Detained in Nigeria, a Lifeline in New York
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

By SUSAN DOMINUS

Published: September 14, 2008

 

Andrew Berends, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn, only had the chance to make a phone call about 15 hours after he was detained by Nigerian officials while gathering footage of women at a market in the Niger Delta, an area rich with oil and with frequent militant uprisings. The moment he could, he called a friend in Nigeria and instructed him to get in touch with the United States Embassy and with Aaron Soffin, the 26-year-old associate producer of Mr. Berends's film "Delta Boys."

 

"Aaron, good morning," began the concise e-mail message that Mr. Soffin received when he woke up at 8 a.m. on Labor Day. It gave the barest facts about Mr. Berends's arrest in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and ended: "He is in trouble and needs help, fast." Mr. Soffin, who lives in the East Village and had been planning to leave that week for Rwanda, stared at the message, trying to figure out what to do. His first thought: Call someone who will know what to do.

 

He tried reaching James Longley, an award-winning documentarian and a close friend of Mr. Berends's, but Mr. Longley was in Seattle, where it was 5 a.m., and didn't pick up. Then he dialed Micah Garen, a former colleague of Mr. Soffin's who had been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq for 10 days in 2004. No answer. The next call: Dad. Dad said, "Call the State Department."

 

So Mr. Soffin Googled the State Department and reached someone there, commencing what would turn out to be 10 days of nonstop conversations and e-mail messages advocating on behalf of Mr. Berends and his translator, Samuel George, a Nigerian citizen who was also detained.

 

There are some playbooks that should not have to be written: What to do, say, when someone near and dear has been taken against his or her will in a hostile land. But given the state of world affairs, such playbooks are plentiful, in the form of Mariane Pearl's "A Mighty Heart," for example, and "American Hostage," a memoir in which Mr. Garen and his companion, Marie-Helene Carleton, detail the diplomatic channels Ms. Carleton frantically pursued to see him returned to safety.

 

MR. SOFFIN reached Mr. Garen and Ms. Carleton later that Labor Day. They provided useful advice and contacts, as did Sandy Cioffi, a documentary filmmaker who had been detained in Nigeria in April. Working on no more than four hours of sleep for several days, Mr. Soffin pursued what have now become the standard avenues: pressuring the American Embassy, collaborating with the groups Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, sending e-mail message blasts urging any and all recipients to contact their local elected officials and journalists.

 

And he and his allies came up with some innovations. A filmmaker whom Mr. Berends had never even met in person set up a blog with updates from Mr. Soffin. One of Mr. Berends's best friends, the photographer Jason Gardner, joined Mr. Soffin at his command center — his parents' Upper West Side apartment, which boasted luxuries like a land line and a full refrigerator — and built a Facebook group called Help Filmmaker Andrew Berends Get Released from Nigeria.

 

Over the course of a week, e-mail messages were flying around the world, 99 percent of which Mr. Soffin did not know about: one from a filmmaker in Azerbaijan who e-mailed a contact in New York who reached out to a friend in Toronto who was friendly with Mariane Pearl; a friend of a friend who connected with a contact in Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's office who would prove helpful. Mr. Soffin's efforts yielded a letter to the president of Nigeria, written by Senator Clinton and Senator Charles E. Schumer and signed by seven other members of Congress. "We work on cases like this in Africa every week," said Tom Rhodes, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "And I've never seen a response or reaction as impressive as Andrew's colleague Aaron Soffin."

 

Although he was never formally accused of a crime, Mr. Berends, 36, was held in Nigeria without food and water for 30 hours (fearful of exposing his sources, he managed to swallow the SIM card from his cellphone that carried their names and numbers). He managed brief phone conversations with Mr. Soffin. "I got the message from him that everything possible was being done," Mr. Berends said this past Friday. "Knowing it was happening was very comforting."

 

Mr. Berends was speaking at his home in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, where he arrived safely on Wednesday, 10 days after he was detained. Late Tuesday, without explanation, Nigerian security agents had put Mr. Berends on a Lufthansa flight to New York. Mr. Soffin met him at the airport. On the cab ride back, Mr. Berends took from his neck a silver necklace he had purchased in Nigeria and gave it to Mr. Soffin. "He's not someone you have to grovel to thank," Mr. Berends said of Mr. Soffin, who sat beside him on the couch, wearing the necklace.

 

The two men had been busy since Mr. Berends's return, working to ensure the safety of Mr. George, the translator, who had also been released but ordered to return to law enforcement headquarters in two weeks. They had a lot of people to thank, not to mention work to do on the production of "Delta Boys," which Mr. Berends hoped that Mr. Soffin would help him edit over the next several months.

 

But Mr. Soffin, having postponed his trip to Rwanda, is headed there in a few weeks to interview survivors of that country's genocide.

 

"I wish he could stay," said Mr. Berends, a veteran filmmaker who has logged months in Iraq but is suddenly more appreciative than ever of Mr. Soffin, the young film editor he found through a classified advertisement when he was fresh out of college. "It's hard to find somebody like him."