Joanna Mathers talks with award-winning New Zealand documentary film-maker Sharron Ward about coming home .
Isolation had the sting of familiarity. Confinement, enforced meal times, dull, aching hunger. Small aftershocks of Libya but without the lurking malevolence.
Returning to New Zealand (and two weeks' isolation) from decades living in London, Kiwi film-maker Sharron Ward felt the echo of another confinement. In 2012 she was held for three days by anti-Gaddafi forces controlling Tripoli, after filming at an ex-military base-turned-IDP (internally displaced persons) camp.
She was interrogated, threatened and psychologically worn down by paranoid intelligence officials trying to extract details of (supposed) nefarious intent. It was deeply unsettling.
At one point during a night-long interrogation, a gun was pulled out and put on the table. "I think torture is a good idea," the interrogator muttered.
"Well, no, I disagree," replied the girl from Gisborne. "The trouble with torture is people just tell you what you want to hear."
In another time zone, oceans away from the calamities of war and displacement, Ward is sipping apple juice in a Ponsonby cafe. She'd been released from her isolation hotel a few days earlier and marvelled at our freedoms: "People can hug each other!"
Ward left London in the midst of the raging pandemic and was headed to Dunedin for a family Christmas. She admits to being rattled by her confinement.
"It reminded me of Libya. It was a strange feeling, not being able to leave."
She's never spoken publicly about her capture. Her imprisonment made headlines in New Zealand in 2012 and, while she was released, physically unharmed, after three days, there are residues.
Ward's journey from small-town New Zealand to a Libyan jail cell is a story in itself. Born in Gisborne and moving to Alexandra, aged 3, Ward refers to her early childhood as "golden".
She says, "I feel incredibly grateful that I grew up in such an idyllic, peaceful and breath-taking place."
It wasn't to last. Ward's parents broke up when she was 10 and she was brought up by her mother. This she sees as a pivotal moment, the genesis of her career as a documenter of injustice.
"After my parents broke up, I became aware of the injustices of life [and developed an empathy for people experiencing them]. I really think that I would have been a totally different person if they had stayed together."
Much of her early childhood was captured on her father's Super 8 camera: days at the beach, parades, babies in bouncers. Her father, although pragmatic, was also creative, and her first film role model. She would revisit this footage in the early 1990s, in a work entitled Dis(illusions).
But Ward's career was launched in front of the camera. She studied acting at school and was part of a youth theatre group in Dunedin, under the tutelage of Miranda Harcourt.
After studying philosophy at Otago University, her career took off. She had stints in a BBC docu-drama and a bit part in Shortland Street ("I played an owner of a riding school"). Then, the epiphany.
"Through that experience, although I found it creative and really great, and from working with film crews, I came to realise the real power, at least for me, lay behind the camera."
Working successfully as a freelancer behind the camera on documentaries, drama and feature films throughout the 90s, the lure of the Big OE called her to London. She directed and produced work for both MTV Europe and VH1 Europe.
It sounds like a lavish dream - but it wasn't her dream. Her dream was more grit than gloss.
By way of illustration, Ward recalls a fly-on-the-wall documentary about homeless people living on the streets of London, before leaving for the United Kingdom. It was chilling, terrifying, bleak: "But when I saw it, I thought, 'This is what I want to do.'"
So she did.
East West Detox, an organisation that facilitated detox trips to a monastery, was her in. Funded by the NHS, addicts would attend a month-long programme and partake in a potent detoxifier that monks had created from plants.
She joined forces with another film-maker who had connected with the detox charity. Given permission to film two crack and heroin addicts, Cassie and Sarah, she became their friend and their shadow. She documented them scoring and shooting up in the UK, then in rehab in Thailand, as the potion worked its excruciating magic and addicts wretched and writhed toxins from their bodies.
Heroin: Facing the Dragon is a remarkable slice of life; and picked up by Current TV (a channel then owned by Al Gore). Ward has remained in touch with the women. Both of them are clean.
Drugs were the focus of another early work, she collaborated with Afghan film-maker Jawed Taiman on a documentary in his home country.
Addicted in Afghanistan follows two teenage opium addicts in the ravaged city of Kabul. Taiman was the man on the ground, Ward raised funds, produced, co-edited and worked as a mentor, based in London. The feature-length documentary has been shown around the world and garnered multiple awards, including Best International Documentary at the European Independent Film Festival.
She'd found her niche, the documentation of the world's hidden casualties and was keen to maintain her impetus. Libya would soon be calling.
In 2011, Ward, along with the rest of the world, watched in fascination as the Arab Spring unfolded. In Libya, the revolution was being reported largely by state-run television, with international mainstream media heavily restricted by Muammar Gaddafi. But brave Libyans were using social media to defy Gaddafi's propaganda machine and getting the word out to the world.
Immediately after the death of Gaddafi, she visited Libya, tracking down the invisible heroes who risked their lives sharing what was really happening on the ground. The Accidental Activists, a documentary series that appeared in The Guardian, was the result. She had made a connection and was keen to return, planning a documentary feature about the slow road to democracy.
Neither the documentary nor the longed-for peaceful democracy would eventuate.
