Little did I know that almost a decade later I’d return to the island as a film-maker, to embark on Dark Secrets of a Trillion Dollar Island: Garenne, a documentary airing on the BBC on March 15.
In 2008, the island was already swarming with press. Teaming up with some of the more experienced reporters from the tabloids, I read their stories in awe. I found myself having to walk up to people in the street and knock on doors to ask uncomfortable questions about their memories of Haut de la Garenne, a looming Victorian building perched high above the shoreline that had once been home to up to 60 children in the care of the local authority.
I stood in the rain in front of that grey building, listening for the latest titbit from the senior police officer overseeing the investigation, Lenny Harper, and wondered about all the horrors that had happened, in the 1970s and 1980s, inside. There was a sense of claustrophobia and fear: even if the kids wanted to run away, where could they go on a nine by five-mile island? They were always sent back. That thought haunted me for years to come.
Having filed my stories, I eventually returned to London where I developed my career as a journalist, winding up working for the FT in the Middle East and later in New York. As I became more specialised in bond markets and dealmaking, I found myself getting further from the core human stories that I had always wanted to write about.
I quit my job and threw myself headfirst into documentary filmmaking. I hadn’t been to film school but I knew a good story. Cameras, lenses, sound . . . it was a whole new world. The biggest difference became immediately clear on the first film I directed, Copwatch, about police brutality in the US. This was not the same as journalism and the differences were stark.
The first thing that struck me about making documentaries was how long you are a part of your contributors’ lives and how much you demand from them to participate in your film. The relationship is inherently complex and, as a first-time film-maker, it was extraordinarily difficult to navigate. There is no rule book and I had to grasp that a key part of documentary filmmaking is how to engage with and understand the pain and trauma that the contributors are experiencing in real time.
Making Copwatch, I was an outsider. I saw parts of the US I’d never have seen and met people who taught me so, so much. We filmed and talked to contributors who sacrificed everything to stand up for what was right. The broader battle was always more important than the personal fight. We had a couple of run-ins with gunfire while filming that left me very shaken. I had a way out, but this was my contributors’ lives.
I learnt about the mental health toll affecting many of the citizen journalists I was filming. I learnt how hard people fought to have their voices heard and what it meant to do that with very few resources. My respect for these activists was huge, their passion and belief in their truth was unwavering even when times were beyond hard.
This interest in citizen journalism brought me back to Jersey. I had a deep fascination in people documenting their own local stories, filming on video cameras, and asking the difficult questions. A local fisherman-turned-blogger opened his life to me and I witnessed his decade-long battle for answers. Maybe I wouldn’t find them but at least I’d ask the questions.
As I dug back into Jersey, I wanted to know what the hell had happened at Haut de la Garenne. A covert police investigation had begun in 2006, going public in late 2007.
The tabloid reporters alongside me had reported on mass graves and a “house of horrors” but the whole story disappeared after the Mail on Sunday reported that what had been referred to as a fragment of child’s skull was just a piece of wood or coconut.
Why did the media stop caring when it turned out to be a sexual abuse story rather than murder? Why did children have to die for us to care? What was normal about any of this? There were so many unanswered questions that I couldn’t comprehend but they all pointed back to Jersey, this tiny island that was at the same time a huge financial powerhouse.
With more questions than answers, in 2017 I embarked on a four-year journey to try to get to the bottom of the story, not just at Haut de la Garenne, but the aftermath of the investigation. What was learnt from this awful story of abuse, how would people be treated in the future? Most importantly, how did the survivors get lost in the story?
At the heart of it lay a group of people with few tools or resources who felt disenfranchised, and another group that had the power. The same dynamic lay at the heart of Copwatch: one truth had been heard, the other had not. In this film it was critical to talk to everyone involved to understand what happened. Each person had their own visceral experience and it was absolutely crucial for me to be fair in my approach.
This was a story few people wanted to touch. I pitched the film to numerous production companies; nobody wanted to tackle such a difficult and toxic story. From what I can gather, few people have managed to do so and remain unscathed. Telling difficult stories should not be feared: it is our duty to tackle them and fight for them to be told. Whatever it takes.
Behind every shot is a story of staring down a challenge by sheer grit and determination. Nothing about this film was easy. Nothing about this story is easy, but at its heart is a painful truth that no one can be allowed to forget: children were abused for decades in Jersey and many lost their lives struggling with the psychological and emotional battles they endured as a result. They were scared to speak, disbelieved and treated like scum.
I hope this film will act as a moment of recognition for the survivors after a long and extraordinary battle to be heard. Now is the moment to listen.
‘Dark Secrets of a Trillion Dollar Island: Garenne’, Monday March 15 at 10pm on BBC4, and BBC iPlayer thereafter
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