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A Conversation with Filmmaker Heidi Burkey
January 19, 2017

As an NGO that initially began as a film project and a documentary, The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project), has been in a unique position in being a part of the conversation and change in collective understanding about how to engage with difficult topics and underprivileged communities. Where before, NGOs and documentaries would show heart-wrenching tales and images to drive empathy and donations, now it has come to be understood that that kind of approach is not respectful to the dignity of the people it is most meant to help. As ethical storytelling has become one of the pillars in our model of prevention, we have been active participants in the global conversation around what it means to tell story ethically and what that process should look like. When were in the process of filming our latest video, Where I Belong, I had an opportunity to sit down with documentary director and storyteller, Heidi Burkey, and ask her to share her thoughts and experience. Here is our conversation. 


Can we start by talking about ethical storytelling? Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you? How you would define it or what are its hallmarks are for you?

So I’ve been working in nonprofit story telling for the past 8-and-a-half to 9 years of my life. What started in my early 20s was a passion for storytelling. I thought, “If I tell stories, I can change the world.” That kind of mentality really developed over the years when I started to realize the effect that telling stories had on people and how intentions, even good intentions could still harm people. So this concept of ethical storytelling really developed as I was speaking with other people, and Rachel and I connected, and she basically had a term for what I had been also thinking and wanted to pass on.

I started to realize the effect that telling stories had on people and how intentions, even good intentions could still harm people…

Ethical storytelling itself is really a framework and a mindset where you allow pure human values to drive the way that you tell story, and it’s a commitment to integrity in the way that we tell story, and it’s a commitment to allowing people’s stories to be the first priority and not ultimately [your own] goal. There’s a lot of ways we can break it down in terms of what story do you tell, whose story do you tell, and how is telling their story going to affect their lives in a positive or a negative way. It’s a way to look at: Are we telling the story of the nonprofit, or are we telling the story of people, and are we finding ways to allow that story to drive what we do, instead of us driving the story? It’s also the process of involving the people who we’re filming in the development of their story and allowing them to have a voice in how their story is told, so it’s not so much just a takeaway from their life but actually something that can add to it.

It’s still in development. I think I’d love to see where we have an ethical code of conduct that filmmakers and nonprofit organizations sign and commit to, almost to the point where you could have a list of filmmakers who you know abide by ethical storytelling and you could also have a list of nonprofits that have this mark, almost like a B corporation or a stamp of organic, this stamp to know that we are approaching story from the same place and from the same mindset and values.


So you say your understanding has evolved over time. Are there specific experiences that have shaped or changed how you approach things?

Yeah, I think in some ways–not going into details of who, where and when–but even seeing some of the work we did where we thought we were helping these young boys in the Congo by telling their stories, in some way there was so much more attention drawn to them that they ended up getting taken advantage of more when we weren’t there. I [began to realize] that me as a white American coming in and filming in the bush in the Congo could have a negative effect on their lives once we left, because to them, I’m associated as money and wealth, and the boys are associated with me, so that when I leave, others will be coming to them for things that they think they have–


