Earlier this year I went to the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull, West Cork. Of its many charms, my favourite is that it is (as far as I know) the only film festival held in a town without a cinema. So for four days this salty, sleepy sailing town is transformed with screens rigged up in venues from old mills and back rooms of cafes and pubs to upstairs at a book shop and (my favourite) someone's living room, showing short films from across the world. Even the rare Irish sun made an appearance.
Amongst all this I went to see one feature-length documentary – Donor Unknown. Donor Unknown is about a young woman who wants to find her sperm donor father, and in the process finds a new, complicated family. It is a charming and funny but melancholic documentary that tells a much wider story about family and personal identity.
Equally as impressive was the interview after the screening with the triple-BAFTA winning producer Hilary Durman, who answered difficult questions on the ethics of both sperm donation and the documentary itself. Hilary founded and co-runs her independent production company Redbird Productions, and is a trustee of both Artswork, a youth arts development agency and Blast Theory, an interactive media organisation.
As is so often the case, it turned out that Hilary is also an RSA Fellow. I met with her to carry on the conversation and ask her about her career, life and her new project on Morocco’s first Islamic women leaders – Casablanca Calling.
You’ve won three BAFTA’s for your TV production work. How did it all start?
I actually started my career as a teacher, an English and drama teacher, for fifteen years. Then I got a job at a television company that wanted an education officer – a job behind the scenes writing books, pamphlets, creating events, that would give extra life to the ideas in television programmes. At TVS, I set up a festival called Artswork – which gave young people a chance to experience the arts – and we made a film about it. That was my first taste of production, and I followed it by making documentaries and dramas for schools.
A few years later, I set up independently with my colleagues to focus on educational broadcasting. We worked for ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC making programmes for children, young people and teachers. That’s where we won the three BAFTAs, for Dream On, about a deaf child, Lion Mountain, about young refugees from Sierra Leone, and one working with the writer John Godber called Oddsquad about three teenage misfits in Hull.
I also spent six years working on programmes with and for deaf people, and then two years bringing new deaf and disabled talent into television through a series of half hour programmes by deaf and disabled new directors, all for Channel 4.
Why move out of educational broadcasting?
It happened quite naturally. Different opportunities came along. I got to the point where I was ok to earn less and take more time over things. I’ve also reached a slightly selfish point in my career when I think if I find something interesting, then other people might too. It is certainly the case with The Time of Their Lives (a documentary about three women around one hundred years old), and Donor Unknown, and now Casablanca Calling.
Tell me about your new project
Casablanca calling is about Morocco’s first Islamic women leaders – the Morchidat. I had never heard of women being given an official role as religious leaders in the Islamic faith. I was filming in China and the Director Rosa and I read it in our English language newspaper in the hotel! We decided to investigate it.
It was a slow process as we went through the Ministry of Islamic affairs in Morocco and it was quite sensitive. It took time for them to understand what we wanted to do – their experience so far had been more Fox News than observational documentary, so they were wary of us, for understandable reasons.
What have you learned?
These female Islamic leaders need to position themselves very carefully. They are government employees, they’re chosen against huge competition and they’re carefully trained, highly intelligent women placed in different communities across Morocco to actually change things. To work with women, families and young people to open up the true teachings of Islam, to support women’s education and to strip away some of the prejudices, misinterpretations and negative practices that have grown up around their religion in certain pockets. And that is hard – they have to be very tenacious and very strong.
We’re increasingly facing so many strong reactions to Islam in the West, which means it is an interesting documentary to make now.
Are you a feminist?
Yes. Yes I am. I don’t think of it in a theoretical sense I’m afraid – obviously I read Gemaine Greer and a bit of Betty Friedman on the way. But I think that it is just a natural sense of people to be treated equally. In all the work I’ve done with people whose voices aren’t heard, it is about a search for that.
Who inspires you?
The three women in The Time of their Lives inspired me. If you are 104 and still politically active, spiritually enquiring, socially connected, caring about what is happening about the work around you and getting out and doing things – I think that is totally inspirational.
I’ve never had a role model – I mean obviously I’d like to be Helen Mirren but I’m not. But there are people I’ve worked with along the way who’ve have a really big impact on me.
The first person I worked with in TV was fourteen years younger and she had a much more entrepreneurial spirit than me. I’d just come out of teaching without an entrepreneurial bone in my body and I found her a threat. Then I thought there’s no point in feeling threatened. Once I opened up and stopped saying ‘This is where I end and you begin’ we learned from each other.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your career?
To trust your intuition much more than our rational selves say we should. But at the same time acknowledge when you’ve got it wrong – not all intuition is perfect. You can’t be too judgemental, don’t polarise things, you have to look at how to weave things together.
Do you have any tips for those starting out in production?
Do some work, even if it is just for yourself. Do some work that persuades people. Even just a short film. Make a really great one. Now we supposedly have more control over the means of production so you can’t just say ‘do you like me?’ you actually need to have done something.
Is there anything in life that has blown you off course?
The question assumes I have a course! I think maybe just feeling that I can’t do all the things I want to do in order to have a full life. I don’t have children – heaven knows how producers and directors manage with three children at home.
Can’t you have a full life without children?
Of course, and I hope I do. But if you were someone who wanted the whole portfolio then there is something quite critical I missed out on.
One of the things I’ve found a real struggle is self-belief. Which is probably why I’ve found the inspiration of colleagues more important than out of reach role models. Colleagues feed into you all the time, and they see you doing well.
Do you consider yourself successful?
No – well, maybe modestly successful. Someone once said to me “you don’t run a business, you have a lifestyle” and I thought – yeah ok. It is true! I have had times in the company when we’ve had a lot of employees. It is a two-person company now. That’s the way I can work and do the things I really love to do, and have free choice right now.
And finally, you’re an RSA Fellow. Why did you join?
I thought it would be really interesting to be part of an on-going debate about all sorts of subjects. I found myself a bit starved of that. I like the stimulating ideas at the RSA and the actions as a result. I get to have the kind of conversations and thoughts that I never would have around a dinner table.
In the future I’d like to do more with other Fellows, working on education projects.
If you're interested in working on a similar project get in touch with Hilary Durman. Or, if you know a great woman you'd like to nominate for Fellowship go to our nominations page, or contact Mark Hall on 0207 451 6904.
This is the last blog from Alice Dyke as Regional Programme Manager at the RSA. You can follow her on Twitter @ImAliceD or connect with her on Linkedin.