Film Producer and Director, UK

Published Date: 14th February 2011

Open Windows | In Conversation

Film Producer and Director, UK

February 14th, 2011

Powerful media influences almost every aspect of our life, from what we buy to how we live and even whom we elect to influential positions. When this medium consistently places blinders on us and feeds us superficial programs, we accumulate toxic emotions, becoming numb in the process. Almost all of us have the aptitude to embrace sensitivity; what we need more of from these powerful tools are powerful programs that will bring consciousness and contribute to humanity.

Anchored against a flood of programs that put the constraints on our minds is Kate Blewett, a documentary filmmaker. With her focus on sensitive and critical issues, her poignant films, Eyes of a Child, The Dying Rooms, and Bulgaria’s Forgotten Children, Ms. Blewett guides us to feel and think in expansive ways, which in turn fuel us to action.

Your documentaries—The Dying Rooms, Eyes of a Child, and Bulgaria’s Forgotten Children—address key issues, which compel us to question the many layers of neglect within communities and governments. What drives you to produce documentaries of this nature?

I think the time arrived when I woke up to the power of television, to view television as a tool to communicate and bring greater awareness about exploitation and neglect. I made Dying Rooms, which was a film about the neglect of baby girls in China who were being dumped into orphanages, because of the one-child policy. The families preferred to have boys. This film turned my life around.

I was living in Hong Kong at that time, and I had easy access to China. I was in and out of China a great deal to do my research and my work. When I finished the filming, which was incredibly difficult and emotional, and the editing which was strangely enough even more emotional because you could reflect on what you had captured on film, and the challenge was then to present a strong film that could bring about change.

And while I was trying to make decisions in those early days, which is almost 20 years ago now, what I didn’t realize was the power of television to convey a strong message, with a subject that you could put across powerfully by putting across the facts.

What did you experience when you put across the facts?

When Dying Rooms went on air, I was hoping that people would respond to the film and the images and would want to help these children, these babies. But I was unprepared for the overwhelming global response to this film. It was a saturation of all my senses when I saw this emotional outpouring from every nationality in the world. I think the film was shown in 44 countries and seen by 160 million people.


You started questioning the suffering of people at a young age.

I did. I had a lovely childhood, and I was fortunate to grow up in many different countries: Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaya. I think by living amongst different cultures and experiencing different ways of life I became incredibly curious at a very young age. When I was about six or seven, we lived in a small town, and I realized that this big walled building was a prison, and it had people in it, people who had committed crimes, who had done wrong. But I was determined to find out what these people had done wrong, why these people had done wrong, what made people do wrong things, who decided how to lock them up and for how long, and how one human being decides how to punish another. This started overwhelming me, these questions about life. These questions really about how we rule our world, between good and bad. I think in many ways that was the beginning of a journey for me. And I think that has never left me.


So travel and exposure shaped the way you view the world?

Yes, I think travel was my greatest education. I think to witness other people’s lives, poverty, disease, to witness the death of children the same age as I was, and to see people who are just struggling to stay alive when I led a privileged life, it had a big impact on me. I wanted to expose subjects with a very focused journey to bring about change.


And you have done just that. You have also partnered with Brian Woods to collaborate on several of your documentaries. What factors help in successfully bringing a project to fruition?

We started off together with The Dying Rooms, and we both still produce and direct together. And I think from my own experience, one of the key reasons we have remained united for the best part of 20 years is because right at the beginning we established that this was not about credit, it was not about who is going to produce or direct. We were in it together, and we both would contribute whatever was required to complete the film. And I think, to remove silly things like ego and just see it as a team effort to make the very best film for the subject we are focused on, that is the key ingredient. And critically, a sense of humour.


How do you identify the subject of your documentaries?

Very often one film leads to the next. For example, when we were filming in China, we met several people and quite a few of them were NGO’s [Non-Government Organizations], who would say we will help you do this but don’t forget there are also children who are involved in slavery, who are trafficked into the country, out of the country. A number of different issues are raised over and over again.


And what about the content, how do you decide what to keep and what to leave out?

Some of these projects are very painful to watch. We have to decide how to make them watchable. How do we stop people from switching off from things that are painful? So the packaging is important.


From the many subjects you film, is there one that is more compelling than the others?

Yes, there is, for a number of reasons. But first I should probably say upfront that every one of the films I have made has been an emotional journey, as all of them are very difficult subjects linked to suffering.


