As an Executive Producer on the BAFTA winning and Oscar nominated documentary For Sama, George Waldrum was part of the team that brought this incredible personal story to a global audience. The documentaries he has produced throughout his career have taken extraordinary risks to tell hugely important stories. These include Escape from ISIS and Syria Undercover.
George and his wife Katharine, an archive producer, have worked on both TV productions and features. Both have a wealth of experience in the wide spectrum of skills needed in documentary production. From the risks of working in incredibly hostile environments to the complexities and intricacies of archive clearance.
I was able to catch up with both during lockdown to discover more about their experiences working in the factual genre…
George, how did you first get into documentary filmmaking? What was your background training?
I first got in to filming what was going on around me when my mother bought a Hi8 camcorder. I have no idea why she did but I was the only one in the house who could work it. I started filming then when I was around 12.
I started to become more interested in watching documentaries and remember seeing a Channel 4 doc in 2000 called Pimp Snooky. I was amazed at the access and how it sucked me into this dark world I knew nothing about. I didn’t have any formal training, but then I studied journalism at university and just carried on using a camera and putting small things together as and when I could. It never occurred to me I could make a living out of it.
The real training I got was on the job, when I started working for Insight News TV with Sorious Samura and Ron McCullagh.
Which filmmakers or documentaries have most inspired you?
Cry Freetown by Sorious. I’d never seen anything like that in my life up to that point, something so violent, tragic and almost unwatchable but so important. In many ways there’s a parallel with For Sama - they are deeply personal, autobiographical accounts documenting a world crumbling around them.
Of course I have to say Waad Al-Khateab too for all the same reasons. In both cases the idea of filming what was happening was something they were compelled to do, at great personal risk, overridden by the idea that someone needed to show what was happening.
And I have to say Ed Watts, his pursuit of excellence knows no bounds.
Escape from ISIS was an extraordinarily powerful documentary but also incredibly dangerous for those involved. How do you risk-assess for such extreme and hazardous productions like those? How do you maintain the balance of telling the story and keeping the crew safe?
On all productions in hostile environments a couple of things come in to consideration.
First, who is going and who is helping them on the ground. In this instance, Ed Watts the director is vastly experienced in operating in these types of locations. He had an experienced local fixer with excellent connections and understands the different risks and how to avoid or mitigate against them.
A very detailed security protocol is put together too, and interrogated thoroughly by the channel. It attempts to list every possible risk and scenario and protocols of what to do in each case. Overall it sets out the boundaries of what we all think is acceptable and achievable in safest possible way.
Your work has covered some pretty intense situations around the world. What has been the most challenging project you have worked on?
There’s been a few for Unreported World. The most challenging was one I wasn’t even on but overseeing back in Oxford. We had a team in Ivory Coast and the security in the capital got progressively worse as young violent militia took over the streets. The crew there ran out of options and it was left to the French military to intervene to get them and others out to safety.
For Sama has received critical acclaim globally. How did that project get off the ground? At what stage did you get involved?
In the grand scheme I got involved at quite a late stage – if you account for the 5 years Waad had been filming before the actual feature doc was commissioned. Channel 4 News really invested time and effort in helping get her stories out of Aleppo as the siege was unfolding. Their work with Waad, broadcast on Ch4 news had a real impact.
I came on board after Waad had reached Turkey with Hamza and the family. Both myself and Nevine Mabro of Ch4 news went over to see her and start talking about making a documentary. From there it progressed and was commissioned.
How does making a feature documentary differ from a doc commissioned for TV? What are the different challenges?
This was an unusual project as it was originally a TV commission that turned in to a theatrical and festival feature doc release then broadcast. The production of feature docs play out over a longer timeline, are often much more labours of love and for a cinema audience. So lots of different factors come in to play from how it will play out and feel on the big screen, the length, sound and score.
Have you kept in touch with any of the people or situations featured in your documentaries? Which films have had the biggest impact on you?
There’s one guy I am still in touch with from time to time. He was from Sudan and made his way to the UK, we followed part of his journey from Calais to the UK. He ended up in Glasgow of all places and has made a good life for himself there.
Staying in touch with many of the people we’ve worked with is difficult, especially those featured in Sorious Samura’s films as they are often in remote locations, in quite difficult circumstances.
Apart from the obvious travel and work restrictions, how have you seen the current global pandemic affected documentary filmmaking? What do you think the industry could look like after lockdown?
Yes the lockdown pretty much stopped a lot of the non-current affairs productions. I think access, actuality led filming or anything that involves filming with more than one person has been extremely difficult. Things are opening up now though.
Initially I think there’s been an increase in archive driven commissions for obvious reasons. I think people always want to sit and watch a good documentary that provides insight, emotions and revelation. With that in mind I think short term there are challenges but filmmakers and production teams are resourceful and they will find ways to make it happen.
You can follow George on Twitter: @GeorgeWaldrum