Filmmaking in some of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
Director Jack Dixon in Liberia.
The Girl Declaration took director Jack Dixon to some of the least advisable travel destinations on Earth. But it was worth the risk so he and his Producer, Rowland Kimber from Ivory, could make great films for a good cause – helping to improve the lives of girls in developing countries around the world.
When the United Nations made its Millennium Development Goals, issues relating specifically to girls were left out. This year, girls from impoverished communities the world over helped to write The Girl Declaration – a tool to ensure the United Nations include them when they renew their goals.
This is a project from The Girl Effect – a movement that uses the potential of adolescent girls around the world to end poverty for themselves and others.
As the charity ran workshops with girls in poor communities around the world, Jack’s job was to document these for The Girl Declaration film and a series of documentaries profiling some of the girls that drafted the Declaration. It was Rowland’s job to make sure Jack and the crew were able to tell the most poignant stories possible, and that meant sending them into some pretty punishing environments.
Director: Jack Dixon
Producer: Rowland Kimber
DOP: James Durand
Director: Joe Dixon (Philippines)
DOP: Sara Dean (Philippines)
Production Company: Ivory
Editor: Chris McKay
Producer: Annabelle Dunbar-Whittaker
Offline: Cut + Run
Graphic Design: Smith & Agar
Motion Graphics: Donald Chung
Colourist: Dan Moran
Producer: Andrew Salem
Grade House: Smoke and Mirrors
Mini Doc Music Composer: Dominick Goldsmith
Main Film Music:
“Clearing The Cobwebs”, Written by Ken McHugh
Performed by We Saw Heaven
Courtesy of Lefthand Records
Courtesy of Elevate Music Ltd
By arrangement with ThinkSync Music
After dismissing Democratic Republic of Congo for being too perilous, the plan was to shoot in five locations: Liberia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil and Nigeria, which meant a lot of work for Rowland. He had to put together risk assessments for each of these, which was interesting, considering the Foreign Office had advised against travel to any of these places unless absolutely necessary.
“You have to have every angle covered,” says Rowland. “If someone had died, the coroner would have to work out why and if there’s anything more that could have been done, so [it needed] a comprehensive – you could argue over-the-top – risk assessment.”
Rowland considered worst-case scenarios, compiling information from various sources around the world to try and gauge the reality of possible dangers. He even did a considerable amount of research into kidnapping in these countries and concluded that as long as they shot quickly they wouldn’t have to worry.
Jack and co. would need security in some of these areas, but despite the violence endemic in these neighbourhoods, they stopped short of armed guards on Rowland’s call.
“If you get armed guards you’re in a different situation, insurance-wise,” he says. “If you should really have an armed guard then you’re on the next level and you have to have hostile environment training,” something the team had neither money nor time for.
While all the locations were a bit dangerous, they each had their own nuances and issues that Jack got to know in the process of making these films. He knew this was going to be an unforgettable experience when he and his DOP, Jamie Durand began in the capital of Liberia – one of the poorest West African states. “We arrived a day early and spent a day wandering around Monrovia, just thinking ‘Jesus Christ! this is weird,’” he remembers. “And it turned out that part of Monrovia was the haven for visiting westerners.”
“It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. There is no money and you can feel it. It’s the most foreign country I’ve been to by a long stretch. And it smelt awful as well because they don’t have a sewage system and we were on the beach, which they generally use as a toilet.”
Meeting the girls who were drafting the Declaration, Jack learnt about the problems the country is facing, still recovering from a 14-year civil war. Like in other such conflicts, rape was used as a weapon. “It just breaks these cultures,” he despairs. “There’s still a huge problem with rape. We were speaking to one of the charity workers there and she was saying that before the civil war rapists were put in front of a firing squad. But now it’s kind of normal for men to rape young girls. That’s part of life there. There were stories of men raping girls, being caught and just being released a couple of days later. And the community knows who they are.”
After that culture shock, briefly returning to London before the next trip was a bizarre experience. “Everything just seemed so tranquil,” says Jack. “Rowland came to pick me and Jamie up from the airport. We were driving back through central London and it seemed weird how calm everything was.” London may be many things, but it’s rarely described as tranquil.
The next trip, to Pakistan, was different again. The constant threat of terrorism has transformed part of Islamabad into a fortified secure zone, with checkpoints everywhere. At one point, Jack ate at a restaurant with snipers stationed on the roof.
