In Memory of Andrew Berends

Exactly one week ago, the Small World Films team lost one of its core members, and I lost one of my closest friends.

Andrew Berends and Isabella Alexander working on “The Burning” in a hidden migrant camp. Morocco.

I’ve spent the past days writing and re-writing something that would begin to do justice to the man we lost, to all that he gave to my latest project, The Burning, and to all that he gave to me. But Andrew Berends isn’t an easy man to put into words.

As many of you know, Andy had been working with me as lead cinematographer on The Burning for many years. But some of you may not know that he was a highly acclaimed film director in his own right. He had a long and respected history of documenting the hidden sides of human struggle in active war zones from Iraq to Sudan. When I first reached out to him in 2015, it was because I knew that if anyone could give me advice on how to escape an undercover shoot in North Africa with footage in hand, it was Andy. Little did I know, he would not only give me his advice, he would offer to join my ragtag little team.

Andrew Berends filming in Kia’s home. Mali.

I’d been screening Andy’s films in my courses at Emory University for years before we first connected. They served as some of the strongest examples of community engaged filmmaking in the midst of war that I could find. Throughout his career, Andy had been awarded the International Documentary Association’s top honor — the “Courage Under Fire” award — for his first film, The Blood of My Brother, which chronicles an Iraqi family who loses their son during the American invasion and opened audiences’ eyes to the horrors of the ongoing war in Iraq. His other films include When Adnan Comes Home, Urk, Delta Boys, and the final project he directed, Madina’s Dream, which took audiences inside a forgotten war between rebels and refugees in Sudan’s Nuba Mountain region.

The first time I met Andy in person was in rural Mali, at the beginning of my second year of filming. I’d flown in from my home in Atlanta, he’d flown in from the little garden apartment he loved in San Francisco, and the two of us began a grueling summer-long shoot documenting the journeys of migrants attempting to escape war and extreme poverty in their home countries across West Africa and reach safety on European shores. Behind the camera on The Burning, Andy brought his unflinching approach to humanizing even the most brutal political crises.

Andrew Berends and Isabella Alexander with team members Pedro Branco and Jose Palazon. Melilla.

But the thing I always respected most about him as a filmmaker wasn’t his talent behind the lens, which was immense, it was his natural ability to build relationships with the people in front of it. He did this with vulnerability, respect, and a genuine passion for uncovering what unites us all as humans. Andy could move seamlessly between elite governmental offices and squalid detention centers, and the way he interacted with those around him never changed. In any situation, it was only a matter of time before he was cracking jokes, showing off his enviable dance moves, and putting those around him at peace. He exuded joy.

Andy and I would spend the following years shooting across twelve countries, as our subjects’ treacherous journeys took them from Mali, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo toward Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. In the end, some would eventually make it safer shores, struggling to rebuild broken lives in France, Spain, and Germany. Others would lose their lives trying.

Andrew Berends filming in Ibrahim’s community. Sierra Leone.

On the many sleepless nights we spent huddled together under plastic sheets in the forest or packed into trucks too tightly to move, we argued over which one of us was going to drive the other crazy first. Always, we settled on the fact that we never wanted to work with anyone else. We lamented how on other projects, we’d never have partners as willing to sleep on the ground and eat food scavenged from the trash, to film through 20 degree nights and 120 degree days, to board rafts across the Mediterranean and travel with smugglers over the vast landscapes of the Sahara. In each other, we’d found our filmmaking matches.

Over the past week, I’ve been on the phone with the subjects whose journeys will bring The Burning to life next year, breaking the news of our friend Andy’s death. He was not your typical cinematographer, and the messages I’ve received from them make clear just how deeply he impacted them all. His involvement in their lives and in mine stretched far beyond his official role on our team.

Andrew Berends and Isabella Alexander with subjects of “The Burning” Kia, Jalloh, Myriame, Mari, Mo, and team member Hicham Echerfaoui. Morocco.