I understand.

They are all very difficult and different journeys, but strangely enough, the film that had the biggest impact on me was Eyes of a Child, filmed in England. And the reason being, we were focusing on poverty in England and children growing up in poverty. Not just material poverty but spiritual poverty or poverty from lack of love; these children just weren’t being brought up. They were just dragging themselves up. We focused on some incredibly unhappy children. And we didn’t focus on them because they were unhappy. We focused on them because they came to us when we were wandering around meeting families, researching for the film.

And the reason this is one of the films that affected me the most is because I was chatting and interviewing the children directly, in my language. There was no longer the escape moment of the translated and the translation to the person you are interviewing. When I was, for the first time, interviewing children as young as four, five, or six in English in the UK, I was looking at them, and they were coming straight back with answers. And they were smart little cookies. And you could feel the emotion building, and you did not want them to cry, and you did not wish to hurt them, but you want to tell their stories. You want to know the truth; you want to know what in their life was working and what was not working. And for that reason, that eye contact, that concentration with somebody you are interviewing in your language had an enormous impact on me. And I can, untill this day, see their faces in my head. Everything is in their eyes. It is really painful.


I know what you mean. What challenges must you overcome to film these stories?

I think first and foremost, your research needs to be strong and through. If you don’t spend proper time on research, it can all go badly wrong. And the trouble with the world of television is that you have to schedule, you have a certain amount of time, at a certain place. The budget does not allow you to just sit around until you get what you want. You are up against the clock all the time. And there are times when you know that your interviewees have failed to tell you their story. They have a life story to tell, but they are not ready because you just met them.

Every subject we filmed is emotional. It involves people’s lives, people’s emotions, everything inside of them, the unhappiness. We’re standing in front of them, trying to find out their story, so we are asking an enormous amount of each interviewee, each person, man, woman or child. I do not care if we are running out of time. I tell my cameraman or producer that we just have to wait. If we run over, we will sort it out. It’s having that patience.


Have there been moments when you felt alone or helpless while working on projects?

Yes, I think I often felt alone at the end of the day because they are very intense days, and you do not have moments to think about anything else other than your subject. Then you go to a hotel room, and it is just silent and empty, and you could just feel the sadness of the interviews you were doing through the day or the week or the weeks. And I think there is loneliness at the end of the day where you are focused on sad situations or evil situations or abusive situations.

I think there was one particular time when I was incredibly frayed, and we probably pushed the boat too far. Because wherever we go, we are unannounced, we are undercover. We do not have journalist visas—we are on tourist visas. We go in secretly, and we document what we get, as honestly as we find it. Nobody is ready for us. If people knew we were coming, we would never be able to expose the truth, and things wouldn’t change.


What it is like to film disturbing scenes, the sounds, sights, and smells that can make it emotionally trying?

If I take Bulgaria as an example towards that, when I first arrived at Mogilino, the Institute in Bulgaria, the only thing I remember is the smell of bleach. The whole place smelled of bleach, and I thought: this place is fine. I walked to the front of the building; it had paint on the walls, everything looked pretty clean. And there was the smell of bleach, and I thought they must keep it in good shape.

The smell of bleach now has a completely different feeling for me. I relate bleach to that moment, thinking Mogilino was fine, and then one of the workers there said: “No foreigners here, you must go, you must leave now, you do not have permission from the government.” And I said: “No, I have permission to be here, I am with an NGO from Bulgaria.” And then we started to chat. I was taken to different rooms where the children were sleeping, and the corridors still smelled of bleach. But you walked into the rooms where the children were sleeping, and you pulled back the covers, and you were looking at death. And that was incredibly powerful because you could smell damp, rotting flesh.

You could hear they were alive because there was a small whimper, like a tiny puppy that whimpers. You could hear the whimper in its sheer misery, and the skin was just rotting on their bodies, and they had marks all over them from bedsores. They were yellow, and their teeth were rotten. That smell, as well as visually, has been incredibly disturbing to look at because you are looking at a human life rotting to death, in a cot, in government care. And the contrast between the corridors of bleach and the rooms of death was something that will never leave me.

