Geoffrey Smith’s first project was marked by tragedy and trauma, but it also made him as a documentary film-maker. Melbourne-born Smith – who went on to win two Emmys for feature docs – discussed film-making in the company of TV producer and lecturer Hans Petch at an RTS East event in October.
His Emmys were for Presumed Guilty, an exposé of Mexico’s judicial system, and The English Surgeon, which follows a neurosurgeon working in Ukraine’s Soviet-era hospitals.
His first film took him to Haiti to help make a documentary about the country's first free election in 30 years. “On the morning of that historic election, we discovered 23 people had been massacred in a school voting station,” recalled Smith.
“Two of the killers came back... and killed the journalist in front of me getting out of a car, and put a red-hot bullet into my leg and across my shoulder.
“There was physical trauma from my injuries, but the real trauma came from seeing 23 mangled bodies that had been cut and shot to pieces lying in deep pools of blood... those images really haunted me for years.
“Being shot was seriously and honestly the best thing that ever happened to me because I was forced to ask myself some big questions.... If I’d died from that random bullet fired by a random stranger, what was I going to leave behind?”
Smith returned to Haiti a few years later and made Searching for a Killer for the BBC. Telling his story to camera “had such a cathartic impact”, he thought: “If it could do that for me, it could perhaps also do it for other people.” That realisation “completely unlocked my career as a film-maker. What has given my life meaning is telling stories.”
Documentary film-makers, argued Smith, need to have “a functioning moral compass and a strong moral contract with our contributors and with our audience”.
He added that there was a “special relationship” between director and contributor and that needed to be built on “intimacy and trust.... If we, the audience, are allowed inside the closed world of another person, it’s a profound privilege.
“It’s why character-led documentaries can be so powerful and compelling, and generate this very moving, on-screen catharsis.”