How do you make documentaries about terror and tragedy?

The filmmaker behind Manchester: The Night of the Bomb and The Jihadis Next Door on gaining the trust of traumatised interviewees, and the lessons he’s learned about humanity along the way

Police officers patrol around Old Trafford Cricket Ground ahead of the One Love Manchester tribute concert

The Manchester Arena bombing, the London Bridge terror attack and the Grenfell Tower blaze all shook the nation within four weeks of each other. A year on, documentaries have begun to chronicle the terrifying events of 2017. But how do you make a film about such tragedies? How do you get access to survivors and perpetrators, and how do you do the story justice?

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Filmmaker Jamie Roberts has a history of producing searing documentaries: he has embedded himself with people from all walks of life, from members of the far right for Angry, White and Proud to child refugees for War Child. His extraordinary film The Jihadis Next Door, for which he spent two years with Islamic extremists in the UK, made headlines last year when one of the men it featured went on to wreak terror in London Bridge and another travelled to Syria to join Islamic State.

When the BBC decided to make a film about the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on 22nd May 2017, Jamie Roberts is the man they called. Exactly ten days after Salman Abedi blew himself up with a nuts and bolts bomb, killing 22 and injuring more than 100, Manchester: The Night of the Bomb was officially in production.

Sisters Emilia & Eve in Manchester: The Night of the Bomb (BBC, EH)
Sisters Emilia & Eve went to the concert with their mother Natalie (BBC)

Now, a year on from the attack, the young survivors are still living with the reality of what happened. For the past 12 months, Roberts has been constructing a “forensic”, minute-by-minute retelling of the night. In it, he meets the young women and girls who went to the concert, emergency service workers, and friends of the bomber – many of whom speak in detail about their experience for the first time.

So how did he do it? Approaching the survivors of the attack was a sensitive task that didn’t begin until “some time after” the event, Roberts tells me. The reason for this was two-fold: many people were still in hospital or undergoing treatment, but there were also stories of journalists from daily newspapers trying to film victims through the blinds of the hospital and door-stepping bereaved families.

It was essential for Roberts to distance himself from the press harassment, and to handle his initial approach with caution and compassion. His team decided to get in touch with survivors through Victim Support, a charity which helps people affected by traumatic events.

After contact was established, there were phone conversations followed by a cup of tea with the family and then, once everyone was happy to go ahead, Roberts conducted the candid on-camera conversations which end up in the film. The interviews with the young girls and women took place in their own homes, with their families around them, and generally lasted an hour and a half with small breaks. “They were in control and that was really important,” says Roberts.

The paramedics in the film, meanwhile, were spoken to at the ambulance headquarters, and members of the British Transport Police chatted to Roberts as they came off shift, close to their offices.

Roberts’ resulting interviews are visceral, deeply moving accounts of the attack and its aftermath. One teenage girl remembers being blown across the foyer and seeing her legs on fire. “All of them were very supportive of telling the unvarnished story of the night,” says Roberts. “We didn’t want to make something that was graphic and gratuitous, but it was a horrific event and if we can learn something from it, we need to tell it as it was.”

Speaking about the young women and girls who he sat down with, some as young as 11, Roberts says that even though their accounts are given “through the prism of a teenager” they are “compelling and captivating” and “tell a story in a way that an adult can’t”.

“The resilience of those girls was incredible,” he says. “It was interesting that the initial impact of it emotionally was more visible in the adults than it was in the children. I don’t know if that’s something to do with the psychology of an adult and understanding or having a wider view on morality maybe… but in terms of being raw emotionally, [the girls] weren’t emotional wrecks, as it were. They were very composed, as they were in the interview, quite surprisingly and bravely so…

“This goes outside of my educational remit but when people say children grow up very quickly when they’re in a war zone, they almost skip some of their childhood years, that’s the case when something like this happens.

“They grow up very quickly because their innocence… they’re starting to realise what it means to lose someone or to see people die in front of them. That does literally add years on to the way you view the world.”

Members of the Muslim community gather at the floral tributes at St Ann's Square on 24th May 2017 (Getty, EH)
Members of the Muslim community gather at the floral tributes at St Ann’s Square in Manchester on 24th May 2017 (Getty)

Roberts says there were two moments that really stuck with him when making the documentary. One was the story of PC Stephen Corke, the British Transport Police officer who started ripping down advertising boards to use as make-shift stretchers. “Everyone was led by that,” says Roberts. “That moment saved lives and progressed the response. It’s a punch in the air moment in the film. Even though it’s absolutely horrendous, it’s like a Hollywood twist and that’s what actually happened. You see the footage of them coming down the stairs, and they are true heroes.”

The other was the account of Paul Price, who lost his partner Elaine in the attack. Roberts interviewed Price – who had suffered a broken leg, shrapnel injuries and burns to his head and face – in hospital. “He thought he’d found the one, they’d found each other against the odds, and then she’d cruelly been taken away,” says Roberts. “It really changed the way he was looking at life. He was like, ‘Where do I go from here? Who am I now? This person defines me.’”

But the survivors and the emergency service workers only make up part of Roberts’ narrative – the darker side of the story is told through friends of the bomber who he convinced to contribute to the film.