–Oh I see, so you’re talking about exploitation from like the local population–

–yeah, just like taking advantage of them. So I think that perspective was one I never really thought about or realized, and then, even in going with lots of nonprofits when they would give me one of their staff members to come interpret and the staff member would interpret what the interviewee was saying in a way that was in this complete, nice, bowed sentence that kind of aided what the organization was trying to communicate rather than a literal translation, and that to me didn’t really feel dignifying. Yeah, so just a bunch of series of moments where I’m kind of having these “a-has,” or people challenged me, or I’ve seen the effects of my storytelling, it all really made me shift perspective. I kind of started to gravitate towards this self-title of a story-catcher and realized that it wasn’t my job to tell people’s stories, but it was to listen and to receive and to interpret it to an audience in such a way so that the person’s story was being told felt dignified and they felt proud to see themselves. And there was a moment where that actually happened–and I don’t know that I intended it–but that moment then changed the way that I approached all of my story telling from then on. I was filming this single mom in Orange County, CA for an American hunger organization, and she was a single mom with 2 little boys in a studio apartment, and had left her husband because he was in jail. She was working full time, and there was just not enough for food and rent and all the things she needed for the boys and when I sent her the film when it was finished, she said, “I never knew how strong I was until I watched that.” That was the moment I thought, “That is the reaction I should be aiming for every time I film someone.” At the time, we lived 10 minutes away from each other, she and I did, and I lived in a poor neighborhood, but it was a nice home, and even though I was struggling because I was an artist, I didn’t have other people depending on me. And yet, I understood her in a way, and it made me think about what drives story: Is it pity? Is it hardship? Is it sadness, or am I finding what I see in her that I also understand in myself? What are the things in her that make her human that I, someone in a different circumstance, can totally relate to and understand?

…she said, “I never knew how strong I was until I watched that.”

And that’s where I started approaching my stories: looking at the universal truths of our human existence; our struggles, our understanding, and drawing that out of a story rather than just like “Here, this person is sad, has had a hard life, look how we’ve helped them, and therefore ‘Yay! They’re no longer sad.’” What is it in them that I can relate to and understand? Because if I am able to connect, then other people are going to be able to connect. That changed the way I approached it, and I think it leads a little bit into ethical story telling too because it changed the values by which I prepare or understand filmmaking and story.


What are some of the ways that you try to help build trust with the people you’re working with so they feel comfortable sharing their stories with you?

Well typically with nonprofits I won’t film with them unless they give me a day with them on the ground before I even bring out cameras, and a lot of the time I just spend with the character or whomever we’re interviewing. That’s one way that I’ve made an intention. But also if I’m in an interview, while I’m setting up the cameras, I’m looking them in the eye and engaging them in conversation; I’m figuring out a way from the moment I meet them what they like, what they enjoy, and I find something that we can connect on, and I open up something about myself too that maybe they could relate to or connect with. When I’m in an interview process too, I mimic their body language–the way that I sit, the way I look at them, the way I lean in when I’m listening, I never cross my arms–my body language is very open and I never take my gaze off of them. When I prepare my questions, I write everything down and I even have them sitting there with me in case I need to look at them, but I never look at them. I have it so ingrained in me that it’s a conversation and I know ultimately the directions we need to go in our conversation, but I’m also following where they go, and I’m trying to call out things instead of getting an answer. Like I’ll say, “In that moment, I’ve realized how strong you are, like have you ever thought about yourself in this way?,” and to also be able to reaffirm. It’s very much like counseling techniques in a lot of ways. I’m married to a counselor so it helps! I can get some pointers…But yeah, those are some ways that I try to develop trust before cameras are even rolling. If we can share a meal together or just sit and make sure they understand how things are going, the way it’s going to be and that they can just look at me, and if they want to stop, we can do that too.


That sounds challenging because it’s not just an interview, it’s also being filmed, so there’s this notion of being watched as well as talked to and listened to, and these “face issues” around it, where people are very aware of the camera and how they think they might be seen. Does having that conversation help draw their attention away from the camera?

Yeah, I think that’s almost my job, is like a magician in such a way that I make them forget the rest of the world is around and that the cameras are there. When I do that right, that takes a lot of me doing all that I can so that I’m present in the moment, so that I’m not thinking about my agenda and I’m really following their story where it goes and I’m engaging them in such a way that they forget the cameras are there or, even if they have a sense of it, or if I notice them drawing out, to totally go off track and talk about something fun in life, something engaging. That’s really what my job is.


Are there any particular subjects that you’re drawn to, or kinds of stories that really speak to you?

