ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU, the ‘Dream Production’ Filmed Entirely on Location
- Writerby Jung Sujin
Recreating 1991’s Mogadishu in Morocco
Escape from Mogadishu is a project that would seem mindboggling even to the layperson who doesn’t know anything about movie production. Set against the backdrop of the 1991 Somali Civil War, the film tells the story of stranded South and North Korean diplomats who try to escape from the war-torn capital city, Mogadishu. And it is a true story. These three characteristics – foreign locations, a war setting and the adaptation of real-life events – were as many pitfalls that lead us to believe that producing this movie must have been a daunting task.
The First Korean Film to be Entirely Shot in Morocco
In order to reenact the Somali Civil War more accurately, Director Ryoo Seungwan and the production team decided early on that they would film everything on location and not have a single shot filmed in Korea. The only problem was that South Koreans are banned from traveling to Somalia. The staff then spent four months scouting locations across Africa to find a place that could best represent the atmosphere of Mogadishu, and they finally opted for Essaouira, a Moroccan port city. Like Somalia, Morocco is a Muslim country and many Hollywood films like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Black Widow were filmed there. As a result, the country has skilled film technicians as well as film production know-how, offering for instance a tax refund plan to attract foreign projects.
In addition, the atmosphere in Essaouira is so similar to that in Mogadishu that the former staff of the Korean embassy in Somali lauded the production team for finding such a perfect filming location. The experience of Mohamed Benhmamane, a Moroccan location manager who participated in Gladiator, The Bourne Ultimatum and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, really shone through as he was determinant in finding this location. In Essaouira, the crew and actors stayed at the same hotel for four months, becoming themselves some sort of ‘stranded people in the middle of a civil war,’ striving to bring back to life the atmosphere of Mogadishu when bullets and shells were raining down on the city. It was the first time since Inch'Allah (1997) that a Korean film was filmed on the African continent, and, of course, the first time that a film was shot entirely in Morocco.
A Pre-production That Mobilized Real Life Characters & Military Experts
Nailing the pre-production stage was necessary in order for the narrative to follow as closely as possible the historical truth and to replicate every detail of the setting. The production team contacted diplomats who served in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, including Kang Shinseong, the former South Korean ambassador in Somalia one of the characters is modeled after. They also had to do extensive research on the events, browsing the U.S. Navy archives, articles from the Korean Council on Foreign Relations and the memoir of the Somali Civil War by Yusuf Haid, then Director of Somali National Television. To make the fights look authentic, military research was also mandatory. Tae Sangho, a military reporter who served as a military adviser for the series VAGABOND, mobilized all his connections, including former members of the Italian Special Forces who were dispatched in Somalia in 1992, to supply photographs and materials. The production team needed to capture a picture as complete as possible, since guns from different periods ranging from the 1910s to the 1990s were used during the Somali Civil War. As each gun required different types of bullets, they had to be carefully reloaded with the right bullets and the empty shell of every bullet picked up after each take. Everything went smoothly, however, since some crew members had served in the Korean army.
The Invisible Efforts to Turn a Whole City into Somalia
Six months before the shoot started, the crew worked hard to accurately design the environments used in the scenario, with the help of the Somali government. Director Ryoo Seungwan wanted to perfectly recreate the desolate and hot atmosphere of the time, and to do so, the production team covered the paved roads with soil to make them look like the unpaved roads of the 1990s, complete with clouds of dust. Of course, the art team also worked hard to turn the entire city into Mogadishu, for instance by dressing the Moroccan buildings to reproduce Somalia's architectural style. Everything that was available locally was procured there, but everything else had to be entirely prepared in Korea before it was airlifted to Morocco. "The art team's biggest task was to airlift to Morocco all the components needed to build entire sets, because we didn't film a single shot in Korea," said Kim Bomook, the art director. Also, Lee Heekyung, the special effects supervisor, said, "We had to prepare everything in advance because it took up to three months to get the authorizations from the port authorities to ship the special effects equipment."
The camera department and the lighting crew focused on the light to create exotic images of Africa and make the civil war feel authentic, as if we were really caught in the middle of the fights. Each scene was filmed after checking and determining the quantity and direction of the light sources depending on the time and the location of the shoot, and they tried to avoid artificial lighting as much as possible, opting instead for natural lighting. Power outages were a regular occurrence during the war due to poor electricity conditions, and so, in order to stay close to the truth, outdoor sequences were filmed while making use of all the natural light sources they could find, such as candles and torches.
To recruit and give instructions to such a large group of foreign extras, who played citizens, rebels and government forces, must have been no easy task. Using more than five languages, including Arabic, Somali, Swahili, and Italian, over 300 extras participated in the movie, and rumor has it that it is rare to see a film production where the staff and the cast members need so many interpreters to communicate.
The Story Behind the Making of the Car Chase, the Best Scene in Escape from Mogadishu
The car chase in Escape from Mogadishu, a scene unanimously praised, was filmed by making extensive use of previsualization. As leading actor Kim Yoonseok put it, “They were really determined”. The filming of this high-octane car chase was carried out by following to the letter the way the scene was mapped out in previs, by removing for instance the top part of four used cars and rewelding the roof after the take to allow for the movements of the camera. Thanks to this, when Escape from Mogadishu was released in North America on August 6, the breathtaking camera work was lauded by Variety, which compared the last 30 minutes of the car chase to Mad Max. It was the director's idea to add make-do bulletproof protections to the cars, using books and sandbags to block bullets. In real life, they managed to escape with only one casualty despite having nothing to protect them from the bullets, but the director wanted to add these props to make the story more credible as he feared the true story might seem too good to be true.
Director Ryoo Seungwan had already managed to film in overseas locations with The Berlin File and had experience filming large crowds with The Battleship Island. The main feature of Escape from Mogadishu is the perfect immersion that contributes to make us empathize with these characters stranded in an unfamiliar place. To this end, the local production teams and a production crew that already had extensive experience in overseas filming joined hands and overcame the linguistic and cultural barriers during a long shooting that spanned 3 months to accurately recreate 1991’s Somalia. Escape from Mogadishu is eye-catching thanks to the exotic sceneries that serve as the backdrop to the desperate struggle of people determined to survive on a foreign soil. At a time when film exhibitors are suffering from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Escape from Mogadishu offered some respite as it has become the first Korean film to be in excess of 2 million admissions this year. This achievement wouldn’t have been possible without the persistent devotion of everyone involved in what the actors now call the ‘Dream Production.’