Producer and Director Joseph Smith talks about making impactful documentaries and changing British politics with his work
Joseph Smith believes that documentary films are a window into a world that you otherwise would never see. He knows what an impact a film can have; making audiences feel tense, intrigued, happy, sad and everything in between. He uses his medium to provoke an emotion, but at the same time tell interesting stories about extraordinary people. Documentary film gives him that opportunity.
Throughout his career, Smith has worked alongside formidable teams at some of the world’s most prestigious production companies. Currently, he is a producer and director for Economist Films, where he won Launch of the Year and Video Project of the Year at the British Media Awards 2016. Before this, Smith worked at the Emmy nominated production company Blakeway Productions producing content for world-renowned British television stations Channel 4 and the BBC, all the while becoming an in-demand documentary filmmaker and doing what he is truly passionate about.
“I love film, it’s a creative way of telling a story that can give you a fresh perspective. I always like pushing the boundaries in the films I make, taking on serious global issues in a fresh and innovative way. I love working in a team and as the producer and director you head up a team to make your vision a reality,” he said.
One of the highlights of Smith’s esteemed career, was back in 2015. As an investigative journalist, he led the undercover investigation into political funding ahead of the 2015 UK election, where he posed as a wealthy businessman and donated money to each political party to see if they could get a law changed if each party gained power. This meant months of undercover work, establishing an alternative identity and using his past experience as a commodity trader to hold conversations with senior politicians about a proposed law change. The result is the film “How to Buy a Meeting with a Minister”.
During this film, Smith was able to get to the very top of each political party and covertly film the British Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and many of the cabinet. The key was to have a watertight backstory. The prospective donor was Smith’s ‘business partner’ and had to be legitimate. It took Smith and his team a long time to find someone who had an online presence, where if you searched their name it would say they were a wealthy business person. However, they eventually found them, and the film was green lit.
Smith then had to build up a good relationship with the donor and did so by attending several events to see if the stories they had been told about wrongdoing around political donations were correct (In the United Kingdom, one needs to have evidence of wrongdoing before filming anyone covertly). This meant lots of meetings without cameras originally to establish evidence before completing lengthy legal documents. This provided a unique challenge for Smith, as getting invited to events was one thing, but then having conversations about sizable donations in return for something and getting permission to film it was immensely difficult. The results, however, were worth it for Smith.
“Corruption in politics plights all countries and Britain is no different. The funding system is skewed towards favouring the wealthy and the lack of resources at the disposal of the Electoral Commission means that a lot of people get away with it. Journalism at its heart is the 4thestate, it is meant to be a check on power and this project was that in action. I felt it was important to expose corruption and I was proud of the result,” he said.
The biggest undercover sting during filming was getting two secret cameras into the ‘Black and White Ball’, the biggest fundraiser for the Conservative Party. Security was extremely tight, in the past not even a photograph had come out of the event, but Smith managed to sneak in two cameras disguised as a laptop and record a meeting with the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron.
“It was a very stressful film to make as the stakes were very high, maintaining cover over an investigation that took almost a year, cost a lot of money and attracted the gaze of all of the senior people at Channel 4. Although it was daunting, I knew I just had to go for it. My previous experience as a commodities trader made me the perfect person to do the job. I would be able to hold my own in conversations and use my previous undercover filming experience to capture everything that was needed,” said Smith.
When “How to Buy a Meeting with a Minister” was released, not only did the film receive critical acclaim and was nominated for a Grierson Award and an AIB Award, it ended up being one of the nation’s largest news stories. The photograph Smith took of his fictitious business partner and the Deputy Prime Minister was on the front page of many national newspapers, including the Telegraph, The Times, The Guardianand a double-page spread in the Sunday Times, and was reported on the BBC. On top of all this, a Lord resigned after taking a £10,000 donation, which broke the law. Such success was quite the accolade for Smith, who played the most fundamental role in the production. He compiled evidence, wrote the documents that allowed his team to gain the legal sign-off to carry out undercover filming, filmed the majority of the undercover footage himself, and edited the film.
“This project was amazing to be part of. It allowed me to use all of my skills and nerve to ensure it was a success. The stakes were incredibly high, I didn’t lose cover once even under very difficult circumstances. As you can imagine, filming covertly with such high-profile people is very difficult and I was able to complete the task successfully which was great. The fact that a Lord had to resign after we caught him breaking the law was really interesting,” he concluded.
Be sure to watch Smith’s latest films for the Economist to see how he uses his craft to educate his audience and make a positive difference in the world. He is currently working on one of the Economist’s most ambitious projects to date, “Refugee Lives”. He recently filmed at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan with refugees who had fled neighbouring Syria. As part of the film, Smith gave cameras to five refugees living in the camp. You definitely won’t want to miss it.