He describes the process of getting into his hotel there. “There was an armed guard you drove past, [then] a gate with a couple of armed guards where they check your car for bombs. You go through that and there’s another gate where an armed guard lets you through. Then you have to slalom your way up through all these concrete obstacles to get to the hotel front, where they X-ray all your bags and you have to go through a metal detector.”
“Tricky if you just want to pop out,” Rowland quips.
While Jack was in Pakistan, his brother Joe was directing the footage in the Philippines, which Jack explains posed a different kind of challenge. They went to visit one group of girls helping with the Declaration. “They were very young,” says Jack, “and found it hard to talk about issues, so there was a lot of crying whenever anything sensitive came up, unfortunately for Joe.” They came out with footage for the main film, but none of the compelling stories that made the documentaries.
Next up was Brazil, which looked the least dangerous on paper. It was the only shoot Rowland managed to make it out to himself, and it ended up being potentially the most risky.
Two weeks before the shoot they were told the risk level in that area was increasing. “That was when the community centre a couple of doors down from one of the girls we did a documentary about was held up at gunpoint,” says Rowland.
It seemed safe enough at first. “It was just like a holiday town in Spain or Portugal,” says Jack, “but everyone there was incredibly paranoid. They wouldn’t let us walk down the street in pairs, we had to be in big groups and things like this. We thought they we were being silly, but gradually we realised they weren’t when we heard the stories of kidnappings and decapitations.”
They met Andressa at the workshop and instantly wanted to make a film about her. Naturally, her neighbourhood was one of the sketchiest in town. “We weren’t supposed to be going to this favela,” says Jack. “The day before we went there had been a gunfight out in the street all day so people couldn’t leave their houses. None of the local charity workers had ever been in there. The woman who was taking us in didn’t sleep the night before because she was so nervous about going in.”
Two local men went into the favela with them as security and the team came out with a brilliant mini-doc and all their limbs intact. It wasn’t until later that they found out the local charity had tried to get a proper security company to protect them but were refused because they couldn’t guarantee the team’s safety.
By the time and Jack and Jamie got to Nigeria, their last location, they were completely unfazed by the drama. Jack recounts how a man with a machine gun shouted at them on their first day there. “We were walking down the street and this guy emerged from a camouflaged hut with a machine gun,” he says. He was shouting something, but they couldn’t work out it if it was “go” or “come”. They edged towards him and were told that if they walked into the square of tiles they were heading for they would be shot.
“I’m pretty sure they don’t just shoot tourists who walk into tiled squares through,” says Jack. That aside, it was plain sailing. “By the time we were in Nigeria we knew what to expect and I think that’s where the work came easiest to us.” They ended up shooting some of their best stuff there.
The danger of these situations meant the team didn’t have the luxury of time. “We didn’t have much time to choose who we wanted to visit and we didn’t have much time once we went to visit them,” says Rowland, “mainly for security reasons, because the longer you’re there the more the word gets out and people arrive with guns and things. We had maybe two to three hours with [each girl] to make the film.”
There were a lot of cultural challenges too. “It was quite tricky because you don’t really understand the cultural nuances,” says Jack. “So you want them to understand that you’re there to tell the story but you want to make them feel open – that you’re a safe person to talk to.”
Jack’s ability to make the girls comfortable within this limited time was vital, but he handled it admirably. One trick to get the girls to open up was allowing them to film themselves with a flip camera. “It cost about 50 quid,” says Rowland, “this little thing [with a] terrible sensor, but you could just give her the camera and let her do her own thing.”
It worked a treat, particularly with Hannatu in Nigeria, as you can see in her film. “As soon as we gave her that flip camera, she was off for ages,” says Jack.
Jack was surprised at how friendly and helpful the girls were, “amazingly so, considering a stranger from another country was asking what the worst parts of their lives are like.”
This optimism was a relief because he didn’t want to make a classic flies-around-the-mouth charity campaign. It needed to be uplifting. “The girls are generally so positive,” says Jack. “A lot of them are working harder than anyone I’ve met to try and better themselves. Looking after ten siblings, working so the family can eat and finding time to get an education as well because they don’t want to just be a housewife in the future.”
For all the danger and difficulties that went into making these films, these hardships are nothing compared to what girls in these communities face every day. But as The Girl Effect documentaries show, that’s not going to break their determination.