And particularly one child, Vasky, whom I feature a lot in the film, had a broken leg. When I first saw her, she was lying in bed, and she was so thin—emaciated beyond words. And I remember she made some quiet noises, and then she spoke. And I leaned over backward because I did not expect her to talk, I didn’t think she had enough life in her to speak. And she did. And she spoke, and she said she was hungry in Bulgarian: “I am hungry, and I want to eat something now, please.” And I found that incredibly disturbing, and I cannot explain why, but this strong little voice came out and humanized her. She was a child, and she had a voice. She was not close to death, she had life in her, and she managed to express it. And her voice has always stayed with me as well.

The things that affect you when you are filming are the things that the camera cannot necessarily pick up, the smells, the sounds that sometimes the microphones don’t pick up because they are weak sounds.


Your documentaries have many compelling and gut-wrenching visuals. A few are etched in my mind—Stoyan the little boy with skeletal legs, standing frozen, waiting to be picked up; Vasky, the young girl being fed, food thrust into her mouth before she could swallow; and the Chinese baby girl, Mei Ming [her name translates to no name] left to die. Did you realize the impact these images would have?

I wholeheartedly agree with you. These three images are the strongest in my head as well, and I think Mei Ming was my first experience of handling a dying child, which to see on television or to read about or to see a photograph is very different. To be around the smell of death and the sound of death, I cannot put that into words.

Around Mei Ming, I felt that she was deliberately left to die. And Mei Ming was a particularly difficult case for us, as she was the first child I was looking at who was dying. And I stopped the camera; I said: “Stop, stop the camera, this is wrong, this is wrong.” I made the cameraman leave the room, and I left the room and said: “We can’t do this because this is her life, her dignity.” And then I stopped, and I took a few minutes and thought—if you don’t show her, you can’t prove that there are orphanages and situations in China—it is not by accident that she has died—she has been put aside to die, and we have to show this.

So I went back and got ahold of myself, and we filmed her. It was one of the most grueling moments of my life. But what gives me strength now with Mei Ming is that her death saved many lives in China. Many people responded to her images, they got up and did something. They got up because they were emotionally charged, just as you were, and in many ways, I think that’s the secret, the secret to getting people to react positively. To make them feel sucked in and powerful inside. But they need to find that something compelling inside themselves, and they need to feel great anger about it so that they go off and do something. And Mei Ming made many, many, many people deeply sad, and they stood tall and said they want to help. They said: “I can’t bear the thought that others might be like Mei Ming.”

And that goes for Stoyan and Vasky in Bulgaria, where when people saw the images of Stoyan with his stick legs, he was malnourished to the point of, I mean, it was incredible that he was walking, he was so thin. But people saw him, and there was a whole influx of emails saying: “I want to adopt Stoyan now—tell me where to get him now. How can we work it out? I want to get him now.” The reason people wanted to help—Stoyan and the little girl who is force-fed, before she could swallow in went the next, the next, the next—was because they were deeply affected by the images.


Your documentary on Mogilino shows caregivers stripped of emotion, with no concern for children. What makes them apathetic?

I think they inherit the last person’s feelings in the job. They come in, and they get that bit of work experience from the last member of staff who has left. In Bulgaria, everything worked the way it worked for many, many, many years. And there is a hangover from communism. You felt that nobody would step out of line because it was not worth it. And there was very much a hierarchy within the Institute, from the director and the senior staff down. But everyone inside the Institute in Bulgaria, for example, they were all related, aunties, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, extended cousins. They are all in it together, and you have got great-aunts in there who are in their 70s and the youngest family member there who is 18 or 19, and you do not overrule what the elders are telling you to do. And the elders are set in their ways and not prepared to change.

And there is a lot of cruelty that goes on as well, and they take it on board and just slot in. When I was first filming in Mogilino, I hoped they had inherited it and simply need to be cured. You do not just feed and sit children and go off to watch your soap opera, message your friends and smoke cigarettes. You interact with the children; this is your job. You must surely want to make these children happy.


Do you think self-love allows one to serve another human being kindly?

Yes, I do. The staff who are successful with the children—I have filmed right across the world and different countries—that have produced happy children around them, the ones that come running to them, who had laughter in them, were the staff that I could see had kindness in them. And maybe they don’t even need to have love for the child, but they are kind to the children. Kindness gives a child a sense of safety and belonging.

And I think in many ways, kindness is the critical aspect of care because if you are doing your job and you have children, maybe you cannot love another child or cannot love all the children you are working with, but you can certainly be kind, and I think kindness creates happy children.

