For a long time, Jezza Neumann has had to deal with life in the shadow of Brian Woods. As a film-maker for True Vision, he accepted it as inevitable and hoped things would improve after he started winning awards. For a long time, it didn’t.
“I’d always talked about climbing out from under his shadow, but it was very hard. Everywhere we went, people wanted to just talk to him, and no one knew who I was,” he says.
This is perhaps unsurprising given the undercover nature of a lot of his work. “I’d won three Baftas and just be standing in the background. Then at some point in the past 18 months it changed almost overnight – people started wanting to know who I was.”
This quick advancement appears to be down to a fairly gung-ho attitude towards the films in which he gets involved. “I don’t have this burning desire to make a certain film, which is lucky,” he says. “A lot of people have a film they are desperate to make, whereas I just take what comes along.”
That open-mindedness has taken Neumann to places many would blanche at: he has snuck into Zimbabwe, China, Tibet and Gaza, and the results have won awards from Bafta, Peabody Trust, The Rory Peck Trust and Broadcast. The common thread to his six films is the plight of children living in some of the toughest conditions on Earth.
His directorial debut, China’s Stolen Children, won a Bafta – although when Channel 4 ordered the doc, it was Woods’ expertise they initially thought they were getting. Neumann was sent into the country as production manager, but after “unravelling” stories of child trafficking and meeting sources, he ended up taking charge of a doc that became a two-hour film in C4 primetime.
“Ultimately, if I managed to bring back the footage but couldn’t put it together, Brian would have been there to help. There was a lot of hand-holding because it was my first film, but in the end, I came up with the goods,” he says.
Broadcasters, including the BBC at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, have complained that film-makers such as Woods are pulling the wool over their eyes with this substitute director tactic, but Neumann argues it’s an important test for a young film-maker. “There are so few avenues otherwise – how else do you get a break?”
He adds: “The reality is, if Brian is banned from the country, how on Earth can he remotely direct something?”
Unlike Woods, Neumann admits his motivation was never about instigating change – although as he gets older, he says, he perhaps understands this better than he once did.
“Starting as a runner and PM, my ethos was always to get people to do as much as possible for as little as possible – and then to get them to thank you at the end of it,” he admits. “I took pride in dealing people down, and didn’t care about what it meant to them.
“The company ethos didn’t play into my world until I was on the frontline, and realised that making a difference was actually the only thing that meant something.”
Neumann jokes that his kids call him ‘Spy Dad’ – one has even given him a card that says as much, although that gets left at home when he works undercover.
But while he is slightly sceptical as to the value of risk assessments (“you’re asked what we would do if we were having a meeting with a hypothetical source in a hypothetical restaurant, in a country you have never visited, and the authorities walk in”) But after being caught in some very sticky situations, he now recognises the value of hypotheticals in advance, and has developed some of his own rules.
Some seem like common sense. There is the three-day rule – never go back to the same place on the third day – and changing sim cards so there is no “contamination” between contributors. He never gets a taxi to or from the hotel in which he is staying, and ensures that wherever he is filming has a good range of exits.
Others are more tricky, like the time he ate a piece of paper with phone numbers on, then climbed a mountain in Tibet to bury rushes, after an interviewee identified someone watching them as a member of the secret police.
“You never know if you’re being paranoid and if it’s just a coincidence or mistaken identify. But the student we had been interviewing later escaped and told us that the day after we left Lhasa, the authorities came looking for us,” he says.
“When I started out, there was no one to talk to about this, so I devised the rules myself. Since then, I keep getting calls from people asking for advice, but the reality is, I got most of my ideas from movies.”
This was not Neumann’s only brush with the authorities. Filming undercover in Zimbabwe, he was interrogated by a man he took to be from the CIO – the secret police – but whom he now believes was a “rogue” officer.
“He took all the tapes and hard drives, went into the police station and came back out again really quickly – it was clearly fraudulent. But we couldn’t do anything about it – he had our laptops with several weeks’ worth of filming, and we just had to do it all over again.”
Neumann says that was the first time he ever felt like quitting. “Of course it was short-lived, because you have to just roll up your sleeves and get on with it.”
As well as winning a Bafta, a Peabody and a Rory Peck Award, the Zimbabwe film marks a special point in Neumann’s career as it was the first time he had completed a doc without Woods’ help. “There were people out there who believed I couldn’t make a film without Brian – but that proved I could.”
Neumann has not personally conceived the films he has created thus far – but Poor Kids USA, which he is pre-producing when we meet, was his idea. This may account for why he is feeling unusually nervous about the outcome, although there are other concerns.
“My greatest fear is failure. The thought of coming back and having a conversation with a commissioning editor to say ‘I haven’t done it’ is the thing that terrifies me most,” he says.
“Going to Gaza, I knew I would find kids that had been affected by the war; in Zimbabwe, I knew I would find loads of things. People also know how difficult it is to operate in Zimbabwe, so that was our get-out clause if things went awry. But in America, it’s harder to perceive the difficulties.”
Poor Kids USA will be a follow-up to the 2011 BBC1 film Poor Kids, which looked at British children living in poverty and was told through their eyes. As well as being a critical success, it achieved ratings of 2.5 million on its first outing, and has been referenced in the House of Commons.
This adds another layer of concern for Neumann’s new film. “It’s the first time I’ve ever emulated a film I’ve already done, so the pressure is on. You have to find kids who are more engaging, or at least as good as, Courtney and Sam [from the BBC1 doc].”
Even for this proven undercover navigator of the world’s toughest regimes “that is pretty terrifying,” Neumann admits.
JEZZA NEUMANN ON…
“Our films are expensive because of people time. At the heart of our films is the quality of the characters and you need people to find them, which is expensive. If you cut the budget, you cut the probability of finding the right character. That is the difference between a good film and a great film.”
“I didn’t talk about any of the things I had gone through for ages, then after the China film, I was riding down the M4 one day and just started crying and didn’t know why. I realised it was just everything playing back – and now when I watch the films, it brings it all back.”
- Born: Melbourne, 1968
- Early career: Runner
- Big break: Filming Eyes Of A Child for BBC1
Filmography and selected awards
- 2012: Poor Kids USA (BBC2/PBS);
- 2011: Poor Kids (BBC1);
- 2011: True Stories: War Child (More 4) – Silver Hugo Television Award;
- 2010: Dispatches: Children Of Gaza (C4) – One World Media Award;
- 2010: Storyville: Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children (BBC4) – Bafta, Broadcast Digital Award, Rory Peck Award;
- 2008: Dispatches: Undercover In Tibet (C4) – RTS Award;
- 2007: Dispatches: China’s Stolen Children (C4) – Bafta, Broadcast Award, two Bafta Craft Awards
Jezza named as one the UK's top 10 directors in Broadcast Magazine Hot 100