Ummm…I really like stories that challenge our stereotypes and our assumptions of people who go against the grain of the box that we might put them in, if say, they’re an orphan or a drug addict, or this or that, or they live in Africa so they must be poor and do nothing, you know, I’m really drawn to people that challenge or break every mold or stereotype we have. And then, just on a fun note, I’m really drawn to subcultures. People who connect over really interesting things where people unite and gather around a subject or movie or an idea, just creating these family community units around something bizarre–whether it’s like Teletubbies–something really funny. For me, it’s the story that breaks the way that we use certain people and certain things and breaks labels. I love stories, I think they help remind us we’re all human and we all can connect with one another and we can’t be sectioned off and we can’t be labeled and that’s just natural for us as humans. We want everything to be packaged. That’s how we understand each other, this person is this and this, and to steer from that, it kind of disrupts our feelings and our understanding. So I like challenging that.


We’ve kind of touched on my next question a little bit already, but it’s kind of more about what’s the passion that drives each project for you, like what is the core thing that you really love and get? For me as an example as a novelist, when I start a project, I’m always driven by a question, and my work on the book is about trying to find answers to that question. Do you have a similar process or is there something like that?

I think truly it’s the humanity in each person drives it, so finding that thing that makes that person so unique. It’s really people that drive my story. What drives my passion is the people. It’s almost like every time I’m mining for this gem, I’m kind of this explorer who is trying to take away all the layers until I get to a core understanding of who this person is, what makes them who they are, what makes their story unique. And also, I’m really driven by people seeing their stories and feeling empowered by their stories and knowing that they matter. I think purely what drives my storytelling is the fact that listening to people and being present to people and hearing them, listening to them, can be such a dignifying process for people. And that’s what I try to get at as a storyteller, is that simply by me, one individual taking the time to know them, they will feel dignified as human beings. When I cut back what I do, I find that’s what it goes to, that’s the foundation of why stories matter, why people’s stories empower people.


Do you see their stories as like individual personalities or do you see it more as like this person in a context, and how they are shaped by that context, or defy that context?

It’s a little bit of both, that nature versus nurture–the things that externally affect us and the things that exist internally with us that no one told us to be or do–and I think the complexity of the two coexisting is really interesting. And then the nature of people around us who see you one way and you see yourself another, and when those are interweaving I think is what makes us interesting as human beings.


Homing in on your experience here at The Freedom Story and this particular film, what stands out to you most about what you’ve seen here?

Well I think that the boys, when we interviewed them, really blew our assumptions out of the water of just thinking statelessness would ultimately create a mindset of not feeling like you mattered or existed in the world, and they really, they acknowledged externally people have that on them, but they themselves just have this deep value that they are just as important as anyone else. So it really changed our approach to this story concept and style that we had gotten approved, and what I loved about working with the staff is that they were able to roll with me in it in making the changes and that they were okay with that.

…they acknowledged externally people have that on them, but they themselves just have this deep value that they are just as important as anyone else.

The story didn’t go in the direction that we assumed it would go. Everyone was on board with changing. We were able to have open conversation and dialogue. The last thing I want to do is to come in and feel like I as the filmmaker know how to tell everyone’s story best. But to have it be a process where I can talk through it and then together come up with alternate angles, is the most ideal scenario to possibly have with an organization.


That’s awesome. That would have been so sad if you were stuck in a can of like “This is the story we wanted to tell and we weren’t able to allow for what it could have been.”

Yeah, because that happens a lot. Or organizations aren’t invested enough; they’re just like, “We trust you.” It’s like, “No, this is what you do. Be invested. Let’s have this conversation.” That’s the way I like to work: a more collaborative process, rather than just coming in and pretending to be the expert in what everyone’s doing and what’s the best way to tell it.


Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned from this project?

