Making Better Documentaries By Asking The Right Questions


How do we create awareness raising media about Human Trafficking that is honouring and not exploitative? 

For this I have invited two individuals from awareness raising non-profits who have dialogued with me in the past about how to do documentaries well. We are all learning, but I think what they have to say is incredibly important. For background on the conversation see the previous two posts: Positive Action, Sexy Awareness.

And can I just add that the women featured below are SO wise!! I give you Michelle from Hope for the Sold and Amy from Hope Dies Last.

Saskia – Funny I just realise both organisations have the word ‘hope’ in their title!

First question for Michelle, Why did you create your documentaries, and how do you feel these were different from other trafficking/prostitution related media already out there? 


Michelle – We consider ourselves reluctant filmmakers.  Neither of us had any film training, but really felt that movies were a powerful way to tell a story.  So we jumped right in and had to learn along the way.  We noticed early on that there were several trafficking films about southeast Asia, but not very many on Western countries.  We also noticed that many films either avoided hot button issues (like legalization for example) or addressed them in a really explosive, hostile way.  So we tried to create something that filled those gaps.


S- Ladies, what questions do you think are helpful for a filmmaker or organisation to ask themselves when starting on an awareness raising media project?


Michelle – Who will be our primary audience, and how can we share stories and statistics in a way that resonates with them?

Amy – Who does this serve and what is its purpose? For every documentary, we have been approached about creating the video, but even with that, I think it’s important to recognise that it needs to have a purpose. For example, we did the Moldova video after we found out Beginning of Life (BOL) had lost some major funding. The head of the organisation had a 40 event tour in North America organised for later that year and felt that a video would visually communicate their organisation in an effective way. We’d spent time in Moldova before and we were able to spend two months of the summer with BOL, not just to make the video but also to serve in a variety of other ways. Any media should serve the organisation we are giving it to more than it brings attention to, or glorifies, us.

We ask ourselves, is this more than awareness? We’re interested in creating strategic and focused media. I think we’re careful not to contribute to the ‘compassion-fatigue’ that comes from overexposure to injustice causes. It’s always key in our mind that we are creating a video for a specific group of people. In this way our language, our visuals… even the length of the video is strategic and specific. 

Michelle – Knowing that there will be opposition to any project, what kind of criticism do we prefer?  People can either criticize our conclusions (which is, to a degree, inevitable), or criticize our character.  

Amy – There is some really great, considerate, well thought out media centred around communicating human trafficking in a dignified way but there is also some horrible stuff too.  Good intention is not a good excuse for producing something that damages or degrades another person. As a team we’re always trying to think of a different way to communicate something. We try really hard to steer clear of clichés and over dramatization. I’m not impressed by media that is out there that is intended to create awareness but in many ways just feeds the viewers curiosity.

Also, we need to focus more on championing other spheres of society. If we focused more attention on building healthy families and communities we wouldn’t have so many issues of injustice.



S – Michelle, you chose two very sensitive topics to create documentaries about. What is the most important lesson you have learned about balancing sensitivity and still sharing the harsh realities you came across during filming?


Michelle – There is no need to tell the most extreme stories.  If you do, people tend to stop caring about the ‘average’ ones, so to speak.  Exploitation is wrong, in all its forms, and we need to foster sustainable compassion instead of giving people a shock-induced, momentary hunger for justice.  I think there is a way to tell story that draws the audience in, regardless of how ‘extreme’ it is.  For example, just as we should feel compassion for the victim whose un-born baby was beaten to death by her pimp, we also need to feel compassion for the girl who is working in the red light district, sending money to her kids in another country, and feeling there is no way out.  


S-  You chose very sensitive locations to create your media. How do you balance respect for the country and the people of the country, while highlighting issues of injustice?


Amy – We are careful about what we are communicating about a country as a whole. There are a lot of negative assumptions about Russia in the west and we wanted to include some positive footage to give balance to the film.

Also be aware not to overexpose the issue, really a little glimpse into “reality” goes a long way. Recognise that you can build upon the visual information that people have already processed. For example, because of the excessive amount of media that has been created detailing Amsterdams red-light district it will never be necessary for us to extensively show a German red-light district. People are aware of what window prostitution looks like and showing more than a couple of seconds of footage of it is unnecessary.   

Michelle – People are smarter than we give them credit for.  They know what’s going on in the red light district, there is no need to shock an audience with blatant visuals.  But I can see how it happens – our society is obsessed with wanting to be entertained, and we feel pressured to give them the flashy things that will incite a response.  We opted to stay away from this as much as possible in Red Light Green Light though.  General scenes of the (red light) district established the location and gave visual context, but we did not want to disrespect the women in the windows by filming them directly.  The upside is that people tend to respect your film more when you get across the point without being explicit.

Amy – Also don’t shame people. It can be brutal to see the realities of your nation laid out before you by outsiders. Shame doesn’t lead to action but hope does. 


