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An interview with Tas Brooker, Director of When We Speak

We spoke to Tas Brooker on making When We Speak, a film that follows the incredible story of three women whistleblowers, Rose McGowan, Katharine Gun and Helen Evans.

What inspired you to make this documentary?

TB: I think the best documentaries are the ones that you learn something from, that you walk away from thinking I didn’t know anything about that subject and now I do. So, I was looking for a few years for a subject I could make my first documentary about.  I had seen an article in Vice online which was about a whistleblower in New York and how his community had turned on him. And I was really surprised that the community would attack someone who was trying to benefit the community. So, I started to dig deeper into the subject of backlash to whistleblowers and I couldn’t believe that this was actually a really common reaction to whistleblowers. And that is how, not only work environments, but also society in general often reacts to whistleblowers when they speak up, even though it’s to the benefit of everyone.

So, I went to Protect and asked them if I could find out more because I was looking to do a documentary, and that’s when I realised it was bigger than that. Protect kindly put me in touch with Helen Evans, the Oxfam whistleblower. Initially she wasn’t willing to talk, but we slowly built up a rapport and she eventually agreed to speak on camera. So, it was many months of researching into the subject and particularly coming to Protect that made me decide that this was something I wanted to make a film on.

So, you mentioned it there, and you’ve talked about it before, this difficulty to get whistleblowers who have experienced so much trauma to tell their stories. How did you manage to do it for this film?

TB: A few people at Protect had told me the common mental health effects of whistleblowing and the aftermath. So, I had a good idea of what whistleblowers might be feeling after they are away from whatever they blew the whistle about. I had an idea of the psychological effects of the aftermath of whistleblowing. So, I knew to tread with caution, I knew I’d have to build up trust. I didn’t put any pressure on anyone. I made it very casual and relaxed. I initially just wanted to speak to people to learn about their experience of what happened. I was really interested in two areas, one what made them blow the whistle and two what happened after everything had calmed down, and had been in the press. In particular it was those big cases of whistleblowing that went to the press and were global scandals. I was interested to see what happened afterwards.

I spoke to some psychologists and to Protect and once I knew that PTSD was quite common and that there was likely to be some anxiety to speak about the episode again, especially on camera, I was very, very cautious and careful when speaking to the whistleblowers I thought would be good in the film. I wasn’t really expecting those that responded and agreed to be part of the film to do so. I cast the net quite wide as I was very conscious that it was likely many wouldn’t be able to speak. So, it was really the first ones to respond that were the ones that were in the film.

Other than that, was the main challenge you faced in creating the film?

TB: Two things really. Firstly, it was time. I knew it was going to take a long time to gain whistleblowers trust. And second, it was also duty of care to the contributors. When Helen spoke about her experience at Oxfam, she said this was going to be a once in a lifetime recording, she wouldn’t do it again. So, we knew we had to get that day right, she had to be in the most comfortable environment with the least amount of people on set possible. I didn’t want her to feel overwhelmed or pressured. It was as calm of an environment as possible. I said I’m just going to put the camera on and ask some questions, some guide questions that you can tell your story from, from beginning to end. And we recorded like that. Having to do those three times with whistleblowers, actually four different times because we have Erica Chung talking about Theranos as well, was really challenging.

I also wanted to get what happened two years down the line. We started the film in 2019 and finished it in 2021. So, the challenge was going back to the same people and going “are you willing to tell me where you’re at in life now?” I was really nervous about that. I was quite convinced it wasn’t going to work. And it took a while.  Helen was ok, she was more “yes ok let’s do It”. But Rose (McGowan) had moved to Mexico and it was a really difficult scheduling issue. I had to get a very good friend of mine who lives on the west coast of the US to go down to Mexico with a camera to film her. And then on top of that Katherine (Gunn) was in Turkey! So logistically that was all very tough. On top of that getting every whistleblower to film their final bit was difficult because I knew they’d gone through so much to tell their first story. Going back to them and asking them to speak again… that was really tough. But they all did it and they were incredible for doing it.

In terms of the process, how you came out at the end, do you feel that making the film changed your opinions on whistleblowing at all?

TB: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t know what whistleblowers went through. And just what society owes them.  In every culture and every society, we owe them so much for historic progress in civil rights and liberties. For going above and beyond to seek the truth and get the truth out. I didn’t realise how important whistleblowers were until I made the film. I also didn’t realise the toll it took on them, it’s a huge injustice.

You use animations really strikingly in the film to illustrate some of the key moments of the whistleblowers’ stories. Can you talk about what inspired you to use this as a method?

TB: So, I struggled for a while about how we could retell whistleblowers stories without it being constantly down the lens. They’re such powerful stories that to have them just be three whistleblowers talking at a camera the entire time would be to do them an injustice and would be too much for an audience. So, we had to break it up with archive or reconstruction. And I just thought reconstruction would have been tacky for what they were talking about. This isn’t something that is light hearted and I think it really doesn’t fit this genre or subject. One of my producers suggested animation and I thought that was a brilliant idea. I got in touch with Ben at Broken Antler and when I told him what it was about, he was more than interested in getting involved. We owe lots to him because he was brilliant and gave up so much of his time.

We picked key parts of the story that we felt were turning points. So, we had Helen landing in Haiti, Helen choosing whether to go on the train to speak to Cathy Newmann at Channel 4. Rose looking for the details of her NDA. Katharine receiving the email from the NSA. Animating certain bits of their story helps the viewer relate and be more engrossed in their story if they can visualise it. And I think animation really worked. I think that was the best way to reflect their stories that wasn’t watered down. And I felt reconstruction would have watered it down. If we had more money we would have done a lot more animation.

And just a last question. If MPs, regulators, journalists, or even the Prime Minister were to watch your documentary, what message or theme would you want them to take away?

TB: That we should give whistleblowers more rights. And when I say that, I think specifically there should be safer places in working environments for whistleblowers to speak up. Workers feel scared to do so and they don’t feel they are protected enough. I think there should be better legal protections for those that are accused of wrongdoing when they blow the whistle. I hope that if these people watched my film that they would learn how important it is for people to speak up and that there shouldn’t be stigma attached. We should make it a safer environment for people to speak up.

Whisteblowers are lucky that Protect exists because I think it’s an amazing organisation for those that need support to speak up, because it’s a scary thing to do. And I think if these people have an organisation on side, and feel that their colleagues and the law is on side, that they will be much more willing to speak out, and it’s so important they do. That’s what I hope they would get from this film.

When we Speak will Premiere on 2 November at the Curzon Cinema, Soho at 18:30. Secure your place here.

It will subsequently become available on Amazon to purchase from mid-November.

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