Sofia De Fay: Finding truth in war zones

Sofia De Fay has been directing films, documentaries and TV series for over twenty years, exposing and bringing awareness to subjects including famine and crime. We spoke with Sofia about producing award-winning work all over the world for international broadcasters and clients, and filmmaking under extreme circumstances.

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Hi there I’m George from Movidiam and you’re listening to another episode of the Movidiam podcast. Today we’re speaking with director/scriptwriter Sofia De Fay — Sofia was born in Liverpool and began her career as a journalist. She went on to develop her skills as a scriptwriter, working on over five hundred documentaries for eighteen territories worldwide. For over a decade Sofia has directed films, corporate documentaries, commercials — they’ve taken her all over the world. She’s worked under the banner of the Discovery Channel, Chinese television, Dubai Television and for various government institutions. She’s worked in some extraordinary places including Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Somalia, and now is currently based in the US. Sofia, welcome to the Movidiam podcast.

Thank you George, thank you very much for that introduction.

It’s very interesting, I mean I think the documentary genre is one that’s sort of coming into its own again in lots of different formats. Have you seen this in recent years?

Yes it is continuously changing and, I’ve seen reality television has sort of taken over so there’s bigger budget documentaries that we don’t really seem to have the budget for anymore, but yes it is evolving.

You’ve worked on and directed a number of different films from corporate documentaries to commercial projects all over the globe. Presumably some of those corporate documentaries are slightly investigative but with a ‘brand agenda’ behind them, how does that work?

I haven’t done investigative corporate documentaries yet actually. With corporate documentaries obviously we’re trying to keep the branding and keep it very subtle, yet making it appear as a documentary. The advantages of those are that we do have bigger budgets, and we manage to spend a lot of time and get great quality. The investigative films that I’ve done have been very hard and very difficult and edgy, and quite scary actually.

Can tell us a bit about those before we go back to the commercial ones — you’ve worked in Syria, Somalia, South Africa, some pretty hot points around the globe. Could you perhaps open up a bit about one of those projects and how they came about?

Yeah, I did a film called Road of Death which was covering the Somalian famine. It was also a short documentary but it was going to be used at the time to raise money and awareness of the famine which it actually did, and it was used in a private capacity in Abu Dhabi to raise funds. At the time it was very difficult to get into Somalia and we originally started off in Somaliland where everything went horribly wrong. We ended up getting put under arrest actually. Then we went down to the Dadaab camp. We didn’t really have enough security and we were in this area where it was pretty wild, it was all Shabaab territory. I knew that the film would raise money if it was done more like a drama documentary so we had to get people to help us, and it was people literally dying around us and we were trying to make a film that had some sort of dramatic narrative story as well. It was very difficult and we had guards trying to ward off whatever might actually be coming at us from every bush. So it was a pretty difficult project, that was one of them.

So under very intense pressure there, trying to tell the story as well as look out for yourself and the team.

Yeah we were trying to get high production values and make it look good and, weirdly when people watch it they don’t understand how incredibly difficult it was to make it. You know obviously these things are flawed when you watch them and I think, “God we should’ve done that shot again” but you can’t at the time. Even the the artists and the people helping us, they were very scared. Like I’d say, ‘walk back’, and we didn’t have security, and the poor woman is walking two kilometers and she’s walking with kids and we’re thinking “I hope she’s safe”. It was a very difficult project that one. The other project that was very difficult was working in South Africa doing a project called Drug Mothers, which was about these mothers whose kids were held ransom by the Nigerian drug lords. Everyone was too scared to participate because they were so worried that their kids would be killed. Basically the children would go into Hillbrow, which is an area where you buy drugs. They would ring up incredible debts and then the drug dealers would phone up the mothers and say “you owe twenty thousand”, and these poor people would have no money and would have to run around to the neighbors and get cash, then drive into this very dangerous area, and buy their kids back. During the making of it one of the kids actually was killed. We had hidden cameras, and that was a very, very, rough, hard program to make. To get people to talk, actually, was the most difficult, and to say “you’re going to be okay, you’re actually helping everyone if you talk”.

Very challenging. What is it that drives you to get in and find those stories? Is it the final outcome, who you’re affecting or is it the message that you’re disseminating? Has it come from your journalistic side, which was where you started before you became a filmmaker? What’s driving the agenda for you?

I think I’m basically a human rights activist [laughs]. Last year we were actually in a lot of the Syrian camps, on the border of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. We went into Iraq and met a lot of the Christian refugees who also lost their children to ISIS. I just feel that I have to tell a story, it’s sort of my duty. Obviously my life is combined — I have commercial projects, right, so I fund these projects, so I live between two worlds. The balance of that, where you’re obviously trying to survive, because when you work in these more edgier, difficult projects it really so we can make a film that will raise money and actually send to the victims — I wouldn’t want to be making money out of other people’s misery. It’s something I feel very strongly about. We were in Nepal as well, and I don’t want to go and then get paid a huge amount of money when these people are sitting without homes or food.

It’s a very interesting perspective that you draw there, because. obviously you’ve got to create a living and have the commercial films, but actually your passion at heart lies in exposing and telling these stories that really must be told to raise awareness. Have you found, during the time period that you’ve been doing this, the ability to distribute these stories online with various different media is spreading further and further afield, because of ways of telling stories?

I haven’t actually explored that. The couple of films I’ve done in recent years have been for the Emirates and for some charities there, and we’ve basically made the film, it goes to a private audience and they write cheques out. And that is fulfilling, whether it was for Bosnia or Lebanon. And that’s why they always wanted something which was very much a great story that they would all cry. In my brief there would always be, ‘they want to cry blood’, which is bizarre. So we would actually go into a region and know that, that hospital will get money if I do a good enough film. It’ll be shown to the small audience, and they will write out cheques. So they haven’t actually had distribution that’s gone out to the world to raise awareness. The other films that I did earlier on were for a TV program called Carte Blanche and they specialize in investigative films. That was different, and they would get high ratings, and there would be quite an outcry afterwards and people would phone and they’d have dedicated lines. A lot of people were in the same situation and were asking me to help them.

