The idea behind our film “How I saved a family buried alive in Turkey’s Earthquake” was to immerse the viewer into the race against time to find survivors under the rubble.
As soon as we learned that southern Turkey and northern Syria had been hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake- the deadliest natural disaster in the region since the middle ages- we knew our job was not just to record history. Our mission was to encapsulate the intricate tapestry of emotions that a catastrophe of such magnitude entails: the profound fear and vulnerability, the dread of losing loved ones, homes, and the sense of security, and at the same time, the remarkable resilience and survival instincts that emerge in the face of extreme adversity.
We set out to find a rescue worker who was OK with us following him and his team as they searched for survivors to dig out under the rubble. Our goal was to see a case through and to explore what it means to shoulder the responsibility of digging through debris in freezing cold conditions in search of survivors, knowing that every hour that goes by, the lower the chances of survival gets. We also aimed to witness a rescue operation and understand how they managed to survive, their thoughts during those long hours, the most challenging moments they endured, and the source of their motivation. Additionally, we wanted to learn about their emotions when they heard the search and rescue team approaching.
Before heading out on assignment you generally have time to plan where you’ll go, who you’ll interview, and how long you’ll stay for. While things always change in the field, you have some degree of control in executing your vision. But with natural disasters of this scale, there are no rules: no people you can line up or talk to beforehand; no location you can aim to meet them at; no exact dates and city you can book your flights and accommodation. You are constantly operating in the unknown and having to adjust your plans.
The morning of the earthquake, we started looking into the best way we could reach the epicenter of the earthquake. The nearby airports were closed, a lot of flights from Istanbul to Kayseri, the only city with an airport four hours from the epicenter, were fully booked with thousands of rescue workers, and a lot of roads were closed because of the heavy storm the southern region of Turkey was experiencing.
Once we arrived, we looked for rescue workers we could follow but people were either in the middle of rescue operations, or too frantic to think about a film crew following them around. The desperation and urgency of the situation was real. We eventually heard there were some rescue workers who’d just finished a rescue operation and who were camped in a parking lot outside a school. We spent time with them and ultimately settled on Tunc because he was thoughtful, articulate, and could speak English fluently.
The biggest challenge we faced following Tunc, through an entire rescue operation, was the unpredictable duration. It could take 6 hours, just as it could take 15. This makes it hard for a crew to film the main character through an entire operation because rescue workers work on site in shifts, so sometimes we’d spend hours filming an operation only to see our main character rotate close to the end. Also, the area we were filming was having aftershocks so we weren’t allowed to get too close to the rescue workers while they were moving around the collapsed buildings.
In addition, we had to juggle time spent filming with our main character and the our situation: we were based out of our car so every few days we had to travel four-five hours to go to a hotel where we could charge our batteries; phones weren’t working, the viewfinder and lenses were getting obscured from the freezing air- to mention a few.
The final challenge was when one of the survivors we wanted to follow was immediately placed into an ambulance. We knew how hard the rescue team had worked to pull her and her family out, and how close they felt to her because of her strength and humor during the operation. We had no way of getting a hold of her and had to go to a handful of different clinics and hospitals to track her down.
Despite the numerous challenges we faced along the way, I believe we achieved what we set out to do: we captured a powerful first person story about what it means to be trapped under the rubble and what it’s like to set out, day after day, looking for people to search and rescue.
Our short documentary was raw and immersed the viewer into the race against time to find survivors, all while addressing the emotional complexities of operating in such an environment.
We wanted to be relevant and edited the film in just four days. The documentary was published less than ten days after the earthquake struck. At the time, rescue operations were still underway and people were still being pulled out of the rubble so when the film came out, it felt very timely.
People were curious, they wanted to understand how someone was able to survive days under the rubble and what a rescue operation looked and felt like. I’m certain we provided a glimpse of both worlds.
We not only got over 215,000 views but received high audience engagement. The audience was sharing and commenting on our film and we got a lot of interest from people from every corner of the world asking how they could help. For me, this is an ultimate indicator of success because it means that our film is having an impact, it’s moving people to do something about the situation we showcase in our story.