When watching a documentary, often you are encapsulated with the presenter who is informing you, telling you a story or teaching you something new – but while you’re focused on them, it often means that the work of the producer is being overlooked.
Helen Spooner, at the age of just 26, has worked with Stacey Dooley in producing, Stacey Dooley: Face to Face with Isis and being the assistant producer on Stacey on the Frontline: Girls, Guns and Isis.
Helen’s agreement to meet with Artefact was the first indication into just how busy her career is, with numerous e-mails exchanged and meetings cancelled, when eventually a date was fixed and promised not to be compromised again by her altogether hectic freelance working life.
The quiet cafe in which we meet in White City, with multi-coloured tables and chairs and pop art adorning the walls, is a far cry from the city of Mosul in Iraq, which Helen visited shortly after its liberation from the so-called Islamic State in 2017. She visited many other parts of Iraq before that, spending weeks at a time researching and making documentaries.
“I went to Oxford University to do Geography, I focused on the human side of the course, and I knew I was interested in the developing world, so, then I went to SOAS to do a masters in development studies.” Helen says she did not start her career with a hands-on or practical film course but instead focused on doing what she loved, and she had to fund her master’s degree by “giving out popcorn to people on the street” while working for Propercorn as a brand ambassador.
Having finished her masters and deciding that selling popcorn wasn’t the lifelong career goal for her; Helen knew she always had an interest in film and told Artefact that she feels it “is a really powerful medium to get people to change their minds and think about things differently.”
Helen got an internship with Insight TWI and loved it, “and a one-month internship turned into a three-month internship, which turned into a job. And on my first day, there was a huge awards ceremony for freelance journalists across the world working in frontline or hostile environments, The Rory Peck Awards.”
Helen was entirely new to the industry but got chatting to a guy at the awards, an independent filmmaker in Iraq, called Salem.
“And we were just chatting, and he is pretty crazy, but he seemed really lovely albeit mad, and he said: ‘look, Helen, I have this access to a Yazidi-all-women-battalion, fighting Isis, but I don’t know how the media works over here what are we going to do with it’,” she told us.
So, Helen and Salem teamed up, Helen wrote a pitch which they took to the BBC, who loved it. But, the BBC thought maybe it could be one for Stacey Dooley, who had done war reporting before, but never in the frontline.Stacey Dooley, the girl-next-door, former perfume saleswoman from Luton, has appeared on our screens in recent years presenting a plethora of documentaries for BBC Three.
Stacey’s often brazen approach when addressing the issues presented in the films hasn’t always gone down well with viewers, her compassion to the protagonists is often read as naivety, paired with her fresh face and distinctive accent, she presents as a dichotomy to the traditionally male-dominated world of broadcasting.
Her programmes have covered everything from sexual abuse to children in the Philippines, drug cartels in Mexico, homelessness in Detroit, US prison boot camps and most recently, the less hard-hitting but still pertinent issue of fast fashion.
Despite people’s preconceptions about Stacey, it is undeniable that she is providing a platform for the coverage of a plethora of critical issues, many of which have not been featured before.
“Going into these unbelievable environments is a testament to how bright she is,” Helen tells me as we start to talk about Stacey. “I knew everything that had to be known because I had been working on the films for about six months before, and Stacey essentially had only one-and-a-half meetings with us before we deployed. She hits the ground running and absorbs things like a sponge, it’s amazing.
“It is strange going into an environment like that with someone who I thought wasn’t that prepared but turns out she was so prepared,” Helen says, as naturally, the preconceptions about Stacey come up in conversation. Helen now finds it entertaining watching her friend dance every week on Strictly Come Dancing, which couldn’t be further away from navigating the footprint of explosives left behind by Isis in the city where they were filming.
“It’s so funny because she is like marmite and so many people are like: ‘Oh goodness you are working with Stacey Dooley’. But as soon as you meet her, she is so lovely and so professional at the same time.”
“She does ask the things we are probably too afraid to ask, and as a woman, it can be difficult to be outspoken, and you get labelled as ‘lippy’ and difficult but if you are a man you get labelled as confident, savvy and getting to the truth. It is difficult for women to negotiate that and Stacey does it well because she is so disarming when you meet her, she is like a little bomb; she is like I am not going to get angry I’m little Stace, but then I am going to kick you in balls and get the truth.”
Girls, Guns and ISIS, the first film, investigates Yazidi women fighting in Iraq in retribution against Islamic State fighters. Filmed when the Iraqi city of Mosul was still under occupation by Isis, the film takes us extraordinarily close to the frontline and into the lives of the women.
The Yazidis are a religious and ethnic minority who practice faith with pre-Zoroastrian origins; Isis consider them to be infidels, and as a result, the group were subject to systematic rape and murder.