Andy drove his motorcycle down from San Francisco to LA just so he could be in the audience to support me when I held events to raise awareness about the African migrant crisis. When he was working on another project in West Africa last fall, he made a day-long bus trip to Bamako, just so he could visit Kia and her children — three of the main subjects of The Burning. That’s the kind of friend he was — present, open-hearted, and generous. Jalloh, whose journey was the final one we filmed together, sent the following message:

“Sister, our tears have not stopped flowing since hearing this news. We beg God to grant our brother Andy his forgiveness. We climb to the highest mountaintops screaming, ‘God have you seen this man! Have you seen all of the great causes he fought for in his life!’ I’ll always remember our times together, from Conakry to Nador to Casablanca. I remember the last day we spent together, not knowing it would be our last. My heart cries for the big man who showed me kindness, even in my darkest days. May God grant him eternal paradise!”
— Thierno Jalloh
Andrew Berends and Isabella Alexander filming in Moneba’s home. Guinea.

The Burning will be the last film that Andy makes, and it will stand as a lasting legacy to his commitment to telling the untold stories of our time. For the coming months, I have the enormous joy and sadness of sitting with him in the editing room. I’ll be listening to hours of conversation between us unfold behind the lens, cursing him on the rare occasion he loses focus, and finding myself without words as he seeks out the most beautiful and unexpected scenes amidst the tragedy.

Last night, I sat with him for hours, watching the world unfold though the eye of his camera. At one point, he turned around as I moved ahead through a bustling marketplace with our subjects. He’d seen something and needed to capture it. A little boy sat on a dusty patch of earth. Beside him was a cloth where his mother had spread out the few wilting vegetables she hoped to sell that day. Andy sat with the boy for a while, and the scene played out uninterrupted. “I like dinosaurs, too” he finally said. “I like yellow dinosaurs that fly.” The boy looked up for the first time and smiled. He reached his hand toward the camera, flying the little yellow dinosaur he had been holding in front of Andy’s lens. “That’s it,” he whispered under his breath. “Beautiful.”

Andrew Berends and Isabella Alexander with subjects of “The Burning,” Oury and Moneba. Spain.

I’ll always have Andy’s voice in my ear reminding me that you’re never too tired to back up your drives, you’re never too broke to send copies of them home, and you should always wrap your memory cards in plastic before swallowing them. He taught me an immeasurable amount about how to move through crisis zones with a camera in hand. What neither of us ever figured out was what to do with the enormous sadness we carried home with us after each shoot — the aftermath of documenting mass suffering.

When reading back over our all of communications this week, I found an old letter Andy submitted to the Sundance Institute after I applied for a grant a few years ago. I think it makes clear, better than I could in my own words, how much he believed in his last project and in the impact it would have:

Andrew Berends and Isabella Alexander filming in Kia’s home. Mali.
“In twenty plus years in the documentary world, I have not met a more dedicated filmmaker than Dr. Isabella Alexander. Her passion to document the plight of Sub-Saharan African migrants on their perilous and often futile journeys to Europe is unparalleled. Few are more versed in the subject. The Burning comes as the culmination of ten years of anthropological research in the region.
Dr. Alexander has stubbornly persevered in the face of confiscated footage, imprisonment, and severe mistreatment by authorities. This is a story that both North African and European governments want suppressed. While offering refuge to a small percentage of those who seek it, the EU offers financial incentive to North African countries to detain and brutalize the vast majority of those who flee political and economic insecurity. The false promise of a better life in Europe leads untold numbers to attempt fatal journeys every year.
The Burning will blow the lid off the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.”
— Andrew Berends

Thank you, Andy, for all that you gave to The Burning and for all that our friendship gave to me.

I promise, I will make you proud.

Andrew Berends in Ibrahim’s home. Guinea.
Andrew Berends in Kia’s community. Mali.
Andrew Berends on his final shoot for “The Burning.” Spain.