Award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker and producer Olivia Crellin has reported from Brazil, Ecuador and Chile, covering stories on social, environmental and human rights issues. Her latest documentary, Transgender Parents, follows Diane and Fernando as they navigate parenthood in Ecuador under the gaze of the media spotlight as Latin America’s first transgender parents.
NM: Where did your interest in South America come from?
OC: Through the ‘magical realism’ novels Gabriel García Márquez, I fell in love with what I imagined South America would be like and when I graduated I wanted to learn Spanish and live in South America for a year. I got to Santiago and started working for a paper called The Santiago Times, which was fantastic. From there I got to immerse myself in the country. Through writing articles every day, I found out so much about the fabric of Chilean society – the history, the dictatorship. Becoming fluent in another language, I got this level of insight into the people and culture I wouldn’t otherwise have had. The level of obscurity of South America and the amount of disinterest in the region from the rest of the world really drew me to it.
NM: Why did you decide to become a journalist and documentary filmmaker?
OC: Journalism and documentary enabled me to travel, inhabit different worlds and different peoples’ lives. I loved theatre at university and I dabbled in making films when I was a student. I travelled with a boyfriend around the Middle East and shot a film in a monastery in Syria and then another about a rap group in the West Bank. I loved the process of filming and thought: this is a bit like directing theatre, but it’s real life. The more journalism I’ve done, the more I’ve realised there’s a public service element to it. Raising awareness about issues, speaking for people who’ve been excluded through power structures, are important to me. I think that’s something I get from my parents who are both psychiatrists for the NHS.
NM: Your journalism has covered a wide range of social issues, from abortion in Chile to child prostitution in Brazil. How do you conduct your research?
OC: I’m drawn more to human rights issues and issues that affect people who are disadvantaged, in particular women’s issues. Usually I start off with doing a lot of reading around a country or issue. I naturally tend to gravitate towards the issues that I find interesting but often with an eye as to what mainstream publications would also find interesting. I learned very early on, being a freelancer, that you have to find somebody who is going to pay to enable you to do the research, so a lot of my stories are a fusion of that natural interest of mine and then an acknowledgement of what might interest an editor.
Journalists really rely on a lot of other people. The research process for journalism is finding as many relevant people as possible to talk about what it is you want to find out about. The article is a synthesis of everything you’ve found out. You have to choose to publish what you find most interesting or urgent.
In Brazil I wanted to report on child prostitution because the World Cup was coming up and I thought about how this might play into the issue of sex tourism. I pitched the story to editors and they had an interest in it.
NM: Why did you decide to make Transgender Family?
OC:I was working at Channel 4 News and knew that they had an interest in transgender issues and I knew Latin America was an under-covered region for the UK population and audience.
I came across this Daily Mail splash about Diane and Fernando. It was incredibly sensationalist and dehumanising and I thought: I’m sure there is so much more to this couple than just this kind of biological fact. This story needs a treatment from somebody who knows the region, who knows the language, and who wants to look at this in a way that isn’t just a bit of cheap, tabloid tat. I wanted to humanise them and make them as easy to relate to as possible. Everybody has some notion of family, whether they have one or don’t have one, or want one, or you know, have issues with one: it’s something we all experience.
NM: What challenges did you face when making the film?
OC: It was only my second film and I went entirely by myself, so I was producing, directing, translating, filming, driving, which is not easy in South America. One of the main challenges and something that worried me was the fact that Diane’s incredibly busy. She barely sits still for a second, constantly on her phone, as you’d imagine a journalist, politician, activist to be, to a certain extent. The biggest challenge was physically keeping up with her.
— BBC Our World (@BBCOurWorld) May 11, 2017
The other challenge is to do with style and personal conviction. Documentary film-making, as with journalism, is a really broad spectrum and there are some people who are almost entirely complicit with their contributors and it’s a collaboration. There are others – and I’m probably more in this camp – who believe that this is not a PR exercise. But you still have to maintain empathy with the contributors.
We amended the film contract to take into consideration some of the couples’ very basic concerns. As transgender parents they have a much-heightened awareness of the risks that they could face as new parents and their absolute concern is not creating a situation that could lead to them losing their child. So I guess those two things were the most challenging: keeping up with Diane and then managing the couples’ expectations and my relationship with them.
NM: The documentary has no narration, only raw footage and on-screen text: why did you decide to produce the film in this way?
OC: For a lot of people the topic will be incredibly controversial and I think not having voice over in there to commentate, pass judgement or add anything liberates it. I think documentary works at its best when you just let the viewer make their own conclusions… There’s space for debate even among people who are watching it.
NM: I found the film really moving: what impact has it had on you?
OC: When filming, I find reflection comes a little bit later… Every single night I’d come back and I just didn’t have a care in the world because what were my problems against the concerns that they have and the low-level of constant fear that they live with? I was very impressed by them and that made me like them more and more.
The fact that Diane is now Ecuador’s first transgender politician is phenomenal but being on the other end of her grit, determination and stubbornness is sometimes difficult. I think that her heart’s in the right place, and while she’s incredibly ambitious and very political, she’s just another human being like the rest of us.
NM: What response have you had from the transgender community in Ecuador/Latin America? What impact do you hope it will have?
OC: I’m entering the film into festivals in South America and Spain, so hopefully, that will enable some people to see it. At the end of or mid-way through the festival run, I’ll put it up online, so that more people can see it. But there’s a staged process of releasing it when it’s on the festival circuit. I’m hoping to be doing more press, in particular in South America.
NM: Do you plan to keep in touch with the family or revisit their story in the future?
OC: I would love to go back maybe in ten years’ time. Fernando spoke about a desire to have more children and it would be interesting to see what happens with Diane and her political life, and to also be able to speak to Sununu, their child.
NM: What are you working on next?
OC: I’m working on quite a few things but all of them are in development stages. I’d like to make [a film] about the supposed ‘post-Farc’ Colombia, which I don’t believe exists quite in the way it’s been presented now, a year on from the Colombian president getting the Nobel Peace Prize for, supposedly, ending the conflict there. For decades it was a huge conflict and I think there are going to be so many interesting situations that will arise in this post-conflict context, so that’s an area that I’m looking at.
Olivia Crellin is a presenter and producer for the BBC World Service.
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