A study by PLOS Medicine estimated that nearly 10,000 Yazidis were killed and kidnapped, in 2014; 50,000 people fled to Mount Sinjar to escape from Isis, with no food or water. More than 5,000 women were taken and used as sex slaves, and an estimated 3,000 are still missing, presumed to be in Isis captivity.
Many of the women in the battalion have escaped the Islamic State and share their harrowing stories in some deeply emotional scenes, yet with sheer determination and resistance, they want to train as a group to rescue their sisters.
Following on from the film, Helen tells me how the BBC commissioner felt it was a fantastic story and said: “‘we need the next part’.” So, tasked with finding the next story Helen set about using her connections to establish the next story to be told before heading back to Iraq.
“When you are in a region like Iraq, there are loads of news reports coming out all the time, and it can be overwhelming. But the best source of information is always the people underground and your fixers, so, the fixers are the people who set up the access for you when you are there and the most unsung heroes of the industry, without them no one would be able to go and make documentaries abroad.”
“Then one guy, Younes, messaged me and he said he said access to an Isis commander in prison and he is willing to talk – did I want access?” Laughing as she said this, as if to say, why on earth wouldn’t I want access! This was Helen’s launchpad into a bigger story.
With this, Helen felt that giving the opportunity to a Yazidi woman to have a conversation with someone from Isis, would be powerful. As the weeks went by, she started to think this was not going to be wholly viable. Until another one of her fixers, Ibrahim found Shireen.
Shireen, who is just 23, managed to escape from Isis, and along with Stacey, said she was seeking justice, revisiting where she was kept captive and where she managed to escape.
Helen travelled to Dahuk, “a beautiful town”, in Northern Iraq on the way to Syria, to meet Shireen. Near Dahuk lies a desolate antithesis, Khanke, a refugee camp where 10,000 people live, including Shireen.
During Helen’s time there the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum was happening – where the result was a landslide of 92% of Iraqi Kurds voting in favour of independence.
This resulting in Masoud Barzani, the then President of Iraqi Kurdistan, suspending all flights and Haider Al-Abadi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, closing the border. Helen had 24 hours to get out of the country, nearly getting stuck and eventually having to board a flight in Istanbul, just two days after she had met Shireen.
“Shireen is so defiant. She wasn’t bolshy she was just slowly and steadily really defiant,” Helen confirms to me that Shireen is as she appears on screen, speaking with so much passion about her. Shireen wished every woman in her position had the chance for a TV crew to help tell their story because it is so important; she wasn’t doing it for herself, she was doing it for the Yazidi women.
The production team had extensive meetings with psychologists, who had worked with women in similar positions before, as Helen’s biggest worry was re-traumatising the protagonist, but as soon as she met Shireen, she knew this would not be a problem.
“The whole premise of the film is super controversial – what we proposed to do was take a survivor of sexual abuse, back to the place where she was sexually abused and confront the perpetrator of this awful abuse. On paper when we were first talking about it, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is too much’.”
While Younes, the fixer, had told Helen he had access to a prison and it wasn’t until the last minute that she knew who they would be meeting. Realising it was an Islamic state commander, Helen said she and Stacey were terrified.
“As you see in the film, he comes with a hood on and sits down, and I am on the little camera on the side. Shireen is so calm, so collected, so confident and almost sassy; it was so interesting and amazing to see this woman who is portrayed in the media as a victim, to flip that on its head and be an empowered survivor.” In the film, we see five minutes of the conversation between Shireen, Stacey and Amar (the commander), unbeknownst to the viewer the conversation was 90 minutes long.
“Shireen ranted at Amar for 20 minutes, and Stacey didn’t jump in. We hadn’t planned the conversation, and that is the beauty of documentaries. That wasn’t being translated to us, if Stacey had wanted to break the flow, she would have asked to translate, but you could see Shireen and Amar, having this interaction. Shireen was getting quite animated, but you could feel her confidence building.” Helen speaks of Shireen with such fondness and with so much pride, “she [Shireen] was just like a badass journalist. She was grilling him.”
Amar divulged that his motivations for killing close to 900 people and joining Isis, were for financial reasons. Once the team were back in England, the lengthy conversation was eventually translated, and it appeared that his Arabic was sloppy and slangy, which suggested he wasn’t a very well-educated guy, perhaps proving his motivations to be true and highlighting the banality of evil at times.
Shireen, who is very bright, was asking things such as: “tell me at what part in the Quran does it say that this is okay,” and he didn’t have the answers. “So, when you have Shireen, someone who has been through enormous horror, essentially sitting down with her notepad being like, I am going to grill you. It was so amazing to see,” Helen tells me.
