Laura Shacham has worked in research, production and exhibition across long and short form documentaries and drama, focusing on issues of social justice and human rights. Most recently she was Assistant Producer on the feature Just Do It – a tale of modern-day outlaws. This week, Laura discusses how the director, Emily James, worked with activists to gain access to the secretive world of environmental direct action.
In April 2008, Emily James was recruited to film Plane Stupid’s takeover of a runway at Stansted airport. She knew some of the activists personally, and they needed someone they could trust to get their action out to the news broadcasters. So at a frosty 4am, she was there to film them. Her footage was all over the news for 24 hours, then it was gone. Yesterday’s story.
Beyond the absolute courage and determination of the activists, what Emily witnessed that day convinced her that these people deserved their true place in history. She wanted to give their story longevity and reach – she wanted to make a feature documentary that would go behind the scenes of this necessarily secretive world.
But Emily’s most significant hurdle was in convincing the activists to allow her to film them breaking the law. Firstly – these people were understandably wary of all media. They had been vilified by the press time and again and the notion of allowing someone into their private space to film the planning and plotting that they go to such lengths to keep out of the public eye was clearly both unprecedented and worrying for them.
Not content to give up, Emily worked with a number of legal firms who represent activists to put together a security protocol that would minimise the possibility of her footage incriminating anyone or, getting into the hands of the police. On every action, there were runners who took tapes immediately off to a safe house. A safe house that was not associated with Emily in any way, so that if she were arrested on an action and police searched her house (as was highly possible), she would not have any evidence for them to collect.
Ordinarily when making a film, you keep a very strict log of everything you’ve shot, especially with documentary. With Just Do It however, Emily created a code to label her tapes so they wouldn’t be easily identifiable. This code was so convoluted that when it came to the edit, even Emily herself couldn’t remember what footage was where.
The other significant element that finally put the activists’ minds at ease and proved Emily’s commitment to their safety, was the release forms. Again, you would normally ask all contributors to a documentary to sign release forms before filming has even started. With Just Do It, director Emily and producer Lauren Simpson, agreed with the activists that would not need to sign release forms until they had seen a rough cut. This meant that they would be able to judge for themselves whether they were comfortable with the level of risk they were being exposed to.
When the time came, the team put on a contributors’ screening and recruited a legal firm to attend and act on behalf of the activists. 300 people came to see the film at this closed screening, and they were then able to speak directly to lawyers about what their contribution might entail in the eyes of the law. Based on that legal advice, the activists were able to make an informed decision. Happily, every single person who took part was happy with how they’d been included and represented, and some who’d asked not to be filmed even expressed their regret!
These two prongs of respect and safety – the security protocol and the release forms – were crucial in making this film possible. The team were resolute in their commitment to the well-being of the people who were taking part, and ensuring that no one found themselves in trouble with the law as a result of the film.
Just Do It was a truly collaborative project with over 100 volunteers taking part in the production, and 447 people contributing to the crowd funding. But even beyond this, the film was a true collaboration between the team behind the scenes and the activists on the screen.
To organise a screening, buy the DVD or watch the film online, visit www.justdoitfilm.com
Girls (inc character Sophie in the middle) on police van at G20 Climate Camp, 1st April 2009, Photograph by Kristian Buus