Columbia Journalism School

6/27/12 | INTERVIEW

A Conversation with Independent Producer, Jamie Doran

In a documentary aired on WGBH/Frontline in May, when an Iraqi journalist and a Saudi television producer risked traveling in Yemen with Al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they were aided by a decoy--producer, Jamie Doran.

“When you work in Yemen and countries like Yemen, you’re automatically followed by ‘security,’ some of them open and some of them hidden,” said Doran, a duPont Award-winning producer and founder of Clover Films, an independent production company. “And my job was to run around and make a huge fuss and take all the security with me, while Ghaith [Abdul-Ahad] and Safar [Al Ahmad] were able to sneak in...”

Doran, who is 56 years-old, has had unprecedented access to al Qaeda before. In “Behind Taliban Lines,” for which Doran and Najibullah Quraishi won the duPont Award in 2011, they produced a documentary from 10 days of embedded reporting with an insurgent cell closer to al Qaeda than the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islam.

Related Media: Jamie Doran and
Najibullah Quraishi on "Behind
Taliban Lines"

Jacqueline Kook spoke to the Glasgow-born, Irish-Scot to learn how, for so many years, he has managed to cover those stories “with edge,” as he put it. Amidst intense situations, from the time he covered the military junta during the 1990 Burma elections, to keeping the camera rolling in Chile despite gunfire from an ambush while investigating the disappeared, Doran is a professional who is determined to get the story. And when he spoke about his colleagues and independent collaborations with award-winning journalists from Afghanistan, Kenya and Iraq, he reveals what may be the source of some of his “luck.”

Below are edited excerpts of the interview. 

At the time of the interview, Doran had been editing the international version of "Al Qaeda in Yemen." And the conversation began with discussing the dangers of reporting in Yemen and Afghanistan and the changes that Doran has experienced over the years.

Jamie Doran: Up until about 2 ½ years ago, I could walk up into the hills of Afghanistan. I could walk into villages, talk to people and there wouldn’t be a problem. Of course I would have my Afghan friend with me, but we wouldn’t have a problem. And then that changed probably about, Behind Enemy Lines --or Behind Taliban Lines as it’s called in America-- that was a great shame because I was on my way to meet the main leadership of the Taliban in that region when I got a phone message from my friend “Don’t come Jamie, they’re going to behead you.” That wouldn’t have happened not so long before that.

acqueline Kook: How do you get to a place where you can build relationships in that way, with individuals such as those in al Qaeda?

JD: ...Being a researcher at the BBC many, many moons ago [in 1979], I kind of got a reputation for being the guy who could get the interview that none of the other guys could get. And we’re talking about very small fry things in Britain. I just have a habit of working whatever hours that was necessary...

It has always been an obsession to get things that other people couldn’t. Which is why I sneak into countries, I’ve been in pretty difficult situations many times, they were going to hang me --as i found out-- in Burma. There’s a whole list of things that I could do. But somehow or other, I think I have a lucky charm somewhere and, um, get out.

JK: What drives you to do it?

JD: I suppose truth. I don’t like the establishment and I don’t mind saying that publicly and I think the establishment is there to block the truth be it a dictatorial establishment or even a so-called democratic establishment. Our job is to bring the truth out, the more that they know they are being watched, the less bad things they’re going to do...

JK: Tell me about your production company. How has Clover Films changed since it started?

JD: ...It was more domestic then and then it became very, very international and we’re going through a new phase right now. One of the things that we recognize is how small the world is, and how western-centric the world is. I began to take a great interest in Africa about 4 years ago, and it’s fascinating how the world global economic crisis, everything, is looked at from a western point of view. It’s time to start looking at it from another point of view, for instance from an Asian point of view, what is it that they actually think and perceive is going on in a global economic crisis. Rather than listening to Western experts. In the same way with Africa...

What you have to start doing is look at it from the African point of view and get Africans telling stories about Africa and get more africa-centric, or putting Africa on the map more.

JK: How do you determine what’s an authentic voice or a voice that is an “African” speaking about their own country?

JD: Spend long enough in a place. Make sure you get to know what it’s like. I spent a lot of time, for instance, in the slums in Kenya, in Nairobi, and Kibera and Mathare, and I get to know the slum lads. I don’t know whether it helps, I come from a city in Glasgow, where you literally meet all walks of life. And crucially they’ve got to trust you. You will never get the truth from anyone until they trust you. So you’ve gotta be in there, be open with them and answer anything that they ask and answer honestly they’ll catch you out. And if you do that, then you can get to the genuine people. And that’s how you know the voices you have are genuine, authentic and representative.

JK: You have partnered with a lot of different reporters and producers. Can you tell me about those partnerships?

JD: [Najibullah] is someone who could, I don’t know, convince the Queen of England to abdicate tomorrow morning. He is extraordinary. Ghaith is incredibly insightful. He’s someone who gives you stories to great depth, but in a way that everyone can understand. Sharmeen [Obaid-Chinoy] has a way into people's hearts. It’s quite fascinating. She’s someone who can bring a story out of people in a very,very gentle fashion, but she gets the story. These are all good people and there will be more Sharmeens, Ghaiths and Naj’s very, very soon. It’s young talent, but these guys, they’re really good. And there’s others. I love young talent, if it’s in the right thing. If they’re dreamers. If their dream is in my dream, in general terms.

JK: So then what advice would you have for younger students who would want to go your way or into international reporting?

Generally speaking, first of all, I would say absolutely believe in freedom. Not the cliché American freedom. Believe in freedom across the board and push for that in every possible way. And that means keep governments on their toes, be it American, Afghan, Chinese or whatever, keep governments on their toes by continuously revealing what they don’t want revealed. That’s one of our great roles in life.

In terms of individual advice, I think there’s too many people in the business who think they can pick up a camera and call themselves filmmakers.

I think it’s really, really important that you get yourself an understanding of what ordinary people are like. We are an elite, don’t ever forget that, especially coming from where you’re coming from, it’s a serious elite. Get them to get their hands dirty out there. I guess that’s the best advice of all, dirty hands. 

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