Producers Of HBO’s ‘Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped By Boko Haram’ Talk Us Through Their Filming Process

It was one of the biggest news stories of 2014 with a viral hashtag that carried the story around the world on social media. When 276 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped by a group of terrorists from their school and hidden in the forest for 3 years, the world was in shock to hear that such an egregious act could be carried out for so long.

Over the following years, while the virality and urgency of the story dropped away from our daily news feeds, the freedom of the girls was being negotiated and fought for by the Nigerian government. A number of the girls have now escaped and are slowly reintegrating back into society, while also dealing with the very traumatic ordeal they were forced into by a group that does not want to see girls being educated.

A new documentary on HBO,’Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram’ follows the lives of some of the rescued girls as they are now adjusting to life away from captivity, and the struggles they still face. Granted exclusive access to the 82 girls who were freed last year and taken to a secret government safe house in the capitol of Abuja, the film reveals how the young women are adapting to life after their traumatic imprisonment and how the Nigerian government is handling their reentry into society.

We spoke with award-winning documentarians and producers of the film Karen Edwards and Sasha Joelle Achilli who walked us through their filming process, how they managed to secure such an exclusive type of access to the rescued girls, and what viewers will learn about their lives that was not covered by news media. First, take a look at the trailer:

Tell us how you came to work on the documentary project about the kidnapped Chibok Elementary girls in Nigeria and what drew you to this film?

KAREN EDWARDS: I came to the story in the same way as many people around the world, via the BringBackOurGirls campaign around the kidnapping of the Chibok Girls. It was shocking that so many girls could be kidnapped. It made it even more sinister that it was from their school dorm. It was about six to eight weeks later that the Nigerian Government contacted me via a contact to ask if I would like to make a documentary – as they were going to try and rescue the girls and negotiate their release. At this time the Nigerian President was Goodluck Jonathan and he had been late to realize and accept that the kidnappings were real, and secondly wasn’t just a stunt by his political opponents.

I obviously said “yes. I would love to make a documentary explaining and exploring the events”. However, it soon became clear that they wanted to persuade me of allegations against their political rival and it was not clear that they were negotiating with the right element of Boko Haram to secure the release of the Chibok Girls. I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in being part of political propaganda and unsubstantiated allegations. Also, they were unsuccessful in securing the release of any of the girls. So I didn’t make the documentary at this time.

But, while the news story stopped, the attention of the world’s media moved on I remained concerned about the girls. By this point research had revealed that there many other thousands of girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Three years later I was actually about to start making the documentary, when we heard whisper that some of the girls may be released. And so we started filming the documentary in earnest at the end of 2016.

SASHA JOELLE ACHILLI: I originally started researching the Bring Back Our Girls campaign in 2014 but never ended up making a film. Karen Edwards had gone much deeper in pursuing the story and followed it closely for three years. When Karen called me and asked me to go to Nigeria in November 2016 I jumped at the opportunity. It was just a few weeks after the first batch of girls were released and I need to see what the feasibility of the project was and whether we could get access into the safe house. I’ve worked extensively in Africa and this was one of the biggest stories of the past few years. I’m eager to tell women’s stories across the world.

The story of these girls captured the world with the #bringbackourgirls hashtag, but as most news cycles go, the story soon faded out of the limelight. What will this film show that we didn’t get to see in the news?

KAREN: The audience will discover the scale of the problem of kidnapped young women in Nigeria. They will also discover the contrast in fates of the Chibok Girls since their release and the Forgotten Girls who escaped. They now have very different lives.

SASHA: The #Bringbackourgirls hashtag was definitely instrumental in bringing to light the story of the Chibok girls and the war in North-East Nigeria at a time when the world was focusing on what was going with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But what it didn’t do was actually bring to light the fact that the Chibok girls were just a small number of women who were being kidnapped by Boko Haram. There has been some great reporting on behalf of press outlets such as the New York Times on the stories of the Forgotten Girls but we hope that the film brings the story to a wider audience because the reality is that crisis is no where near finished.

Although you are both very experienced journalists and filmmakers, was there any part of these girls’ lives that affected you deeply while putting together the documentary?

KAREN: The strength of the Forgotten Girls who have survived and had the courage to escape Boko Haram is humbling. They still find the emotional capacity to rescue and help others, they want to now give back to help others and they are very brave to tell their stories in very difficult circumstances. But I also felt strongly that the Chibok Girls may look like they have everything because they have so many privileges now – an education, security, clothes, food and a secure future. And yet it doesn’t feel like they are being given the space to process what has happened to them. I only hope that they are being helped to slowly reconcile with the horrors that they’ve experienced.