When Ward returned to Libya in July 2012, the city was still raging. "There was a lot of gunfire, the ragtag militias had BFGs (big f***ing guns), they had artillery and would fire them out to sea."
And when staying in Hotel Safari in Tripoli (abandoned since the revolution and now HQ for international media) she discovered the heartbreaking story of the Tawerghan people.
Gaddafi had used the town of Tawergha as a base to mount an assault against Misrata, a city in which many rebels were based. When Gaddafi eventually fell, the Misratans sought revenge for the deaths in their city: Tawerghans were the target.
"They were blamed for letting Gaddafi use the town to launch their attack," says Ward. "But what could they do? Gaddafi's forces took it over and started firing missiles. They say they had no options."
The Misratan militias routed the town, raping and killing, forcing the Tawerghans into IDP camps. Even there they weren't safe.
"The militias would still come and interrogate them. There would be shootings. The violence continued."
Ward found a translator and was interviewing Tawerghan survivors at a camp when trouble arrived. "We were packing up after a day filming when a security guy came over and asked what we were doing. I told him I had press credentials and that I was filming. He said: 'It's okay, fine, fine ... come with me.' I thought, 'Oh f***, here we go.'"
The camp had been a military base and "any journalist knows you never film on a military base", says Ward.
"But this one was now an IDP camp and many journalists had been there, plus they had let us through the checkpoint, so it was okay. Or so I thought ..."
She was taken to the camp's headquarters, where the security guard talked to his commander. Here, she managed to sneak to the loo and hide the tapes in her knickers. Luckily, she was also able to get word to her security contact to contact the British embassy.
"A few hours passed and we were told we were okay to go. Then, two guys turned up in black leather jackets, which is a classic giveaway that they were with intelligence."
The men in black offered them a lift back to Tripoli: "I'm thinking, 'I don't like this,' but the translator convinced me to get in the car. We were making small talk and then, it was like a movie, they turned the wrong way. I knew we were in trouble.
"Luckily my contact had got word to the British embassy, who phoned me while I was in the car. They said to tell the drivers that they knew where I was."
At the intelligence facility, they began to interrogate Ward, via the translator.
"They were saying she was a traitor to Libya, she was crying. I just kept cracking jokes, and in the end they said: 'Get rid of them.'"
With a palpable sense of relief, Ward and her translator were picked up by a British embassy official and Ward was taken to the embassy compound. "But they explained that it wasn't over, that this was serious, that I needed to go back in two days."
The return would prove "utterly bizarre and Kafkaesque", Ward says.
Fictional versions of interrogations drip with tropes. The good cops cajoling, bad cop with threats of violence. Tough guys appearing out of the night, baying for blood. Ward's interrogation and subsequent imprisonment adhered to them all.
"The interrogators asked ridiculous questions. For some reason they had in their heads that I was a Mossad spy. Then they realised that I had previously filmed in Libya for a human rights organisation and things turned really nasty and dark."
It was Ramadan and everything was really slow: they forgot to feed her. In a makeshift cell, she was the only captive (and woman) in the facility. Interrogated by the intelligence officers, and then by an angry "Misrata brigade" (who arrived in the middle of the night) the situation was volatile.
"The interrogators had this good cop/bad cop thing going on. At some stage they took my phone. Then the 'bad cop' guy pulled his gun out and put it on the table. It was so surreal, these guys in black leather jackets, the angry militia with guns."
"But it didn't matter how angry they got, I stayed calm."
They tried everything they could to rattle her but she was unshakable.
It took three days for the impasse to be broken. With help from the British embassy, it was decided that Ward could leave if she gave up her footage. However,the final act in this theatre of the absurd was yet to be played. The rubbish bin in which Ward had placed the footage (with strict instructions for no one to enter the room) had been emptied.
"It was the most hilarious thing," laughs Ward. "Nothing works in Libya! But the day before I was released, the rubbish guy had come. I had visions of sifting through the dump, looking for the film."
A night of embassy contortions resulted in her eventually being allowed to leave the country.
"I felt extremely uneasy right up until we were literally in the air taking off – I kept thinking they were still coming to get me."
This was significant trauma but it didn't dampen commitment to her craft. "I guess I'm what they would call 'intrepid'," she laughs.
Putting herself at significant risk, she would go on to document women's experiences of sexual and domestic violence in Jordan and Lebanon and the sexual exploitation of Syrian refugee women in the world's second-largest refugee camp in Jordan (a documentary for which she received an International Emmy for News and Current Affairs).
Another film, made for BBC, followed a British humanitarian to northern Iraq (areas very close to Isis) to document his work aiding Yazidi women who were sex slaves of Isis.
Now back in New Zealand for the summer, Ward has a new direction: the world's eco-crisis. She hopes to be part of a positive change.
"I've been filming environmental defenders in the UK who are on the frontlines trying to save our natural resources from destruction. It's a real David and Goliath battle," she says.
While she is here, she hopes to connect with tangata whenua, to try to learn more about connecting with and conserving the land.
"We have much to learn. We are in a climate and ecological emergency, but these are people who can really make a difference."