Thursday 05 August 2010
An in-depth interview with experienced Unreported World journalist Evan Williams.
As a reporter for the critically-acclaimed foreign affairs series Unreported World, Evan Williams has covered stories in some of the most extreme and hostile places on Earth. From the remote jungle of West Papua to the favelas of Brazil, from war-torn Iraq to a Zimbabwe on its knees, Williams has seen the best and worst of humanity, as people struggle to survive in unthinkable circumstances.
Ahead of the new series of Unreported World, he talks about why he still feels passionate about his work, how he copes with the emotional fallout and why Unreported World continues to make a difference.
How did you end-up making international current affairs documentaries?
I started with the ABC in Australia. I was one of their foreign correspondents based in Southeast Asia during the 90s. After that, I took a job with a programme at the ABC called Foreign Correspondent, which was all international current affairs, making stories of between 20 and 45 minutes long. So that's how I got into making the longer form of current affairs stories. I moved to the UK with my wife in 2005 and wanted to work on international current affairs with Channel 4 because I liked their slightly subversive approach and wanted to learn more, and to expand into new areas and longer formats. My motivation was also a lifelong interest in international current affairs, and real desire to get out and be in the situation rather than reporting it from an office.
How many Unreported World documentaries have you made now?
How long do you work on each one for?
Each one is a contract of two months: that’s two weeks of preparation, up to three weeks shooting in the field, and three weeks editing. It’s a pretty fixed timeframe.
It must be pretty intensive?
It's very intensive. It's all-consuming. The style is very much what you see on the ground, it's very actuality based. There's no going and adding things in the edit suite. It's all about what you find and what you discover while you're out there, and your journey along the way. Unlike a lot of TV current affairs, where you go with a file and you know all this material and information first, and feed it in a detached way, this is very much based on what you discover on the ground. Obviously you have to set up where you're going, and you have to know roughly what's happening, but it is a genuine journey of journalistic discovery, and that's its strength.
Is it always the case that there are just two of you on the ground for each programme?
That's right. It's always a two-person team - the shooter/director and the reporter. And, of course, you have a local fixer who you work with. So really we’re a three-person team.
What's the thinking behind having such a small team?
It's partly stylistic, and partly for ease in operating. You get a really good dynamic going for this style of actuality-based television when there are two of you. You are genuinely following the reporter's journey, it's not to do with the ego of the reporter or that we have to be the centre of attention. It's nothing to do with that. It's more that a director who is shooting with you all the time will be on your shoulder and will follow you through what you discover on your way. Doing it with any more than two people wouldn't really work, because you'd have lots of set-up and you'd have lots of other people involved. Whereas this is just the cameraman following you through, and you get a really good dynamic going. It's also very important for a lot of stories we do to remain slightly covert. Often we're in places where people don’t really want us to be - particularly governments and officials - or we might need to get into another area to get to people. And having a two-person crew, especially if you've got a man and a woman, can give you a much better ability to move into an area and keep moving and keep a low profile.
A lot of the filming you do is in secret. What are the methods you employ to remain undetected?
Moving quickly, being aware of your environment all the time, having things lined up as much as you can where you might be able to get what you need without further endangering the people you're meeting, and also keeping your head down. So you don’t hang around in a place any longer than you have to, you keep moving. You may decide to change your dates from when you were meant to be somewhere. Try and organise back-ups for when things go wrong. Try and stay aware as much as possible about what threats might be out there, in terms of being detected by officials, governments and others, such as non-state parties who might want to get hold of you.
You talk about wanting to protect the people who talk to you. That must be one of your primary concerns.
Yeah, it's very, very important. Obviously, in this age of internet and other material going back into countries, it’s even more important. A lot of people we meet are very keen that they are seen to be standing up for a particular issue or cause, or even their own pursuit of justice. And often this is a very dangerous thing for those people to do. So it's a matter of trying to protect those people. Sometimes we have to make decisions where an interviewee might want to be seen, but we decide it's in their best interests to disguise his or her identity. Or we try and give the people we work with some kind of deniability - so if we're working with locals who are getting us to a particular place, we won't involve them in a particular part of the filming so that they can't be identified with anything too incriminating.
Which of the stories that you've reported have made the biggest impression on you?
There are so many, it's hard to condense down. Every story has its very powerful and moving moments - some more that others, but they are always there. It is often the most vulnerable who get to me, but it can sometimes be the most inspiring who affect me in any given situation - someone who is stoically pursuing a goal despite all the odds, someone who refuses to give up. I think one of my first stories contained some of the most moving moments, the West Papua story. We went in to see people who were struggling to keep their own land. They are completely tied in with their land, it is everything to them, and yet it no longer really belongs to them. Egypt was very moving, where we found Christians who were living pretty much on a rubbish dump. They're all moving, and they're all very compelling in their own way. It's hard to differentiate. Ingushetia made a big impact on me as well. They all do.
