Ivar Heinmaa: No shot is worth dying over

Ivar Heinmaa.
Ivar Heinmaa. Source: ERR/Anneli Milistver

Ivar Heinmaa, who has spent over 30 years filming hopelessness and death in conflict zones, major natural disasters and human trafficking, told Vikerraadio that he is by no means a daredevil or fearless.

"If one day I feel that I no longer have the courage to go out with my camera, I will wrap it up. No shot is worth dying over. I don't carry the atrocities I have seen with me. I sleep just fine," Heinmaa said.

The Finnish Estonian Foundation (Viro-säätio) bestowed on Heinmaa the Aino Kallas Award for his invaluable contribution to Finnish-Estonian cultural links in November.

Heinmaa started working with Finnish TV more than 30 years ago in Riga, when the OMON attacked the Latvian Interior Ministry. Heinmaa and editor Hannu Väisänen got their initiation dodging the militia special unit's incendiary bullets. They later visited Grozny on several occasions during the Chechen War. Väisänen was an older man, an experienced foreign correspondent who had spent time in Nairobi and was something of a father figure for Heinmaa – taught him how Finnish television worked, what they did differently from Estonia and held significant in terms of visuals.

Welcome to hell

Ivar Heinmaa said on the "Kajalood" program how they saw a "Welcome to hell!" poster upon first entering Grozny, burning gas pipes, how you had to be constantly on the move while filming not to be discovered by Russian snipers, and how the streets were riddled with half-burnt, half-decomposed bodies of Russian soldiers. There were times when they finished filming, got in the car and started driving, with the place they had just been taking two missile hits not half a minute later. "And yet, we had another shot the following day. Hannu Väisänen's nerves couldn't take it in the end," Heinmaa said.

Other side of the front line off limits

"When I was shooting the women's documentary," Heinmaa said, pointing to his film "Naised rindejoonel" (Women on the Front Line, 2021)," I attempted to cross the front line into Donetsk.

His idea was to find female fighters in the Ukrainian army but also among the separatists fighting them. Heinmaa sought accreditation in Donetsk in 2017 but was turned down.

I knew that a Finnish guy called Janus Putkonen*, a minion of Johan Bäckman**, was working as press chief in the Donbas. I wrote him an email in Finnish, laying out who I was and what I wanted. He got back to me quite quickly, writing that he knew my work, while we now found ourselves on opposite sides of the trench. That I was NATO and he was the Donbas People's Republic, meaning he couldn't help me. If there will be a reporter who can secure accreditation in the future, I might get to go as cameraman, but that's the only way," Heinmaa remarked.

Putkonen knew that Heinmaa had spent years working for Finnish public broadcaster Yle that was blacklisted in Donbas.

Ivar Heinmaa believes that he is also on a Russian black list somewhere. He last visited Saint Petersburg last year when Finland was competing in the UEFO EURO 2020. "Things would not go as smoothly today as there is war," he said.

Shots from Bucha

Heinmaa described how busloads of foreign press and YouTubers were driven to Bucha after it was liberated from Russian occupiers.

When the material was ready and sent to the office, Yle asked shots of tortured and mutilated bodies to be replaced with something a little lighter, as a news program could not show everything. Reporter Antti Kuronen (a man who was elected European of the Year 2022 in Finland) argued, saying that war is cruel and needs to be shown. In the end, they agreed that shots could depict burnt arms, a leg with a burnt boot but no faces or heads.

"I tend to agree," Heinmaa said, " that war needs to be shown in all its cruelty. Words are not enough."

Italy's most famous mafia prosecutor

After two years of Covid, the front line operator has been busier again this year. "I filmed skiing at the Beijing Winter Olympics for Yle towards the start of the year, after which I had five days at home before leaving for Honduras the same day Russia launched its war. Once home, I knew I would have to leave for Ukraine immediately and started to look for ways to get to Kyiv."

Heinmaa spent 55 straight days in Kyiv, with only Yle editors rotating in and out.

This summer, Heinmaa filmed women's football in England, until Finland stayed in the competition, before heading to Ukraine and from there to Italy. "We were filming for the "Ulkolinja" foreign affairs program on YLE 1 in Calabria in southern Italy, the home of the infamous 'Ndrangheta mafia. I managed to get a shot of Italy's most famous mafia prosecutor who is constantly surrounded by five armed bodyguards. He can never move around freely, not even to take his family to lunch."

Ivar Heinmaa will be back in Ukraine next week. Whether he and a reporter will first go to Kherson or directly to the front remains unclear. "It would be very good if we could go to the front," Heinmaa hopes.

In his interview to Vikerraadio, Heinmaa talks of long years spent working and situations so terrible that he knew then and there it would make no sense to shoot them as no one would every show something like that on television.

Ivar Heinmaa (born 1965) worked as a cameraman for ETV (1987-1990) and has been a freelance cameraman and director since 1991. Work has taken him to 139 countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America. He has filmed all wars, regional conflicts and natural disasters of the last 20 years and worked with such organizations as Swiss TV, Channel 4, BBC, CNN, ARTE, Spiegel TV as well as Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish television networks.

* Janus Putkonen (born 1974) is a Finnish journalist who has worked for the so-called DON-News media company in Donetsk.

** Johan Bäckman (born 1971) is a Finnish publicist and known pro-Russian activist (expelled from Estonia).


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Editor: Laura Raudnagel, Marcus Turovski

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