I have made hundreds of videos in my nine years of activism, but I consider none as important as the documentary film I have been privileged to produce on behalf of Reclaimed Voices – a group of remarkable individuals in the Netherlands who have made stunning progress in advocating for abuse victims. If you haven’t yet seen Reclaimed Voices: Abuse Survivors Speak Out, here it is…
I don’t plan on spoiling the film for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but I thought I would write this “behind the scenes” article to explain how the project happened. To help tell the story, I have put this slideshow together of stills from four of the five days of filming.
It all began in July of last year when I was racking my brains trying to decide on a project worthy of a documentary. The year before, I had managed to create a film out of a trip to Watchtower’s World Headquarters at Warwick, NY. I had also promised my Patrons that I would commit to making a documentary film each year if they could help me reach a certain level of funding – a level that was soon to be surpassed. The question was: what film should I make?
“Why don’t you make a film about Reclaimed Voices in the Netherlands?” said my wife Dijana casually.
It was so obvious! I immediately wanted to kick myself for not thinking of it. I had assumed that shooting a documentary would involve returning to America, Watchtower’s heartland, or perhaps Australia to investigate the aftermath of the Australian Royal Commission. And yet a compelling story was staring at me from right under my nose on my own continent. A group of activists had enjoyed such incredible success in standing up for child abuse victims that the government had announced an independent investigation into Jehovah’s Witnesses. How could I not cover this?
Very soon thereafter I sent a WhatsApp message to Reclaimed Voices. Here is what I said:
The reply was swift and positive. I was thrilled to hear that Reclaimed Voices were eager to collaborate in making it happen! But successfully pitching the idea still left a mountain of work ahead. We needed to identify contributors, arrange locations, recruit some kind of volunteer film crew that could help me condense everything into a week of filming.
In the weeks that followed, a flurry of emails and messages went to and fro. By the time October 2018 arrived, everything was in place so that I could get in the car with Dijana and Jessica and begin the 800-mile drive, stopping the night at a roadside hotel in Germany en route.
Rather than get lost in a blow-by-blow account of what happened next, I want to focus on some of the key people involved – a sampling of the unsung heroes behind the camera who were instrumental in the film being what it is.
Ruben Looij‘s impact on the project cannot be overstated. When I was in need of a central location that could be used for interviews, Ruben not only generously volunteered his beautiful, spacious home in Rotterdam (with a living room ceiling high enough to fly a drone!), but he also let Dijana, Jessica and I stay there, provided us with meals, and involved himself with the production. His insights from behind the camera were extremely valuable, not to mention his practical help with filming and handling the equipment.
Ruben’s son Phillip also came to the rescue when, after I had been struggling with faulty audio on the first morning of filming (for Hadassah’s interview and the Reclaimed Voices “sofa interview”) he kindly volunteered to take care of the audio for me. There was an immediate improvement in quality. Buzzing microphones were one less thing I needed to worry about.
Priscilla Smith was similarly invaluable in handling the sound, picking up where Phillip left off. Together with myself and Ruben we formed a tight-knit, efficient three-piece film crew for one especially arduous Thursday of filming that involved a four-and-a-half hour round-trip taking in five different locations: two in Utrecht (Victor Jammers, Marinde & Rianne), one in windswept Zwolle (a gamble at being able to interview Nico Meijering during one of his courtroom battles that thankfully paid off), and two in Emmen (the visit to the Dutch branch, followed by interviewing “Sarah”).
Both Ruben and Priscilla had been understandably nervous for the visit to the Dutch branch, but their professionalism was outstanding. They never wavered for a moment during the long wait at Watchtower’s diminutive gates. (This was, after all, their local bethel, so any anxiety was understandable.) In the impossible scenario that PR-guy Michel van Hilten’s cowardice had relented and he had invited us inside, I am sure they would have followed me through the doors without a second thought.
That evening, somewhat surprised that we had pulled off what, on paper, had seemed an impossible schedule, we celebrated with beers and delicious Chinese food back in Rotterdam. It was an unforgettable experience.
Two days earlier, on the second day of filming, another unlikely partnership had been forged at The Hague, where I met Frank Jepsen and Gyles Hawkins (together with Ruben, Dijana, Jessica and our interview subject Hadassah) at a coffee shop opposite the Binnenhof (the Dutch parliament buildings).
