appreciation for what you already have once you return to it,” she says. But making the film changed some of these “tourists” as well.

“Andrew was deeply affected by what we saw. A man who has been traveling to war zones for decades suddenly realized, upon seeing himself on the screen, how thoughtless his actions were. His reaction was the most rewarding moment for me as a filmmaker.”

Other times, she could just wish them good luck.

“Eleonora decided to go to Afghanistan just before the Taliban took over. I decided we won’t accompany her: no movie is worth the life of my crew. You get to know these people, you talk to them for hours, but in the end, it’s their decision. She went by herself.”

Drygas is adamant she won’t talk about war again in her films.

“No. I won’t touch this subject again,” she states.

“[Nobel Prize winner] Svetlana Alexievich wrote that ‘all we knew about war was what men told us.’ I am not sure if the female perspective on war is different, but it was a challenge to be there.”

“What I also wanted to show was that in our society, one war tends to overshadow all the others. I remember when Afghanistan was all over the news and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. In the film, a local fixer tells Eleonora that everyone has forgotten about Afghanistan now, even though living there is pure hell,” she says.

“You can’t come back from these places unscathed. People die and those who survive flee, leaving behind their entire lives. They end up in refugee camps, uncertain about what tomorrow will bring. It’s a terrible reality and such experiences are not easily forgotten.”

“I paid a price for this film.”

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