It often looks pretty terrifying, too. When have you been the most scared?
I think when we almost got arrested in West Papua. Or, our going out with American soldiers on patrol in Iraq. You won't necessarily have a particular incident, but it's about what could happen. In Ingushetia we were arrested by the Russian secret service, pulled over and taken to the police headquarters, where you're unsure about what's about to happen, or what could happen. Being a bit scared is a good thing. It keeps you alert and hopefully lessens complacency.
Do you still get shocked by the things you see, or does nothing surprise you any more?
No, I'm always shocked. Always shocked and always interested. I think if you feel that you've seen it all before, it's probably time to give it up. Every bad or distressing situation is shocking. Certain things might move you in a particular way. I think sometimes you see a series of incidents and not really allow it to get too deep as you keep working - then you come across an incident or person or event and it all comes out at that point for some reason. It doesn’t have to be the most dramatic or moving moment that sets it off, and I think different people react to different things in this regard. We met a woman in Brazil whose son had been killed, and as far as the police were concerned he was just another street kid. And she was this beautiful, 45-year-old woman who had lost her son and was completely hopeless. I found it very, very moving. There was no particular answer to anything, and no one in particular to blame, it was just her sense of isolated hopelessness. She had no one to turn to. She sat in the small cinder block shack that was her home, with her son dead. That really affected me. Each one of them does affect you. In Zimbabwe I met a 14-year-old girl taking care of all her siblings as her mother had died of an AIDS-related illness. She wanted to take care of her brothers and sisters even though she wasn’t sure where to get their daily food and all she wanted to do was go to school, but in her eyes I could see she knew she was trapped. In this case there was someone to blame - a completely uncaring government and leader. In Ingushetia, we met a family whose son had just been blown up by the Russian security forces, allegedly, in their own home. We met them during a mourning ceremony, when the whole family was there, and that was extremely moving. They described how his body had been dragged to a particular part of the room and blown up. I could go on. Each story has its own personality, and its own episode that is particularly shocking.
Do you find it difficult to come back home and switch off and enjoy the trappings of life here?
I think you'd be lying if you said you weren't affected by these things. But I think it's very important to try not to carry it too heavily when you come back - particularly with other people who haven't been there. Those people can't really understand it, and hopefully the power is through the story, not through your own banging on about it for hours and days. You're just going to bore people, they can't relate to it until they've seen the film. These stories are extremely important to us, and so I try to channel that energy or anger or frustration or emotion through them. I find I don't talk about them too much - in fact, my wife complains I don't talk about it enough. So I think it's important that you come back and are able to get on with and enjoy life as much as you can, and channel your feelings into the story. But I do find, as I get a little older, that it's a cumulative type of experience - it does add up.
If, as you say, it's cumulative, does that mean that you can't keep on going for too much longer?
No, I think what it means is you need to be aware of how you handle it, and not to pretend it's not there. Like all reporters and investigators, we're going into very unusual situations, and we inevitably see certain things. Many people have seen much worse than I have - I think that's an important thing to say. I've seen some things, but I've also been very fortunate. But it's a matter of not pretending that it's not unusual - of recognising that there are stresses and strains and that sometimes these things need to be sat down and thought about and thought through. We have a strong team of people on Unreported World who all experience similar things, and that is a useful safety valve too. I think that's the most useful thing - to go back over what you've experienced, and put it in context. Because you also meet fabulous heroes, people who are resisting, and who are very inspirational, and they can often be a good counterbalance.
Do the films ever make a significant difference?
A lot of people take great heart, on the ground when we get to them, just from the fact that anybody from outside is taking any notice at all. I think that's one of the most important things to remember. It cannot be underestimated, because these people are often operating in very difficult circumstances. They're isolated; they often don’t have much contact with the outside world. We get to them and we tell their story, and that gives these people on the ground an enormous boost. And for legal and journalistic reasons, we often have to take these concerns to the authorities, and so often government and national attention is raised on an issue that might not have been there before - so in that way I think it helps tremendously on the ground. I would say that the presence of the camera and the programme imbues people with a new energy, and I've witnessed that. Does it lead to change? Yes, I think it does. For example in Jamaica, I wouldn’t say we affected domestic politics, but certainly the issues we were looking at there, in terms of the political connections to gang violence, became a national election issue, led to a national enquiry with a new government, and led to some soul-searching by political parties. And that was an issue that our presence and our story helped raise. Many other Unreported World reporters and directors could recount more stories like this.
The new series of Unreported World is about to start. Where have you been for this series?
I've just got back from Pakistan, where we've been looking at the continuation of militant groups. We're looking at why it is that militant organisations are still allowed and can still operate in Pakistan. We can reveal more details in the story. And I'm about to go somewhere else, but I can't talk about it at this stage.
Interview by Benjie Goodhart.