Like many documentary filmmakers, I haven’t followed a normal route into the profession, writes Producer Director/ DV Director Louise Orton.
My first professional job after university was as a local journalist, and then I went to work in communications for international charities for over 11 years. I covered conflicts and natural disasters including the wars in Sierra Leone and DR Congo, and Cyclone Nargis in Burma. The crux of my job was to tell the human stories behind the issues and to engage the UK public to want to donate or take action.
My experience as a journalist stood me in good stead for finding interesting and engaging characters and persuading them to talk. But that was in the UK. A remote African community can be a totally different kettle of fish. Sometimes women are nowhere to be found when you enter a village, as their voice may not be considered important. The village chief may have strong ideas on who he wants you to speak to, but this might not be who you want to speak to, so delicate negotiating is needed.
Many times I’ve travelled overseas immediately after a famine or conflict. The circumstances are traumatic but it’s your job to come home with the stories. I have developed a hard casing, but have never lost the compassion. Important while interviewing a mother who lost her daughter and granddaughter in floods in Bangladesh (pictured above); children in Sierra Leone whose parents were beheaded in front of them; a man who lost his wife and eight children in a massacre in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Not all my work with NGOs has been so sad. I was in Ghana for the Global Week of Action on Trade assisting a camera crew to film chicken farmers marching into parliament with their chickens. At the end of the march it was a scram to get into parliament and the authorities said they would only admit one chicken farmer, the media and some prominent campaigners. Unfortunately, the chicken farmer had parted company with his chicken! I ran round like a woman possessed to get another chicken and just managed to pass it through the gates as they were about to close. Having a chicken in parliament created a stir and achieved our goal of making it onto the national and even the international news agenda.
Ingenuity and resourcefulness are important in both NGO comms and documentaries. As is tenacity. I was working for a medical aid agency during the renewed violence in eastern DRC in 2008. Our doctors were desperately trying to reach a hospital in a town that had been cut off by the violence. A TV crew making a Dispatches for Channel 4 were interested in joining the medical convoy but the doctor in charge had categorically refused. After several hours I managed to persuade him otherwise and the TV crew produced amazing footage of the doctors literally saving lives with the new supplies. I helped the crew by English – French translating and liaising with the doctors and patients, and finally decided I wanted to be a filmmaker.
I went freelance in late 2010. I got a job as social media producer on The Health Show for BBC World because of my contacts and knowledge in the work of global health, and also did some research and AP work. I was delighted when I was asked to direct a short film on a great character I had found in Huddersfield. Since then, I have done development work for True Vision and shot and/or directed several short films overseas (mainly for charities). I also filmed, produced and directed a Witness film for Al Jazeera, about a human rights activist in Western Sahara. I am currently developing several international films for broadcast and online.
The resourcefulness and resilience that I have developed, my international contacts book, along with my foreign language skills and knowledge of global current affairs, are great assets for TV documentary work. I’d be delighted with any pointers, introductions or to hear from any companies who could use my skills.