Yeah, I think the way we did the interview of the boys really taught me a lot about taking another step back and finding ways that I might come in the way of authentic story telling. I don’t know if would necessarily be about being ethical, but finding ways to get the most authentic story you can possibly get, and realizing that I might be a barrier in that process, and how do I remove myself and yet still do the job that I’ve been paid to do. So that was a very big learning experience. I think I’m going to take a bigger perspective on that. How can I pull out my focus even more, to find creative and risky ways to get to a more authentic place, because, like you said, how do we build trust, especially with a language or cultural barrier, not having a long standing relationship barrier. It’s almost like so pompous, so arrogant of me to think that I can build trust with an individual in a matter of like a day and get them to a place, especially where culturally it’s not normal to show your emotions, and you’re more inclined to present to a stranger a more perfect image of yourself. Perhaps it’s better that I’m not there, better that we actually bring in someone who they have a relationship with, or who they have longstanding trust with. That’s probably not necessary every time, but I think I need to look more at maybe there are times when that’s actually more appropriate. I need to find a way to do that because, especially when you’re dealing with touchy subject matter or hard stuff, the more that they can have someone they trust be there and responding with them, and not having the talk to a stranger the better.


Do you want to just say how you handled that in this case?

So when we finished one interview with Win, one of the staff members here, Tawee (the director) pulled me aside and said, “You know, Win was answering a lot more perfectly than I would have liked him to.” He had pulled Win aside halfway through the interview and said, “Hey, just chat like you’re chatting with Aor. Don’t worry about having the right answer for Heidi.” And I’d been sitting right next to Aor, so he had suggested, “What if for the boys’ interview, you sit farther away so you’re not in their eyeline” basically. And I said, “Well, we’ll still be interpreting, which might give them time to think and formulate their responses. What if I’m not in there at all and I just train up Aor or whoever staff member they chose to do the interview process, to give them the general themes and ideas that we’re trying to connect with the boys, and then let them just ask the questions they want to ask? And we would be outside [watching via video on Skype], and Tawee would translate for me, so I knew what was going on and I could write follow up questions for stuff that I know we would need to get in order for it to be a complete story, which, I was not sure if that was a good idea. I mean, there is a reason I get paid to come be the story teller, because I know ultimately the end, I know I need short sound bites, and I know I need a leading question that can set up this part of their story, and there’s just so much more going on my head than just asking questions, so to not be able to control that and to control the follow up, like I might hear something in the response where I’m like “Argh, we need them to then ask this…” you know, immediately after, because if we ask it later it’s not going to flow the same way. So it was just like we’re just going to try this and dear God I hope it works–


So that’s the risky part–

–Yeah the risky part is that you know we’ve just spent two hours of our schedule when we might not have another time we could interview them. We might not get what we need in order to make a film. And so, yeah, the moment Tawee started translating for me…and that’s something I could have stopped it halfway if I felt it was really not going the right direction and we need to go back to the original plan. But immediately the boys were so open and it was just Win in there with them and Aor, who they know, and the camera team who were behind cameras so they’re not as visible and the rest of us were outside and it worked.


So you mentioned earlier when we were talking about ethical storytelling, about how you really value experiences where you identify something that resonates between the subject and you. Something where you either learn or reveal something about yourself in the process. Do you have a specific example that you would feel comfortable sharing?

I’m trying to think of an example…Well, this isn’t necessarily about understanding more about myself, but the last trip I was on in Nigeria, I kind of, through getting the child’s story, at the time knew that there was this universal truth I wanted to connect people with of just a desire to belong somewhere and to something, and you know, he was talking about how he didn’t know his father, and in Nigeria you are where you’re from, and not knowing where his father was from made him feel like he didn’t actually know where he belonged or where he was from. That for me is a personal angle because I knew my biological father a little bit growing up, but I don’t anymore, and there’s always a little part of me that’s like I have this identity that I don’t actually know or understand and I’ve been given a new one, which is amazing, but there’s always that question, that I think a lot of people have in some way. Like there’s always something a little bit missing; that desire for belonging and for kinship and for somewhere…like some people have really broken families that will never have that, or have broken and then healed families…so that I knew the desire for belonging and the need to know who you are was something I knew everyone can understand. Everyone might not be able to understand what it’s like to grow up in like a tiny village in Nigeria and not have anyone to take care of you every day, but everyone knows what it’s like to understand wanting to know who my family is. Like I just want to know where I’m from, and I just want someone to call mom, I want someone to call dad, and that is what I’m deciding to focus on in that story, as a result of it.