SASHA: I personally spent a bit of time with Habiba, the boys and her baby and I was deeply affected by her. She is one of the bravest women I have ever met at such a young age to have gone through what she went through and selflessly rescued and adopted the two boys. I was also really concerned about her baby who was 18 months old but severely malnourished – couldn’t walk and couldn’t talk and when he fell ill I was back in London frantically trying to use my contacts in Doctors without Borders to get him treated. Unfortunately it was too late. When you make these kinds of films there is much more in the relationship between filmmaker and contributor and sometimes it’s easy to feel completely powerless. But I feel so lucky to know Habiba. She’s one of the bravest and resilient people I have ever met.

As award-winning journalists and documentarians, what is the secret to telling a good story and finding these stories, without being exploitative?

KAREN: The secret to telling a good story is caring about the subject and the characters whose story you are telling. You can’t fake that. Breaking down the barriers and creating and intimacy with the subject, so the audience forgets about the cameras and just connects with the story. Often it’s about picking great characters and in this case we picked women who were passionate about telling their stories, had fascinating and unfolding stories that would fairly reflect the lives of so many other young women.

So in short: honesty, caring and hard work and never forget who you are making the film for. You can’t make good films if it becomes too self indulgent – remember you have to take the audience with you, otherwise it will have no impact and won’t work. One thing that I always try and search for in the rushes and when filming is to humanise the subject – this, I find, is often capturing humor. This film is a tough watch, but the lighter moments are key to show that these women have wicked sense of humor and are survivors.

SASHA: This is the question that I pose myself every time I’m working on something and building relationships with contributors. It is such a strange dynamic sometimes because we are asking people to open up and tell us about their most traumatic and or darkest experiences. I think as filmmakers we need to constantly place ourselves in the shoes of those gifting us their stories and ask ourselves whether we would like to be represented that way. It’s also important to remain as transparent as possible with contributors and openly communicate about the project.

Will audiences get to see the impact of how social media and public awareness can help change legislation and government action, as in the case of the kidnapped girls and the Nigerian government?

KAREN: I hope so, but that’s out of my hands what happens next is never in the filmmakers power. All you can do is make this films and hope that it inspires change, even the tiniest change is still valuable.

The Nigerian Government does care how the West sees Nigeria and reacted because the BBOG campaign went viral. So there is a power there in social media.

SASHA: Hopefully yes. This film is in part a testament to the power that we as a public have to put pressure on governments.

You are both drawn to the hard-hitting stories and subject matter. What are the topics you both personally love to cover the most and why?

KAREN: I am attracted to the stories that reveal and give a voice to the marginalized people and communities in society wherever that may be in the world. People who don’t have anyone listening to their stories and are suffering in silence. I also like complicated stories, where there are layers to the issues that we are watching, that raises lots of questions and doesn’t suppose to come up with all the answers. I like it when I am always asking myself questions, wrestling with the complexities of what I am being confronted with, so that I am engaged throughout the film making process – always discovering things, being challenged and having my views challenged – rather than deciding didactically what the film will be at the outset and setting out to make that story come what may.

SASHA: I want to be able to tell stories that illustrate the nuance of life behind big events and how things are never as they really seem on face value. I’d like to plant seeds in the consciousness of the audience so that they begin to question their pre-existing pre-conceptions.

Do you think STOLEN DAUGHTERS will add to the current global conversations about sexual violence and trauma that the #metoo movement has brought to the surface in a number of ways?

KAREN: I sincerely hope so – again this is out of my control. I can only hope and I will be humbled if it does. Certainly the Chibok Girls and the Forgotten Girls are very impressive and could inspire many people.

SASHA: Yes absolutely. But not only #metoo but also highlight this situation that happens in other countries such as Mexico – hopefully governments will realize that they can’t get away with keeping silent if we as community make noise!

We personally love documentaries that unearth and expose untold stories about women around the world who often go ignored in mainstream media. Why do you think it is important to see the “female gaze” even in the documentary medium?

KAREN: I think women make great subjects for documentaries because they are often more reflective, complex and thoughtful. They are also often the people most unlikely to have a voice. So, when they get the chance to step up and have their say, they embrace it and really give you more then you can ever dream of by being willing to be vulnerable one minute, fierce the next. They have an amazing ability to express themselves in a surprising way and can be very honest about their emotions. Plus they are so beautiful on so many levels.

SASHA: Around the world women are often the ones who’s voices are silenced. Even in the developed “free world” it takes women decades to speak up against the injustices committed against them as women. What I love about documentaries is that they give more space to explore stories and more time to let people express a part of their true selves.

What are you both working on next, and what projects are you looking to get involved in?

KAREN: That’s kind of a secret right now. Never jinx things.

SASHA: I’m currently Directing a film for the BBC which is confidential but let’s just say that it’s more of a spy-thriller set in the Middle East!

=============================================================

You can watch ‘Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped By Boko Haram’ out now on HBO, or check your local guides if you do not have access to this network.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.