Working Lives: Documentary film-maker

Working Lives: Documentary film-maker

Monday, 17th October 2022
Edward Watts on location making Escape from Isis (Credit: Channel 4)
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Edward Watts is best known for two bold, powerful RTS Award-winning films, Escape from Isis and the Oscar-nominated For Sama, which both brought the horror of war in the ­Middle East to Channel 4 audiences.

What does the job involve?

A documentary film-maker is trying to capture the essence of real life in cinematic form.

What was your route into film-making?

I left university with a history degree and started as a runner for Roger Graef’s company, Films of Record. He was a great man and it was an incredible place to work. I worked my way up from runner to researcher to assistant producer to finally getting a producer/director gig.

What was your first documentary?

A film for Channel 4’s Unreported World about Japanese nationalists in 2006, Japan: Red Sun Rising.

How do you come up with ideas…? 

There isn’t a magic formula. Find a subject you’re passionate about, get on the ground and meet people. Pick up the phone, rather than reading articles and sending emails – calling people is so much better. They reveal things that aren’t on the internet and allow you to get to the truth.

… and make a film?

A few years ago, you’d have an idea, shoot some stuff and use what you’d shot to raise more money to keep the project going. That has changed because of the money that’s come into documentaries from the streamers.

It’s amazing for film-makers, but there’s a flip side – commissioners want to know the ending and that’s anathema to a film-maker like me, where the very process of making a film is often how you discover what the story is.

What makes a good film-maker?

Emotional intelligence is so important – documentaries are at their greatest when they touch the heart. Waad al-Kateab, the woman I worked with on For Sama, was filming on basic cameras but she was like a smart bomb for the emotion of a scene and capturing it – that’s what makes a great documentary film-maker. You need to be passionate and bold about the story you’re telling: too many people are worried about being accused of not being objective.

But don’t film-makers have to be objective?

You need to be open and willing to change your mind, but when you look at Russia and Ukraine, for example, good and evil is at play. Syria is a particular passion of mine and there was no moral equivalence between the two sides in Aleppo – one side [the Syrian Government and Russia] was bombing civilians and using chemical weapons and the other wasn’t.

From left: Edward Watts, Waad al-Kateab and Hamza al-Kateab
at Cannes, 2019(Credit: Alamy)

Who do you work with on a shoot?

A fixer and driver – I do all the shooting and sound myself. Others prefer to work with crews, but I like the smallest team possible because it allows me to work in an unobtrusive way, capturing things I wouldn’t get if people were more conscious of my presence.

What is a typical filming day like?

An early start – I’m obsessed with trying to film a sunrise – meet my team, grab some food and jump into a vehicle. I always want to fill the day; if I haven’t got access to our characters, I take shots of the environment.

What do you bring to work with you?

With Escape from Isis, my goal was to be self-sufficient. I had a backpack with the heavier equipment, such as lenses and tripods, and a bumbag for batteries – it was mobile, stripped-down film-making.

Are you conscious of risk?

I lost a colleague, Tim Hetherington, whom I’d worked with on Unreported World; he died in Libya. I think all of us who work on these types of documentaries are aware of the potential risks, but you’re there to get a story and so there’s no point in hiding in the hotel. I’ve now got one kid and another on the way and that’s had a big impact on my film-making – I didn’t feel able to go to Ukraine.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

The best is when you make a connection between an audience and a story that is so far out of their frame of reference. I want to show that people in, say, Syria or Ukraine have the same sense of humour or concerns – it’s just that they’re having to live in terrible circumstances. The worst? Pick one… documentary culture is tough; even when you get back from a shoot, there’s still the edit, which can be intense and long.

Has film-making changed since you started?

It’s a golden age – there’s money now and a bigger audience; we’re not scrabbling around on the margins of cinema any more. A documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, just won the Golden Lion, the highest award for a film, at the Venice Film Festival. People are looking at documentary as an art form now, which is fantastic.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to make documentaries?

The most important thing is to understand why you want to do it. People have a range of motivations: some people are attracted to the glamour that now seems to be ­circulating around documentary film-­making, but a lot of people are motivated, I think, by a desire to shine a light on the troubles of the world, to make a difference or to make connections between people. 

Have a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve – don’t worry about getting work; worry about getting the right work to get where you want to be.

Do you have any practical tips?

I was self-taught. I went out with a camera, filming an event and then trying to turn it into a mini-film. I took those raw pieces to more experienced film-makers and asked them what they thought – most people were happy to give me 30 minutes of their time. 

Learning those basic skills is vital, given how competitive the field is. When I got my first break, I was told I could direct an Unreported World, but only if I could show that I could shoot.

What films do you admire?

A great film-maker has passion – they don’t make a technically brilliant film that doesn’t have a heart. I show Darwin’s Nightmare to anyone I teach. It was shot on the most basic of cameras but the director, Hubert Sauper, captures the environmental catastrophe that’s unfolding in Lake Victoria. It’s made with such intelligence that it transcends the grainy footage. 

For me, that’s film-making: it’s not how pretty the picture is, it’s how it makes me feel. I love raw films such as Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, The Return to Homs and The Cove.

What are you working on now?

A feature doc that I can’t talk about, but I’ve also been trying to help film-makers in Ukraine by using my experience of working in conflict zones. Film-making is changing – it’s not necessarily about British guys like me flying out to foreign countries, it’s more about empowering people who live there to tell their own stories. That’s a really positive development.

What would you like to make a film about? 

The climate. We need to tell stories that cut through. People know what’s going on, but change isn’t happening. I haven’t got the answer yet.