S- What steps did you take to ensure you represented the interviewees in a way that was respectful and true to their personal integrity? Was it difficult to edit the footage of individuals you perhaps did not agree with? 


Michelle – We wanted each interviewee to feel that their voice was heard, not manipulated.  We kept asking ourselves, “if this person saw their clip in the context of the clips around it, would they feel that their opinion was respected and in line with the spirit of their whole interview?” There were definitely moments during the editing process where we could have used a clip in total isolation to prove a point, but decided not to.  That being said, with such a controversial topic, some clearly would not agree with the conclusions we came to at the end of the film, but our hope was that despite that, they’d feel they were represented fairly and got to say their piece.


S- What are some of the challenges of interviewing survivors of exploitation?


Michelle – The first challenge was finding them, especially in countries where we had not built relationships with organizations. Building trust is key.  

Amy – Where possible, get to know your interviewee without the camera. Tasha was a trafficked woman who allowed us to interview her for the Russia video.  We got a chance to have a quick lunch with her and we allowed her to get to know us as we got to know her. We were in a time crunch and it was tempting just to start filming but we cared more about who she was than what information she could tell us. 

Michelle – Knowing how to interact with survivors can be a challenge- specifically for Jay (Michelle’s husband).  One 17 year old we interviewed who had just been rescued from a pimp couldn’t even look Jay in the eye, let alone shake his hand, simply because he was a male.  We had to adjust some of our own social norms when interacting with survivors. Interviewing itself was a challenge because you wanted to draw out a story that would be clear enough for a film, but do so ethically, without re-victimizing the person.  

I learned a new term while we were shooting our second film – “compassion fatigue.”  We had to be careful that we did survivor interviews at a sustainable pace so we would not get overwhelmed.     

Amy- You have a clear agenda for good but ultimately this is a person in front of you and they matter more than your video. This is a really Christian thing to say but I have to listen to God throughout an interview. And if He says stop, we do it. One of the challenges is that for a truly moving interview there needs to be detail. Its really hard asking a person for sensory detail because it involves, for them, an immersion in the memory. I think its always important to give the survivor the so-called reigns in the interview. She/he is in charge and is in no way obligated to answer questions or to keep going with the interview. The last thing I would ever want to do is exploit someone for a good story. 


S – What advice would you pass on to aspiring documentary makers, especially those wanting to raise awareness in the area of sexual exploitation?


Michelle – Nail the tone.  I can’t stress this enough.  Having the right tone can disarm people on all sides, fostering conversation. This was a big difference between our first film and Red Light Green Light.  We are still learning and trying to figure things out, but I think we’ve taken steps in the right direction in getting the tone right. 

Amy – First up is become an expert. Know the statistics and read the stories that are already out there. Be prepared as best as possible with the information available to you. Spend time in the country you’ll be filming in to make friends, serve and learn to love the people. Recognise that a documentary is just the beginning. Stay in contact with the people who opened up to you and allowed you into their lives. 

Get honest feedback and take critique from the people you are trying to help. 

Go and serve other documentary teams and learn from their mistakes. Get some journalistic training and practise interviewing people; it’s not as easy as it looks. 

Be creative in the ways you film/photograph around red-light districts. One of my favourite photos of ours of a red-light district was taken from the back of the building. All you can see is 3 stories of ominously red-lit windows against the night sky. For me this tells the story of the hundreds of women that work in this area better than if I saw them in lingerie behind glass. 

Also, when dealing with issues such as sexual exploitation recognize that you don’t always get to humanize the injustice. A story can be told in many ways with integrity that doesn’t negatively impact the dignity of the people involved.

We need to take responsibility not to be visually representing situations that are sexual triggers for people. This means be extremely careful not to present images that are sexy even if that’s the last thing we intend to portray.  (Yes! That is so good – Saskia)

And lastly, be accountable to people. If you are asked not to do something or show something by someone who is involved in what you are trying to document, respect that even if you don’t agree with it. Always have people who know the injustice you are exposing give you feedback before the public does.




Hope for the Sold: Michelle and her husband Jay are the founders of this Canadian based organization, which began by creating a documentary film on sex trafficking in Canada. Their blog reaches thousands of readers monthly, discussing important issues surrounding sexual exploitation. Hope for the Sold just finished its second film, Red Light Green Light, which addresses the complex issue of legalization of prostitution.



1009753_394053524033022_513707021_nHope Dies Last: Based in Europe, their mission is ‘transforming culture through media and missions to counteract human trafficking and sexual exploitation.’ They have created several mini-documentaries over the last few years. Amy heads up Hope Dies Last. She studied Journalism and Politics in Australia and subsequently loves current affairs and hates typos. Amy first realized slavery was not a problem of the past when she was going to high-school in Sudan. She is fanatical about speaking in a dignified way about people who suffer from injustices.

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