Evan Williams (Producer, director)

The Making of 'Orphans of the Storm'

Broadcast: 10/07/2009

Reporter: Evan Williams (Producer, director)

A young child stands amid the devastation.

A young child stands amid the devastation.

Burma is one of the most secretive nations on earth, a tightly controlled tropical North Korea, ruled for the past 47 years by one of the world's toughest military regimes.

It's a country where almost 2000 political prisoner are serving jail sentences of up to 65 years, where democracy demonstrators including Buddhist monks are beaten and shot and where the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is being sent to jail after almost 14 years of isolated house arrest.

We knew this was going to be a tough assignment but we had no idea how hard it would actually get.

When Cyclone Nargis smashed into Burma's Irrawaddy Delta just over a year ago it killed at least 150,000 people and left two million homeless. It also left many thousands of children orphaned in the wake of the deadliest storm ever to hit Burma.

Executive producer Siobhan Sinnerton and I developed the idea to identify several orphans in the Delta and follow them over several months as they struggled to survive and rebuild their lives. We would try and make it observational and through them we would try and reveal what life was really like for people inside Burma.

We needed to get deep in to the delta, identify and film several main characters, gain the trust and consent of the local people, work out a way of getting back to them over repeated visits, have a guaranteed way of getting the tapes out at regular intervals and communicate with the camera people in a way that would not compromise their safety - all in one of the most heavily policed areas of one of the most tightly controlled countries on earth.

Foreign TV crews and journalists are banned from Burma and there was no way we would get a team of foreigners in to the country let alone in to the delta in repeated visits over several months. The only way to do this was to work with local Burmese camera operators.

The only organisation remotely able to do this was the Democratic Voice of Burma, (DVB). It provides an independent radio and TV news service in Burma via satellite from their base in Oslo, Norway. They use a network of undercover reporters and cameramen throughout the country to get their news. I knew them from my days as a reporter in South East Asia.

They agreed mainly because they wanted their teams to gain new experience working on a documentary of this scale. But we had to make sure we did not compromise the security of their teams. Working with their network to go out and film fresh material in this way had never been done before. They had to trust us.

With guidance from commissioning editor Ed Braman and Quicksilver managing director Eamonn Matthews, executive producer Siobhan Sinnerton and I went to the Thai-Burma border to meet, brief and train a select group of DVB cameramen. We had just two days. We took them some documentaries and small HDV (HCR-9) cameras and radio mike sets. Some of them had used cameras before. Some had not.
They told us that the government had spies throughout the delta looking for anyone trying to film. If the teams were found they risked up to 30 years in prison. Every time they ventured to the Delta we worried terribly that they would get caught.

The next few weeks were tense as we got off to a rocky start.

First, all the roads were ruined by the storm, river was a very slow way of travelling and they had to avoid the networks of government spies, soldiers, informers and government officials in every town and village.

The army had also thrown up checkpoints on every road into the delta and was starting to patrol the rivers.

The presence of spies severely restricted what they could shoot and how they could shoot it. They were unable to film openly in the villages and had to choose their characters with great care.

Time and travel was also against us. It would take weeks for them to get our instructions and requests, travel to the delta, film and then smuggle the tapes out which we would then translate and work out what we needed, get instructions to them and get them back in to the delta. It was a challenge and in the first few months it was looking bleak.

While it was exciting to get the first tapes we were very far from what we needed.

Soon, however, the teams managed to find and film several orphans. We received the tapes and sent instructions back to them in the field, training them in what we needed as we went along. This was a deeply complicated process, especially as few of the team spoke any English and we had to leave messages electronically in a process that I will not outline here for their security.

Then, just as we started to get some material, things took a nasty turn.

In the run up to anniversary of the 2007 pro-democracy uprising led by Buddhist monks, the military stepped up security, sending even more spies and soldiers in to the Delta.

Returning to the same characters was raising suspicion. A Burmese worker at one international NGO actually called state intelligence and one of our teams had to flee, unable to go back to those characters or, in fact, the delta.

The cameramen had an emergency meeting and said they had to stop filming while the crackdown was on.

We didn't have enough material by this stage and by the time they would have been able to film and get the tapes out meant we would not be able to meet our deadline for a Christmas airdate.

Thanks to very understanding commissioning Channel 4 editors, the production was put on hold for two months and only re-started when conditions eased enough in November for the cameramen to allow our teams to again return to the delta.

They managed to get back to some of our main characters. They found them descending into hunger and debt. Angry farmers spoke of crop failures and being abandoned and many of the orphans were getting weaker. Government officials were trying to force them back to salt-ruined farms, the orphans were struggling.

We got our final requests to the cameramen and I made one more trip to the Thai border to consult with them before their last trips back in to the Delta. One advantage of this trip was that I could show them a five-minute clip of their own material edited. This gave them a good idea of what we needed to tell the story and how we needed it shot.

It's an important story the people of the Delta wanted to tell. It was the tremendous tenacity of the DVB and other Burmese cameramen that made it happen. All we did was facilitate it.

In the end we acquired 180 tapes of material which presented a challenging edit for director Jeremy Williams and editors Paul Carlin and Sam Santana, a complicated cut that was made much easier by the support we received from the great people at Envy Post Production.

What stays with me though is the irrepressible human spirit our camera teams found in people suffering from their government's indifference, corruption and brutality and the tremendous courage of our camera teams and their entire organization.

As soon as they had finished filming our project, they went straight back out and continue to cover life inside one of the toughest regimes in the world.

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