Filming in complex environments: the making of In Her Hands

BAFTA-winning filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen's extensive experience in hostile environments has made him a skilled storyteller. Here, he details his journey of shooting In Her Hands – a powerful tale following Afghanistan's youngest female mayor.
A still from In Her Hands showing Zarifa Ghafari sitting in a blue boat with her arms spread wide and her eyes closed, filmed by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

Marcel Mettelsiefen spent several years with Zarifa Ghafari for his Netflix documentary In Her Hands and believes the trust of your main characters is the single most important factor in documentary filmmaking. "It's people you need to win over," he says. "I wanted to be in a situation where they forgot about me so that I could really understand them." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Documentary filmmaker and Canon Ambassador Marcel Mettelsiefen is no stranger to filming in dangerous territories. Starting out as a freelance photojournalist almost 20 years ago, the German self-shooter has covered conflict zones across the world. Since branching out into filmmaking, he has shot award-winning documentaries in some of the most hostile environments on the planet.

For the Netflix documentary, In Her Hands, Marcel and co-director Tamana Ayazi, spent more than two years documenting the journey of Zarifa Ghafari, Afghanistan's youngest female mayor. "The challenge with every documentary is that you bond with your characters in a very intense way," he explains. "Documentary filmmaking is sneaking into someone's life and gaining their trust by giving yourself fully to the story – 5% of the work is filmmaking, the rest is becoming a friend, a therapist."

Here, he explains his approach to a project, the challenges he faced while filming In Her Hands, and how it developed into something much bigger than he and Zarifa ever imagined when they started.

A still from In Her Hands showing a close-up of Zarifa Ghafari's face as she is embraced by a man, filmed by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

Marcel's interest in people drives him to keep going back to hostile environments. "It's people in extreme situations – the best and worst parts of human beings. I feel privileged to witness this, to meet these people and to be able to tell their stories." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

A still from In Her Hands showing a man and Zarifa Ghafari standing in a balcony overlooking a city, while Zarifa holds a stuffed toy in her hands, filmed by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

Those looking to follow in Marcel's footsteps must understand that a large part of documentary filmmaking is waiting for things to happen. "It's a lot of not working, things not happening, and in a country like Afghanistan, everything is complicated," he elaborates. "Language is a barrier, and you have to be very efficient." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Finding your story

In documentary filmmaking, finding your main character is key. Marcel's extensive work in Afghanistan meant that he had built up a network of connections. "You always start with an idea – in this case, a strong woman in a country dominated by men, trying to find her way into politics in the midst of turmoil," he explains. "With documentary filmmaking, you can break down political context into emotional storylines by finding characters who take you with them."

When he first met Zarifa, Marcel was immediately struck by her powerful presence. "When I met her for the first time, she was the only woman leading a 400-strong demonstration for peace, education and equality on the most dangerous street in Afghanistan – a street she had previously been attacked on," he says.

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services.
A still from In Her Hands showing a close-up of a man's side profile as he sits in a car and looks ahead, filmed by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

Marcel often leaves his camera behind when first meeting his subjects. "People need to understand who you are, and you need to convince them that it makes sense for you to follow them," he explains. "You share a lot about yourself. It's important for them to know me too." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

A still from In Her Hands showing a man sitting on the carpet and holding a child in his arms, filmed through gauze curtains by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

Compact and lightweight, the Canon EOS C300 Mark III was ideal for Marcel's filming style. "If you're self-shooting, people need to see you as a human being, not a camera," he says. "If the camera is too big, you just disappear. You need to be seen." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Assessing risk and reward

With decades of experience in hostile environments, Marcel drew on wisdom he gained from previous projects to keep him safe. "I've been covering conflict for 20 years and you have a gut feeling," he explains. "I'm not a risk-taker, and you can't control situations on the ground."

Working and filming with Tamana, his co-director, helped Marcel assess danger levels every day. "We were measuring it and trying to understand how far we could go, and a number of times, we said 'no'," he says. "It was a good mix of me being a foreigner and Tamana being from Afghanistan, and discussing what was smart and what was not a good idea."

A still from In Her Hands showing a desert landscape in Afghanistan, with men on horses gathered to the left of the frame and people sitting in the shadows to the right of the frame, filmed by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

When it comes to the edit room, Marcel stresses that a mix of high-energy sequences and slower moments is key. "You need driven sequences where things are happening, and times when you can let it breathe," he says. "You need the rise and fall." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Cinematic shooting in a warzone

Marcel's ambition with In Her Hands was to deliver a cinematic film, but it was crucial that his kit was easy to carry, which is why he opted for the Canon EOS C300 Mark III. "As a filmmaker without a team, I need to to be able to forget about the camera so that I can focus on everything else," he says. "I always try to travel light and still shoot cinematic footage, and this is exactly what this camera combines."

To keep his kitbag as light as possible, Marcel mostly shot with EF and EF-S lenses, including the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, which he favours for its 3-stops of in-built image stabilisation and its sharpness. When he had time to slow down and capture epic cinematic shots, he used prime lenses, including the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. "I also work a lot with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM, as it's such an important tool to be able to observe the background," he adds.

"Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world where nothing has changed in the last 2,000 years," adds Marcel. "I wanted to show the beauty of the country. I wanted to make it epic, to create emotion and to make it easier for people to fall in love with the country and the journey of its people."

Marcel also used the Canon EOS C300 Mark III to film his BAFTA-winning documentary, Children of the Taliban – an idea which developed while filming In Her Hands. "I had seen a few strong stories along the way and I came up with the idea of telling them through the eyes of children," he says. "It's a shorter film and it was a much safer film, but filming kids is exhausting; you have to run around and entertain them. But what I loved about it is that the main female character is determined not to give up – that reminded me of Zarifa."

Daniel Bateman on shooting documentary TV

The award-winning DoP talks about his kit and techniques, and how his background in video editing has made him a more skilled storyteller.

Always shooting in sequences

Marcel stresses that after gaining the trust of your characters, shooting in sequences is the next focus point. "You have to understand structure: the beginning, middle and end," he says. "Being self-taught, I know I make my life easier if I think of sequences in order to be able to understand blocks."

With more than 400 hours of footage for In Her Hands, Marcel had to keep sequences in mind throughout the journey. "What I've learnt throughout my career is that as long as you film in sequences, then the puzzle at the end is easier to resolve," he explains. "Even though you don't always know where everything is going, if you have sequences, you have options when building the very complicated puzzle in the edit room."

A still from In Her Hands showing Zarifa Ghafari with a large group of people, filmed by Marcel Mettelsiefen.

The documentary concludes with Zarifa returning to Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul, when she fled to Germany with her family. "I didn't want to finish the film with the exodus and her being a victim," says Marcel. "When she told me she was going back, I was happy because she belongs to the country. She is an empowering woman. She is a role model." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Trusting in the filmmaking process

Having shot with Cinema EOS cameras for such a long time and with years of experience in documentary shooting, Marcel is now adept at trusting the process. "There is no script for a documentary – you start a journey and you don't know where it will lead," he explains. "You just need a strong character and then you have a film, always. Just believe in the project. In the end, it will all work out."

After dedicating two and a half years of his professional life to the film, showing the documentary to Zarifa was a standout moment for Marcel. "With someone like Zarifa, there is so much work on both sides – the filmmaker and the character – with trust," he explains. "You want to treat everything with respect. After seeing the film, she felt unbelievably empowered.

"The responsibility you have is so big. These are vulnerable people. You have to pick how much to show, and you have to be so culturally sensitive and make everything emotionally engaging. I was relieved when we all agreed we managed to make a very strong film."

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro