Exclusive interview: Ricky Schroder on showing the horrors of war in The Volunteers

River Rainbow O’Mahoney Hagg in The Volunteers. Pic credit: AT&T Audience Network

Seemingly neverending is the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq — the arena at the centre of AT&T AUDIENCE Network’s two-part documentary The Volunteers.

Creator River Rainbow O’Mahoney Hagg, a Navy veteran, first imagined this trip as a humanitarian mission — only to see it morph and become a quasi-doctors without borders group of qualified medics (including Hagg) tending to the war-torn victims of northern Syria as they fought, gunned and healed their way across a treacherous region.

The two-part documentary was executive produced by Ricky Schroder, who has long outgrown his Silver Spoon days.

During a previous production of another war documentary The Fighting Season, Schroder connected with Hagg and the two furthered their professional collaboration with The Volunteers.

Hagg is shown in the raw footage as he bids goodbye to his family and heads to Rojava, Syria, to actively fights ISIS in northern territories where they rain terror on the people there.

Not for the squeamish, this is real war footage where screaming patients who have stepped on landmines are dosed with ketamine, morphine and given the best care given the circumstances.

Faces are blown off, limbs have missing, ripped and shredded skin. There is no looking away from this carnage, and Hagg and Schroder intended it this way.

The unscripted documentary is River’s personal experiences with a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, and his stitched-together western volunteer medics who rush in where others flee in the most dangerous place on earth.

Real terrorists, real ISIS fighters, and victims everywhere, the locale is dubbed Devil’s Front Porch for good reason.

Schroder also executive produced the AT&T AUDIENCE Network docuseries The Fighting Season and My Fighting Season. We spoke with him about his projects:

Monsters and Critics: What drew you to these war stories?

Ricky Schroder: They’re just great stories about people who are going to risk everything to do what they believe is right. They’re filled with passion and they’re real.

Sometimes after being in the make-believe world of entertainment — and Hollywood is make-believe, a lot of it — you get tired of make-believe and you want to see things that are real and hear things that are real and experience things that are real. And so that’s part of the reason I got into the documentaries.

M&C: Right. River Rainbow O’Mahoney Hagg came to you. You guys connected on your project The Fighting Season…

Ricky: In 2014, River and I were both in Afghanistan together. He was helping me capture footage for The Fighting Season and that’s where we first met each other.

M&C: When I watched The Volunteers, it appears he’s decided to go and help the resistance for ISIS, and he didn’t know that he was going to be a medic in the opening. He wasn’t aware of what his role was going to be over there. He just wanted to be there…

Ricky: That’s right. River wanted to purely be a documentarian and go over there and see what was going on and tell the story about it. But it changed when he got there. Because he ran into some…four other men that had medical training and they had some supplies and they were going to become front-line combat medics. And he joined that team.

He started documenting — these are the only frontline medics, combat medics, in the conflict that River was aware of at the time. At times, he had so many casualties coming at them — River had some training because he was in the Navy — that he would actually put his camera down or strap it to his head or his chest, and his priority became saving lives.

And he and that team, they treated over 300 casualties in the six months that they were there. He became a life-saving godsend to many people over there.

M&C: Do you think that the YPG and the Kurds have a chance against ISIS? Has the tide turned against ISIS with these people? Are they winning?

Ricky: Yeah, it looks like it. I mean, from the news reports I heard, which is what everyone else hears, ISIS has lost most of its, 90 per cent of whatever its territory was that it once held. So, I think that we’re winning on that front.

But I don’t know if we’re winning on the battle of ideology and trying to change the next generation of young Muslim men to see and do something different, to not get radicalized. That’s the battle we have to be fighting. How do you stop these young men from becoming radicalized?

I don’t know how we do it, but I know there’s a lot of people that are trying. But it’s going to take time. It’s not something that’s going to happen after one generation.

M&C: Now when River was over there, he got in trouble. He got arrested actually. He got detained. How did you get him out of this? I know that you were involved somehow in his release. Can you talk about that?

Ricky: Yeah. River was crossing back from Syria into Iraq to catch a flight back to the States and he got stopped at the border. And we had people waiting at the border to get River and take him from the Syrian Iraqi border to the airport. And as soon as he got taken by Iraqi guards at the border, we knew about it.

We went to work immediately trying to secure his release and to secure six months of footage on his hard drive that they took from him. And so it was pretty tense days for everybody involved, worrying about River. But we were able to recover River and recover the footage.

M&C: When you saw the raw footage, what were your thoughts? Some of it is just so hard to watch.

Ricky: Yeah, I mean, what are the thoughts? The idea of the civilians and the children especially…the innocent victims of the conflict. How am I going to tell a story and put this together in a way that people can watch?

Because the footage can be so hard and tough when you see injured children or injured civilians. It was a real balancing act of how much do we show without turning people off, but showing them enough that they understand that this is really, really what it looks like.

M&C: There’s a point where River and the other medic comment on a guy who stepped on a landmine and that they should have just let him die. It would have been the humane thing to do. Because his injuries were severely life-altering. Is there a pervasive sense of futility? Did River come back feeling pumped up about what he did or unsure his actions made any difference?

Ricky: It took an enormous toll on River, this project. He’s had enough of war zones and conflicts. He’s hard enough and he’s experienced enough. We had dinner last night and he said, ‘Ricky, I can’t. I never want to see some of that. I never want do that again.’

He’s been in war zones a few times before this, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And so, I think at some point a man gets, or a person gets, their fill of the horror of that, you know?

M&C: What about you? Are you still interested in telling these stories? Do you want to pursue this more or do you want to take your production company and your producing skills and focus on other aspects of this war?

Ricky: Yeah. You know, I’m trying to develop a couple of scripted projects that are based on true stories. One about a Navy Seal and another one, more of a one-hour drama. So I’m happy to make documentaries. I like making documentaries. I hope to make more documentaries. But at the same time, there is something that comes with telling true stories in a scripted form that’s also satisfying for me, and I hope I get to do.

M&C: What do you hope this inspires in the viewer? Is it educational? Is it a call to action? What do you hope viewers take away from your project?

Ricky: I hope they learn. I hope they learn what it really looks like and what it feels like, what it smells like, what it tastes like. That conflict…you’re going to see and understand the conflict and the people that are resisting that conflict in a new way that you haven’t seen before.

What do I want them to learn? Gosh, what they’re going to learn is how horrific war is. We’ve all heard that. We’ve all seen movies where it shows it. But now…and a lot of people understand that because they’ve paid a price, either for themselves or a family member. But if you watch The Volunteers, you’re going to see war in a new light.

M&C: Do you think after being in that region and working so closely with River, do you think we’re ever going to get out of the Middle East? Are we ever going to end these endless wars? Are we ever going to get the hell out of there?

Ricky: Gosh, I sure hope so. I’d hate to think that my kids and their kids’ kids will be dealing with the same stuff. I guess what I’d have to say is nothing is going to change quickly or overnight. And unless we have really good partners in the Muslim world to work with, we don’t have a chance at defeating this kind of ideology.

M&C: What’s your relationship with River like now? How involved are you two creatively?

Ricky: River and I are good friends. We had dinner last night. River and I are buddies and we always will be.

M&C: Will you produce more of his documentaries? Will you work with him in future projects?

Ricky: It’s absolutely possible. I would love to work with River again. Even not just in document work, but in scripted work.

M&C: How hard is it for the family when you guys do this kind of gritty, documentarian work? How hard is it on personal lives?

Ricky: It’s hard on everybody, this kind of work. It’s hard on the editors that watch it. It’s hard on the people that go out and clip content. It’s hard on the people who put it together and sit through hour after hour and review it. You know, when you watch 300 hours of footage, you feel like you’re there.

You know the people. You see it. And it’s a…going away from your family for months on end, it’s hard. Everybody pays a price. And sometimes the price is really, really large.

M&C: I know you have beautiful children. You have gorgeous daughters. They’re in the industry. Can you talk about your advice to your kids who are getting in the business and especially with all the news about Harvey Weinstein and everything, which I’m sure you’re very well aware of, growing up in Hollywood? How have you counseled them? How have you coached them in their own careers?

Ricky: Right. Well, my sons help me in production, so I don’t have to worry about them. They’re not trying to be in front of the camera necessarily. But my daughters, yeah, I do worry an awful lot about my daughters.

You know, I haven’t had a big talk with them yet after all the scandal that is breaking about sexual harassment in Hollywood. I haven’t had that talk with them. But I will be having that talk with them shortly. And I’d like to hear what they think about it. I like to hear what they have to say about it and listen to them.

But yeah, nobody better mess with my daughters. My goodness, it will drive…like, I don’t think it would be able to control myself if somebody messed with my daughters like that.

The Volunteers airs in two parts on November 11 and 12 at 10pm ET/PT on AT&T AUDIENCE Network.

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