In your documentary Bulgaria’s Forgotten Children, Didi, who had autism, deteriorated rapidly, she went from reading magazines to rocking like the other institutionalized children. You said it was due to a total lack of stimulation. Whereas Vasky, who was bedridden, flourished after receiving better care and went on to choose her clothes, participate in gymnastics and started enjoying music. What lessons can we learn from these dramatic transformations?

All you need is kindness and a level of care for children to flourish. Didi, Vasky, and Milan who were abused, they were from environments that were not top end. There were no top specialists there. They were not fuelled with lots of money, what they had were caregivers who cared for the kids.

In Didi’s situation, her boarding house came with a school, and she was able to go back to school again, where she got the input of staff who could see her potential and show her how to do her work. So, all that is required in these situations is care.

And Vasky, she had maybe 17 years in Mogilino, 17 years of neglect, starvation, and unkindness. She was not given any serious physiotherapy. The carers were not professionals. They were just people who took time into caring for her, and you saw the dramatic change—she was alive and kicking and going to the gym and cracking jokes, and I would never have believed that possible. And when people say: “Too badly damaged, they will never recover,” I am sure that they will never wholly forget what happened in Mogilino, but they still can lead fulfilling happy lives.


How did you feel on your return to Bulgaria, when you saw the transformed lives of these children?

Bulgaria is incredibly close to my heart now, and it is one of the films that had a big impact on me. Unlike most films where we have limited time because we are unannounced, I managed to get permission to shoot in Mogilino Institute for a week, a month, for nine months and went back nine times to film. So I came to know the children quite well, and I got attached to them.

And even though there was a language barrier—most of the children there could not speak anyway—so there was not a language barrier. There was eye contact and physical contact, they came to recognize me, came to know my smell. It is hard to put into words, I came to know the children, and I watched them deteriorate in front of me. I could not walk away once I finished making that film.

Apart from trying to push the government for changes, speaking out about it, and talking to different NGO’s and at UNICEF, and to all those TV networks about it, I also started a charity called Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children’s Trust. Because I wanted to take all the help that was on offer and help the children in Mogilino and other institutes in Bulgaria.


Who is disabled, those inside the institutions or society on the outside in the guise of being able?

I think those living in institutions with disabilities are much more severely disabled than they otherwise would have been if they were allowed to be in society, leading as normal lives as they could within the boundaries of their disability. And I think those who are disabled in the institute become severely disabled, and they develop all the recognized institutionalized behaviour of self-harming, biting, walking, humming endlessly, shutting down and cutting off. Therefore, they become more the people that the people outside the Institute expect them to be, which is aggressive, breaking out and hitting you when you are walking in the room. It is not because they are like that, it is because they have become like that. And we in society are guilty of putting them into those institutes and not giving them a chance to live an able life.


Why do people who witness brutalities and terrible things within their homes and in their communities fail to acknowledge it?

I think every single individual is different. And I think the genetics of one human being combined with their environment and how they are loved or not loved can produce one kind of human being, and somebody else brought up with the same conditions but having a different genetic makeup can respond differently.


But can one deny its existence?

I think it is an important point that you just raised. For example, currently, I am looking at a subject which involves child pornography on the Internet, and I cannot get in my head, in my body, cannot find a single ounce of me that can begin to understand how people can abuse children in that way.

But then I have to teach myself that when a person grows up with abuse, it is very much easier to hand it out. And many people who I have met who have been abused, say that they have to fight against doing the same that was done to them.

So it’s common for abuse—sexual, physical, verbal, or silent abuse —to be passed down?

Yes, because it is something they know. It becomes a part of them. It is terribly complicated, but it gives you a glimpse of how people become who they become. It is a difficult argument, should they have therapy or imprisonment or both? Should they ever be allowed out of prison, should they never go to prison, to therapy? And I think these are really difficult, complex questions because what works for one person doesn’t work for the next.


We engage in business that harms children and adults in other countries. How can we consume mindfully?

I think the key to awareness—to keep the number of exploited people or slaves down—is that people need to be better informed. There are products that we use these days where we make a huge effort to show that whatever we are consuming hasn’t been made by the hands of slaves or those who have been exploited.