It’s very interesting to hear that, because we have actually a lot of users, and filmmakers I’ve come across in my career, that do a lot of charitable work per se but you seem to have found a way of having a great impact by having a few relationships that you make these films for, and that is a direct impact on the zone you’ve been working to ultimately improve. Finance or writing a cheque can improve the situation too which is very interesting, and and interesting way of looking at it. There are a lot of charity films and support films are made, but not, perhaps, with the same focus.

Yeah, obviously there are a lot of issues that I would like to be highlighting and I keep thinking, ‘how am I going to get money for this?’ and ‘am I going to get crowd funding?’ I don’t actually use all those platforms and I sort of need guidance to have an impact but, it’s something I’m looking at for the future. Many many issues keep cropping up and I feel that I would be more equipped if I had more channels and support. But so far I’ve been lucky.

Something that has come across in this discussion is that, you’ve got a very unique set of skills from your experiences in these, ultimately, very hostile environments. For others who want to do the same, you might be a point of contact or a reference point to take the first step on some of those more challenging filmmaking journeys.

Yeah, and the interesting thing is that we often go in and we’re doing a sort of drama, so we’re in these rough war zones and we’re getting people to dramatically recreate moments, and I always find that, the reality of it is that you know they’re in this terrible situation where the world is sort of falling apart and, you’re making a film.

You’re slightly removed from it, it’s a very interesting juxtaposition. So if we move onto some of the commercial work you’ve done, you’ve referred to that as work you’ve done to ultimately finance your passion projects and getting cheques written for these exploited communities. The National Geographic, The Discovery Channel…how does that work come about? Do they find you and your skills because of your work before, how does that manifest itself?

First of all I don’t want to sound ungrateful, I’m very happy for my corporate and commercial talents and I love doing that work as well! With the National Geographic series; I actually began my career writing for environmental documentaries and it was a series that came up, this was many years ago. They always used to use American writers, and I think it was basically a budget thing and they had to choose me. But it was a great to understand their templates, how they were working, how they were writing and the many challenges. You know we had our own style, uniquely South African style, and way of approaching work at the time and we had to fit into Nat Geo’s specs, which was a bit of a learning curve. And then, Discovery — by that time I was directing and those projects were fantastic. They were for UNESCO and for endangered language projects, so I was dealing with Bushmen and going off to find lost tribes, and they don’t seem to have that anymore. As I was saying, the platform seems to have evolved and changed. Now it’s like ‘hillbillies and truckers’, you know, we don’t do the anthropological portraits anymore, diminishing wildlife and smaller creatures and that…now it’s just sharks and Nazis. It seems to have changed a lot and I was very fortunate to be part of that last era of working with lost tribes and languages that were disappearing and amazing projects, I was very lucky and fortunate.

I suppose that, coming from the demand side, what viewers are wanting has been slightly homogenized or generalized. You’re absolutely right, the diversity that you described from the projects you’ve done seems to be wider than what we get today but that’s probably a demand side thing that’s being driven by the commissioners.

Definitely, and I think they want more sensational television, and it’s more like MTV, younger markets. I remember Discovery coming to Dubai and their brief was, ‘we want cars’, you know.

On your website you say, “the questions are more important than the answers”. Could you expand on this and what you mean by that?

You know, I’m very curious and you’ve got to keep asking questions, in the pursuit of this quest, to keep us going and to keep us learning. The questions that we ask are more important, actually, than the answers given, and we’ve got to keep asking those questions. That’s what drives me — to find truths, whether they’re hybrid truths or diluted truths or whatever, but we have to keep on this journey. That sounds like a very pathetic answer [laughs]

No no, it makes sense.

I just felt like I had better have a ‘philosophical ending’! But we’re always trying to find out what happened and in the projects that I’m working on, like ‘what happened to the kid’, and all these sorts of things.

Could you tell me briefly about the teams that you work with, and how you find people to kind of collaborate with on your projects, like the camera or sound crew, certainly on some high risk projects where you’re moving and learning fast?

Well I have relationships which go back many years, and I’ve worked with a lot of the same teams who do actually come into these high risk areas, and they’re honestly not family men. This is what often happens, like we have great camera assistants and that, but they just won’t go into some of those areas, and they’ve turned down projects, it’s the more adventurous. Last time we actually took some journalists because they were the ones who were excited and they want to go to Iraq. They were Reuters journalists working as camera assistants. On those projects, yeah, it’s a certain type of person who usually isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, is curious and adventurous, and people who are artistic as well — we’re not really making news films in these areas, these films aren’t news. They are more stylized and dramatized and aesthetically-driven.

Where are you based at the moment and do you move around the world based on where the subject matter is?

At the moment I’ve got a visa for America, and I’m looking at the North American market at this point. I was back in South Africa for a while and developing projects at the moment from here, looking at co-productions between the areas where I have a lot of experience, which is South Africa, Africa, and the Middle East. I thought I could bring that into the North American broadcasters — I think that’s what I can offer at this point. That’s where my unique contribution will come in, I think. So this is a new learning curve, a new market that I’m in, in North America.

That’s fantastic. Thanks very much for taking the time. Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to hear the previous podcasts with Dan Myrick, director of The Blair Witch Project, and Giacomo Talamini from Hive Division you can catch it on the Movidiam blog or iTunes. Please do leave any comments or feedback you might have, look forward to catching up again on our next episode.

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