Facing the difficult questions

“Tell me about being diagnosed with cancer” – not exactly the lightest or easiest of questions to ask, but one that absolutely needed to be voiced, as part of our new suite of videos for Pancreatic Cancer UK. We were exploring patient stories as part of their project to demystify the process and feelings behind being involved in a clinical trial.

It’s something that is often part of our work – over the years that we’ve been producing charity videos at Purple Flame Media, we’ve been involved in stories that tap right into the heart of human emotion. Often we’re dealing with people at the margins of society, or whom are recounting intense personal narratives. We’ve interviewed people whose lives have been destroyed by natural disasters, who’ve lost family and friends, those facing extreme poverty or who’ve been affected by disease, war and displacement.

So, in this blog I thought I’d explore the process of undertaking such an interview and the thinking involved:

• Strong pre-preparation

A good understanding of the issues involved is paramount. Where possible, we often build in pre-filming telephone calls with participants. This not only to enables us to build an idea of the story and interview but it also helps us to begin the process of getting to know the interviewee, and to make them feel comfortable with the interviewer. It’s a careful balance – too many questions before the filmed interview can ‘over-prep’ the interviewee and make them feel like they are having to repeat themselves, but when it’s well done, it helps the interviewee to understand the scope of the interview and have some time to think about the questions that they may be asked.

• Time to build relationships

Often, filming shoots tend to be fairly pressured, with limited time to set-up, record and manage the scene – but it’s important to have time to introduce the crew, have some time to talk and get to know the interviewee a bit before diving in to film. Often, we’ll set up the microphone and chairs and get settled, having a chat whilst the final bits of camera and lights are set, enabling us to flow straight into the interview without making it a big “camera, lights, action” moment!

• Interview engagement

These days, with smaller kit, smaller budgets and the expectation of being able to manage audio, camera and interview, we often shoot as a single operator. However, when we know that interviews will involve more sensitive subjects, we prefer a larger crew, enabling the interviewer to solely focus on talking to the interviewee, engaging them directly and not being distracted by other technical requirements. I think that’s basic human courtesy when talking about intense personal issues….

• Keeping on track vs letting the interviewee  talk

I’ll often let an interview of this kind go on longer, in order to allow adequate time to explore the relevant issues. In the series of films for Pancreatic Cancer, we knew the final cut would be in the region of 3 minutes but the actual interviews took around 40 minutes. However, it is important to keep in mind the aims and messaging from the client and to  guide the interview back on track if required.

• The power of silence

People have volunteered to talk – this is not a hard-hitting political interview where answers have to be ground out – give people space to answer. Sometimes you can see a thought process going on – give time for the answer to be formulated before jumping in with the next question. Just a simple pause at the end of someone’s answer can give space to open up about further issues or insights.

• Gentle questioning – but don’t be afraid of the hard questions

There are often questions that feel hard to ask – and rightly so, as they tap into depths of emotion and experience. We’ve talked to people about losing family in horrendous circumstances such as the Asian Tsumani – but to shy away from the question is to do them a disservice and miss the point of the film. It occasionally requires a gentle probing – exploring the issues surrounding the main question to get people comfortable with answering in full. Sometimes, we’ll come up against no-go areas for people; in that case there has to be a respect for their boundaries.

• Don’t shy away from the humour

Life can be a strange mix of the intense and the banal – in this current set of videos we had moments of humour, talking about hair loss and having eyebrows plucked. Work with these moments – they can often represent a useful release valve from the depth of other emotion and provide a suitable counterpoint that works well in an edit.

• Acknowledge their valuable contribution

Interviewees volunteer their time and experiences, in the rush to pack down, get other shots or move on to the next shoot, always create time to thank them for their contribution and if possible, stop for some tea and a chat. Key to the way we work is the phrase “voice for the voiceless” – we’re giving people the opportunity to have their voice heard and as such, treating them with dignity, compassion and humanity is central to our approach.

Here’s one of the final films (part of a series of 11 films) that we produced for Pancreatic Cancer. It’s an interview with Norman, who is currently going through a clinical trial:

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