When I was filming in India, we were working with a family whose son had been kidnapped and locked in a carpet loom where he worked for six years producing carpets. At the same time that we were filming, an NGO was putting the signs of RugMark on carpets. RugMark is a symbol, sign or proof that slaves have not made a particular carpet. And it was fantastically successful because each carpet came out of registered looms, where loom owners have nothing to hide, with a stamp that was stamped saying RugMark. And that means that anybody out here can buy that and know that it is free of any slavery or exploitation.

We are all aware of the businesses whether it is shoes or clothes or jewelry or fireworks in which children are involved, and we have to create trademarks, like a RugMark, that it is universal. And all products produced from that country must have that mark on it to prove that children are not involved.


Almost every government maintains a facade at the world stage, masking fundamental human rights violations. Does pressure for accountability and change come from outside their country?

From my own experience, the greatest changes to governments have come from other countries pressure on them, and that has been proven over and over again. Journalists within a country have said: “We have been trying to tell this story for years, but when you come in as a foreigner from afar, and you tell the story everything goes crazy in our country because a foreigner has exposed the story and humiliated the government globally.” I do think that outside pressure seems to have a greater effect on a country’s government than do its people and journalists.

The least impact of all of our films was the UK film that showed the poverty of children—the fact that so many children do not even go to school, dad’s in prison, mum’s absent, and sometimes they won’t turn up in school for years. We are asking our government, what are we doing about this? This is England. We got no real reaction. And I think that our greatest success stories have come from the exposure, we have done of other governments when we say you cannot allow your children to die or to be enslaved.

I do think, from my own experience, that those who are not in the country feel they have a better way of exposing things, but I wish you could change that. It does not matter who is pointing out problems; governments should not be allowed to get away with it. They should stand up and say, you are right, we have this problem and how should we solve it instead of constantly trying to bury it.


In the larger charities and non-profit organizations, due to bureaucracy and a lack of transparency, there is all too often a mismanagement of funds. Should organizations provide total transparency, to maintain credibility, to the many people who donate money?

One hundred percent. I think transparency is the way forward. There have been many horrific stories of mismanagement of money in some of the large and recognized NGO’s that people have come to respect. Millions were donated, and we suddenly get a scandal that X percent of it is not going where we thought it was, instead there have been big bonuses and big salaries. I think they should publish all their accounts and plans on the Internet, explaining what is coming in and what is going out.


You bring about great awareness and social transformation through your work. Is this the goal or do you see it differently?

Yes, I specifically set about to make films of people who are exploited, abused or neglected. I will not consider filming any other subject as long as I remain capable, healthy, and working. I would not make a film unless it had a specific reason to be made, to bring about a positive change.

There are many, many, many television channels and programs, but there are only a small percentage of solid, honest, raw, truthful documentaries that are being made. I am not saying that there aren’t other filmmakers that can do that, but there are very few slots given to those films by broadcasters. They are not in the majority—they are in the minority. That is where I would like to stay. I think the power of television, when it is used properly, can bring about social changes and improve lives.


How does Kate Blewett nourish her mind?

Well, I get an enormous amount of love and support from my family. And I think my family is interested in and proud of what I do, and that makes me feel that I am doing things that are worthwhile. I think that the love they show me and the way they care for me makes me feel comfortable, secure, and safe. And in many ways, it recharges my batteries. And my dog is good to me. He comforts me when he knows I am feeling sad. I also have to take a gap between each film. When I finish one film, finish the whole process of editing and putting it together, I feel mentally and physically rung out. And I stop, and I start cleaning out clothes cupboards and my shoe closets and my food cupboards. I start doing absolutely basic home things.


It feels good, doesn’t it?

Oh, I can’t tell you, that’s my therapy. And I love to go into my old letters and photo albums of when I was a child, the letters of my father who died and going through all my memories so that it reminds me of my family, my background. What we have seen and what we all have done together. I get an enormous amount of nourishment from doing things that require me just to exist at home. Without the phone or the computer, just doing as little as possible, with my family around me is my therapy.

At the start of our interview, you spoke about Eyes of a Child, the documentary you filmed in England, how it was not solely about economic poverty, rather the emotional poverty that children face. I have to tell you that you are one of the very few people who understands and values emotional wealth.

For me, it is such an obvious thing because you can get the happiest family living in great poverty, but they have an emotional richness that takes them and carries them through life.


To learn more about Kate Blewett visit her website.