Something which very few people have the opportunity to witness first-hand is being in a country before and after its liberation from a large terrorist group. However, even after the gunfire ceases “Isis don’t just disappear,” Helen explains. “They sink underground, and they shave their beards. These are still very radicalised men and women who have feigned ignorance to Isis and pretend they are not.” Making a country which is now liberated, not so safe as you may think. Yet, “when there is a definitive frontline, it sounds so obvious, but it is like – do not cross that line,” Helen tells me.
When they were shooting the second film, it was only two to three months after liberation, and she says how they had to be “really aware of suicide bombers in Mosul. The day after we go back a bomb went off next to our fixer, and he was fine, but a couple of people were injured, and that is the scary reality of it. The markets get busy again, suicide bombers attack markets, they attack nightclubs they attack places where there are innocent civilians.”
A report by Reuters suggested that people in Mosul will be living with unexploded bombs for a decade, endangering millions who wish to return to their homes. As well as, 11 million tonnes of debris and two-thirds of explosives buried under the rubble.
“You are going through in this armed vehicle, going through the streets and you see people’s kitchens, we are talking seven stories high, and you see huge craters in walls of where the Americans have dropped bombs. You see daily life – cutlery, tea towels and photos. The smell as well is very intense because of the number of dead bodies and I could have never been ready for that.” It is this destruction which was the most shocking part of the experience for Helen, explaining how no amount of pictures in the media can prepare you for actually witnessing the annihilation.
The world has a long way to go with the progression of gender roles and the treatment of women. In particular, much more recently with the #metoo movement, it has highlighted that the western world may not be as progressive as we hope to be.
However, it isn’t until you visit a country where the roles of men and women are much further apart, that you realise how privileged we are that women have even the most basic of rights.
At one part in the film where they are in the old city of Mosul, Stacey starts to ask Shireen questions detailing the abuse she had suffered. In a perhaps shocking scene, the commander silences Shireen. However, Stacey asking the questions was contentious for a lot of reasons; because women shouldn’t speak about sex, it is a male’s honour.
“He (the commander) was in an awkward position, he saw it as his responsibility to look after the women of Iraq and Shireen was taken and he might have felt like his ego was injured. But I think it annoyed Stacey because he was speaking over her so much.”
Helen explains how culturally she felt it was an odd interaction to witness “because Stacey was trying to be tactile with him and reason with him and he was alarmed that this young white woman was the presenter.”
When Helen had interacted with Kurds, she felt a lot more respect to them, in comparison to her interactions with the Iraqi men. When they had to go to the frontlines and establish access, they would have to speak to the Generals.
“I would be there as a female producer asking Kurdish General questions – he would look me in the eye, he would take me seriously he would shake my hand and be super respectful.” On the other hand, when she did this in Iraq she was met with the General listening to her and responding to her question, to her male counterpart, “and pretend I wasn’t there and I think that pissed us all off, but that is just how it is culturally.”
“We cannot project our ideas of western feminism onto these different countries because everything is different in different places. But it was interesting to see that just over a border how the treatment differed.”
Shireen and Helen remain in contact, upon leaving Iraq, Shireen said she was not going to leave Khanke, her refugee camp until she found or found what had happened to her sister. Having spent so much time in Iraq and previously with the Yazidi women battalion, with so many women still missing, Helen sadly felt unoptimistic for Shireen; the chances were very slim of her surviving.
“Just a month ago, I was checking in with Shireen, and what she was about to tell me next I could not possibly believe”, Helen explains that Shireen’s sister had been in contact with her and she was still within Isis territory. Nearly a year
after they had left Iraq for filming the second film, they never believed they would hear this news from Shireen.
So, Shireen organised to go with a smuggler to retrieve her sister out of Isis territory, Helen tells me she was amazed: “She got her back into Kurdistan, she was alive, terribly traumatised, as Shireen was. But, the chances of her being alive were so slim.”
The rest of Shireen and her sister’s family had previously fled to Germany, and this is where they wished to go too. But, given Merkel’s cap on refugee policy, which was put in place at the end of last year, this has not been possible. Two girls who have been through so much and yet they are still denied being able to live as a whole family.
Helen cautiously tells me how she is currently working on, “another Stacey project, which I wish I could tell you more about I just don’t know how much I can say!”
Leaving me to wonder if we will find out more of Shireen’s story, or, we will be seeing fresh but exciting new content from Helen. She tells me she is working on a documentary about porn, a far cry from the harrowing scenes of Mosul, but a welcome respite.
Just like Stacey taking much needed time off from the challenging environment of her documentaries and embarking on Strictly.
Featured image by Rachel Hagan. All pictures by Helen Spooner and Stacey Dooley, permission to use has been granted.