Roberts approached 40 family members, friends and acquaintances of Manchester-born Salman Abedi. He secured interviews with two. He made contact by spending a lot of time in the four mosques that Abedi went to, getting to know youth workers in the area and tracking down his father, brother and cousins.

Amelia in Manchester: The Night of the Bomb (BBC, EH)
Amelia was attending her first concert without her mother when she went to see Ariana Grande (BBC)

One of the people who agreed to contribute is a woman whose face is obscured in the film, and the second is Duran Hassan who used to hang around with Abedi. “Some people are shy and quiet, Salman was not a quiet guy,” Hassan says in the documentary, after revealing that the last time he saw Abedi and his Libyan friends they had got in a fight with a Somali man and broken his arm.

“[Duran] was part of those social circles which we heard a lot about in the weeks after the bombing,” explains Roberts. “Groups of Somalis and Libyans that would hang out together and smoke weed, but we’d never see.

“It was important to try and put some of those people on camera to show you what that actually looks like, because otherwise it can feel like you’ve got these dark, imaginary monsters running around whereas actually Duran is, I found, a really nice guy…

“Obviously he completely thought what Salman Abedi had done was awful and, like a lot of other people, never in his wildest dreams expected him to do anything like that. He just saw him as another kid from around the way.”

Police officers guard the location of a building where it is believed a raid took place in connection with terrorist Salman Abedi on 24th May 2017 in Manchester (Getty, EH)
Police officers guard the location of a building where it is believed a raid took place in connection with terrorist Salman Abedi on 24th May 2017 in Manchester (Getty)

There was a lot of “aggressive” push back from many of the people Roberts approached. “There is a toxic environment that surrounded Salman Abedi and the people that he was friends with,” says Roberts. “Not all his friends, obviously, but… a lot of them are very paranoid because the police were looking very closely at them. They’d been involved in criminality and violent behaviour… the bomber’s actions had shifted the focus on them.”

Roberts says that this group just wanted him out of their front door, their shop or their immediate surroundings, and would front him up, swear and shout to get rid of him. “I tried to say to them that the best way to deal with this is protection in the light… I could understand why they would want to distance themselves from it but sometimes I think it’s quite good just to own it yourself.”

This was not Roberts’ first experience of establishing trust with interviewees who fiercely value their anonymity. His 2016 documentary, The Jihadis Next Door, saw him spend two years filming Islamic extremists. Almost a year and a half after that film was released, a jihadi it featured – Khuram Butt – was one of the three terrorists who drove a van at pedestrians on London Bridge and then ran through Borough Market stabbing innocent passers-by.

Roberts’ voice tremors with anger as he recalls the moment he realised that the man he had filmed had gone on to carry out the attack. “It was heart-breaking and ridiculous. I couldn’t actually believe that he was still out and around to be able to do that, to be honest… he was out there dressed as a fancy-dress jihadi.”

“I’m not saying I blame the security services for this, they’ve got a really difficult job, but it just seemed so inevitable and what he and his friends did was just absolutely awful… Have you seen Four Lions? He was literally like that. It’s about Nike Air joke jihadis. He was like an extra from that film.”

Roberts says the extremists were “playing a game” with the police. It all rode on a technicality – unless the group admitted on the record that they were supporting Islamic State, there was nothing the security services could do.

“In this country we hold democracy and liberty extremely dear,” says Roberts. “The police, I could see the problem, every time they tried to ban this group, they’d change their name. You can’t prosecute someone unless they’ve done something illegal and this group were always playing on the line. And that’s what they were doing, they were provoking. They were brazenly going about inciting terrorism. Police practice changed around what happened with Isis in that group.”

The Jihadis Next Door was conceived after Roberts essentially stumbled upon the beginnings of Isis in the UK, before the caliphate was a known entity. He had met the group when filming Angry, White and Proud, thanks to their frequent confrontations with British nationalists.

To get the Islamic extremists to let him into their world, Roberts’ methodology bears a resemblance to his approach to the survivors of the Manchester terror attack. With the extremists, he was simply “Jamie, that bloke that turns up with the camera”. No big Channel 4 production elements to it with bright lights and big crews; instead Roberts would visit the group late at night on Edgware Road where they gave out leaflets, filming on a small camera. “I’m not sure they really believed me that I was making a documentary,” he says.

It was similar for the young women and girls who had attended the Ariana Grande concert: Roberts adopted a low key approach, speaking to them in their living rooms over a cup of tea and avoiding having too many crew present. “We just wanted it to be like a chat. There are large cameras so it feels like a mini event we’re stage managing but we’re sitting down with the girls, they’re in control, and that all fades off into the distance. The back and forth of the conversation just naturally flows then.”

Roberts’ next documentary will be about the third travesty that hit the country in those few weeks in 2017: the Grenfell Tower blaze. It’s another programme for BBC2, looking at fire safety and building regulations related to past fires, to examine the context leading up to Grenfell and the lessons that should have been learned earlier. Again, it will hone in on the human stories at the centre of the tragedy and, if it’s anywhere near as discerning and powerful as Manchester: The Night of the Bomb, it will be an unmissable film.

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Manchester: The Night of the Bomb airs on Tuesday 22 May at 9pm on BBC2


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