“It was half past 6 in the morning. I assumed when a call came at that time of day that it was bad news. I jumped out of bed and grabbed the phone.”
This was the very moment that a retired farmer in rural Suffolk, Stephen Collett, found himself thrust into an international hostage crisis. His sister, Rachel Chandler, and her husband were on a sailing adventure in the Indian Ocean in 2009 when they were kidnapped by Somali pirates. Stephen then handled negotiations with the Somalians single-handedly for 14 months – a process which almost destroyed him.
It’s people like Stephen that Netflix’s new true-crime series, Captive, shines a light on. The eight-part docu-drama aims to reveal what goes on behind the scenes of some of the biggest hostage negotiations of all time, and tells stories from the perspectives of all the stakeholders – the victims, their families, experienced negotiators and the kidnappers themselves.
Despite having echoes of the hugely successful Netflix show Making a Murderer, Captive stands apart as a series that explores eight individual cases, and which has benefited from The Bourne Identity director, Doug Liman, giving it the edge of a psychological thriller.
We spoke to Captive’s co-producer Simon Chinn – also the mastermind behind the Oscar-winning Man on Wire documentary – about how the Captive crew gained such unprecedented access, and how he exposed the inner-workings of hostage negotiation like never before…
Director James Marsh, performance artist Phillipe Petit and producer Simon Chinn pose with their Best Documentary awards for Man on Wire in 2009
What inspired you to make this series?
I became interested in the subject when a guy that I now know, Sean Langan, was kidnapped in the tribal area of Pakistan in 2008. He’s a documentary filmmaker who was one of those solo operators that shoots in places where other people wouldn’t go. The sort of inevitable happened and he got kidnapped by Al-Qaeda. He worked for Channel 4 and a production company – the owners of which I know – so I became aware of this really opaque process by which his release was negotiated.
Why are hostage negotiations kept so hush-hush?
The British Government’s – and many western governments’ – position is that they will not negotiate with terrorists and with hostage takers, even if government employees are being held. It’s a very thorny, moral, and indeed emotional dilemma, and probably quite an unsustainable position to take.
In the end, when faced with the death of a citizen, it’s very difficult for a government – and for families – to simply stand by and watch that happen. So often, in the end, ransoms do get paid. But the negotiations end up being very opaque because everyone’s serving their own different agendas.
Is there a story in Captive where ransom is paid and it’s kept under wraps?
There’s one story that we feature in the series about the British couple Camilla Carr and Jon James. They were aid workers in Chechnya who were kidnapped by very brutal Chechen rebels. The British ambassador who was in charge of negotiating their release was having no success whatsoever, until he established a channel to the very famous Russian oligarch Boris Beresovsky (now dead) and due to his rather nefarious connections to the Chechen rebels, manages to get them out.
You can assume that money changed hands somewhere along the line and the British Government turned a blind eye to that. The declared policy of the British and American governments isn’t necessarily what ends up happening… they’re not followed to the letter, shall we say.
Captive focuses on the business behind hostage negotiation, and doesn’t necessarily paint the kidnappers as baddies…
I was interested in the transactional aspect of it because I felt that the hostage experience – although our series does feature that – is quite well-trodden territory. There is a human story at the core of our films and that’s really important, but the object of this series was to tell the story of the negotiation through the point of view of every constituent in it – from the families to the kidnappers themselves, where possible.
Also, we didn’t want to take an obvious moral position, but to embrace the moral grey that is inherent in all these kinds of stories. We tried, where we could, to tell the story from the point of view of the hostage takers and to get into their heads. We weren’t interested in presenting a clear good guys and bad guys kind of story.
How did you gain access to all of the stakeholders?
The access we got was extraordinary. There were some films where we had all the access but one crucial person was still missing from the puzzle, and that just took persistence and persuasion.
And in the film about the Lucasville Prison hostage takers [where a protest among Muslim inmates in Lucasville Prison in Ohio in 1993 leads to one of the longest and deadliest prison sieges in American history], we were able to surreptitiously interview them on the prison video system, unbeknownst to the authorities, who wouldn’t allow us into the prison to do it. We had an extremely tenacious producer who figured out a loophole and started communicating with these guys.
Is there a chance the prisoners could be punished for speaking to you when this series airs?
No. I think our lawyers are satisfied!
Which cases really stood out for you in the series?
The Somali story is remarkable because Stephen Collett, the brother of hostage Rachel Chandler, is a very ordinary, unassuming ex-farmer from Suffolk who’s in retirement and suddenly finds himself totally on his own, figuring out how to save his sister and negotiate with these Somali pirates. The government will not negotiate with them, they won’t go near it. It’s a remarkable story about an ordinary British man thrust into something totally extra-ordinary for 14 months, a process that nearly finishes him off. It’s inspirational.
The Lucasville film, too, is amazing because there are people in it that you’ve never seen before on television – hardened criminals who you come to like and sympathise with sometimes. You understand their plight and the circumstances that drove them to take matters into their own hands. It doesn’t apologise for them but it challenges peoples preconceptions about these situations – who the good guys and who the bad guys are.
While Stephen Collett ended up going from retired farmer to hostage negotiator, do professional negotiators exist?
Often, there are professional negotiators involved but in the Somali story it’s really about someone who has no experience whatsoever, who is relying on his wits and resources and gathering advice where he can. Stephen Collett is advised by “professionals” and what he’s told to do is to start small. They essentially said: “If you offer them too much money they will know that you have deep pockets. You have to start extremely small because the signal that sends is that you are not a bottomless pit. If they think you’re a bottomless pit, the chances are you’ll never see your sister again.”
The hostage scenario is one of the very few fronts in the area of modern conflict where the two warring sides are actually forced into a dialogue. More than that, they’re forced to empathise with each other. That’s the nature of negotiation – you actually have to talk to and understand your enemy, that is fascinating to me.
Would you ever cover a hostage situation such as the capture of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria?
It feels like a story which is yet, very sadly, to be resolved. Clearly it is something we were following and we were looking at, and if we are lucky enough to get a season two, then certainly it’s a story that we would consider featuring.
What does the future hold for you and Lightbox productions?
There’s a film we’re doing about the LA riots for National Geographic to coincide with the 25th anniversary next year. It’s exclusively made from archival footage which will be very immersive. We’re also doing a big film documentary for Channel 4 about three children on their journey from a refugee camp in northern Greece, as they illegally make their way through Europe to safety. This tells the refugee story from the point of view of children. Oh, and we’re doing a big feature documentary about Whitney Houston too. Yeah, we’re pretty busy!
Captive is available on Netflix from Friday 9th December