I totally understand what you mean about this thing that is unresolved, and part of the coming of age or growing up and maturing process is finding a way to resolve that or at least make peace with it.

Yeah, I just think we overcomplicate things or put stories in a box, especially in the nonprofit world because places we grew up and circumstances we grew up in can be so vastly different between a Western audience fundraising for work in a completely different side of the world that doesn’t look or act anything like we understand, or the context we understand. We focus so much on that, it almost creates this barrier, this chasm between the viewer and the person whose story is being told, when it’s done in that way. Where if we really approach it from what makes this individual human, and what needs they have that are the same needs that we have, and to find ways to capture that, because that’s what bridges that chasm. Visually, circumstantially, we’ll always be divided by what we don’t understand. But we understand what it means to be humans and to have certain needs, desires, struggles, and if we can find a way to highlight that we’ll be bridging that gap in a much tighter, longstanding way than we will if we just try to drive emotion with pity, drive tears and not connection or understanding and camaraderie.


That’s a beautiful way to put it. I just have one last question to wrap up. It’s more about your influences as a director, like who has been some of your biggest influences or mentors as a director?

That’s a really hard question because there are not a lot of women in the field that I’m in. I don’t think that I can actually say that there’s someone who does what I do that I can look up to. It’s really been only in the last 10 years that nonprofit storytelling has become a thing, right? When I was in college, nobody was filming for humanitarian organizations or nonprofits. If they were, it was mostly the massive nonprofits that exist around the world, that have camera crews come in or whatnot. So I’ve grown up in a time where it went from being an idea that a bunch of twenty-somethings had to now something you could major in, something that’s so accessible to people. So I don’t feel like I had someone to watch. I was more figuring it out as it was becoming a job, becoming something that could potentially be a career, and I was one of the few women doing that as well. So it isn’t so much someone that I look up to, but I built a community of women who are photographers, writers, storytellers in their own right, filmmakers who have become my checkpoint and my accountability, and have been my place of comfort and rest, and place of processing, who have also become my teachers as we all learn and see the effects that our work has in the world, and see the effects of what nonprofits do in the world, both good and bad, and how we’ve come to increase our values and standards and integrity as we continue to process.

There’s a group of women….well I have one friend in particular named Esther Havens who is a photographer, and she and I, once or twice a year, try to go in retreat together with a spiritual mentor who helps us do some activities to mentally process some of the stories we tell, and then also helps us process where we are as storytellers. And then I have other women who we just clicked with and just have our own little tribe of people all across the world who keep each other going, keep challenging each other, keep watching out for each other when we want to give up, and encourage each other when we’re really doing well. So that’s my people who I look up to and who influence my work.


I love that you have that, both the spiritual self-care and the tribe of women to work with.

Yeah, there really aren’t many directors. There are a lot of photographers, so that tends to be more the women I’m with, but it’s all story. It’s all story in the end. We find different ways to do it and ethical story telling applies no matter if you’re taking a still photo, if you’re writing an essay, if you’re filming. The way that you approach it matters, and how you do it, how you tell it matters.


Thank you so much for sharing with me!

Thanks for asking me questions. It’s fun. I like this side of things; I like being on the other side.


If you have not already seen Where I Belong, or our other films, or if you want to watch it again, check it out here! Check out Heidi Burkey’s other projects or find her on social media @heidiburkey. Thank you to Heidi, her team, Freedom Story staff members, our students and our donors for making this project possible!


Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (previously The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She is half American, and half Thai.

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