Frank had driven all the way from Denmark after hearing about the project during one of my Patreon hangouts. He was already supporting my work as a patron, but didn’t flinch at the thought of jumping in his car and driving hundreds of miles to lend practical assistance to help make the film a reality.
While Frank took care of the sound on his iPhone, Gyles was my trusty cameraman for the day. I will never forget his self-sacrifice in getting down on his knees on the sidewalk at Hadassah’s kingdom hall to get the optimum camera angle (I wanted the JW.org logo in the background while Hadassah was talking, and Gyles went through discomfort to make it happen).
Gyles (a fellow Brit!) had learned about my project on Facebook and arranged his work schedule to be involved. Thanks to Gyles and Frank, together with Ruben, we managed to get excellent footage at three different locations: The Binnenhof, Hadassah’s old kingdom hall, and Koen’s interview at the RTL studios in Hilversum.
Only with the help of all these selfless individuals, not to mention the excellent planning of Reclaimed Voices who had lined up the contributors for me to begin with, was I able to pull off interviewing 12 contributors at 11 different locations in 2 countries over 5 days.
But there was still work to do.
I returned to Croatia with 200 gigabytes of footage and audio. Four of my interview subjects (Nico, “Sarah,” Frank and Siem) requested to be interviewed in Dutch, so I needed to get their footage synced and then sent off to be subtitled before I could even know what they’d said. (Yes, I was conducting some of the interviews by asking questions and just hoping I was getting the right answers!)
Having already been on hand for the production, Priscilla again volunteered to do the subtitling, and was assisted in this by Raymond and Aswin.
Though I had initially been optimistic about a quick turnaround (in the trailer I had promised the release for Christmas!) the more work I did on the project the more I realized what a beast it was. Just getting to the point where I could mentally organize the interviews into a logical sequence with a coherent narrative was a huge milestone that took months to reach.
When I was at my most desperate at the beginning of January, honestly wondering how I would ever finish the project, I received an email from a fellow ex-JW named Jim MacLaren.
“The main reason for contacting you though is to offer my services to you as a video editor,” Jim said, after introducing himself and briefly sharing his story. Jim went on to cite his credentials, including a link to an impressive demo reel.
I was reminded of how, back in the summer of 2015, a guy who came to call himself “Covert Fade” had emailed when I was on a trip and unable to respond to the goings-on at the Australian Royal Commission. Covert, who was following the Commission avidly and clearly had a gift for writing, had submitted articles on the proceedings having noticed I was too busy. We began working together and the rest, as they say, is history.
Once again, in my hour of need, just the right person with just the right skillset had come to my rescue. I took Jim up on his kind offer, and despite balancing a family and a career he sacrificed his weekends to “burn” Priscilla’s subtitles on to the Dutch interview footage, enabling me to move forward with editing in leaps and bounds. Without his intervention, I believe the film would have been delayed by at least another month.
There are more people I really need to thank for making this project happen. Hopefully they know how grateful I am. I would need to write a book to do them all justice. But in my closing words, let me right an enormous wrong by correcting the one mistake I made while editing the film for which I am still kicking myself.
In the final, frantic days before uploading, with large swathes of the film nowhere near finished, I hastily put together some end credits and passed them on to Jim for him to create the closing reel. In writing the list of names, my mind was racing around the globe identifying all the people who had played a key role in making the project a reality. But stupidly, just as I had missed the Netherlands when first trying to think of a worthwhile documentary project, I somehow missed a name that was right under my nose.
Let me rectify that now.
Dijana, this project would not have happened without you. Not only was it your idea, without which I very likely would never have approached Reclaimed Voices to begin with, but you also gave me your unswerving support in making the 800-mile trip to the Netherlands without a second thought, putting up with my long absences while I was away filming, and keeping Jessica entertained and cared for. You did it all because you believed in this project and wanted to see the survivors represented and their voices heard.
You have been and always will be a crucial component in my activism. You provide my life with the love and joy that helps offset the stress and challenges, and I will forever be grateful. Please forgive my oversight. Thank you so much for your inspiration. I love you.