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Revealing Hidden Worlds: Nadja Drost & Bruno Federico on Immersion Journalism

Exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking.

Michael Werner

October 26th, 2023
Revealing Hidden Worlds: Nadja Drost & Bruno Federico on Immersion Journalism

Welcome back to The Reel Truth, our dedicated space where we delve into the world of video journalism and documentary filmmaking via in-depth interviews with VCers working around the globe.

Our video conversation series profiling filmmakers and journalists continues, this time with the accomplished husband-and-wife duo of Bruno Federico and Nadja Drost. Drost is a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported for major outlets including the PBS NewsHour, California Sunday Magazine, and the BBC. Federico is an award-winning director of photography and producer who has created documentaries for PBS, BBC, Al Jazeera Fault Lines, and ABC Australia, winning accolades like an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award and an Overseas Press Club award for his coverage of Colombia's peace deal.

Drost and Federico formerly lived in Colombia and have each spent more than a decade immersing themselves in Latin America to produce groundbreaking stories on human rights, conflict, and social justice issues. They currently live in Brooklyn. In this candid discussion, they pull back the curtain on how they gain intimate access and build trust with individuals on the margins of society, from guerrilla fighters to war criminals. Nadja and Bruno also reflect on the motivations that compel them to keep taking risks and embracing discomfort to spotlight under-reported perspectives through film and journalism.

Bruno Federico carrying a camera in Caqueta, Colombia, 2017.
Nadja Drost with a camera and equiptment in Caqueta, Colombia, 2017.

Michael Werner: How did each of you become interested in filmmaking and covering Latin America?

Nadja Drost: I actually came to filmmaking through environmental activism. I had started a campaign against Canada's biggest oil company, and I felt like I needed to find a way to get the Canadian public concerned about this oil company and what they were doing in the oil fields of Ecuador's Amazon. And that's what led me to try doing a film. I had absolutely no idea how to make a film. It was a long and very bumpy journey. But I did make a feature film (Between Midnight & the Rooster’s Crow) that came out in 2005, and traveled to festivals and television channels. Even after that success, it didn't push me into filmmaking or journalism at the time. I still kept working in the NGO world and kind of pivoting to human rights in Latin America. It took me a few years of contemplation to realize that it was okay to do what I actually really wanted to be doing, which was storytelling. For me, it's become an exploration of how do I get to work on the issues that I really care about - which tend to be social justice and human rights - but in such a way that puts me in direct contact with the people affected by these issues, and that puts me on the ground with them.

Bruno Federico: I also started in activism and human rights work. I studied sociology in Italy and did my thesis research in a remote mining community in Colombia surrounded by war. I ended up staying in Colombia, working for human rights organizations and unions. I was working with an NGO consulting unions in oil-producing regions where multinationals were paying paramilitaries who were killing people. I decided to make a documentary to tell this story, because our power fighting these corporations was limited. I did an independent-style documentary that was translated into several languages and went to human rights film festivals. That pushed me into documentary work. I started with more activism-oriented docs, then worked in TV news to pay the bills. Now I'm back to independent filmmaking.

But every stage of a journalist's career, you have to jump - you can't fully learn this in school or a studio. You have to expect the unexpected.
—Nadja Drost
Bruno filming in a canoe in the Bojaya River, Choco region, Colombia, 2016.

MW: You two seem very bold and fearless in the projects you take on and the risks you're willing to take. How do you find the strength to continually step outside your comfort zone and take on these challenges?

ND: I think I've always had an intense curiosity about the rest of the world and never imagined a placid life. I've wanted to be where there was more action and where I felt compelled by what was going on around me. So discomfort has never deterred me from new situations. In terms of career, some boldness was part of the stupidity of being young, and not preparing as much as I should have. But every stage of a journalist's career, you have to jump - you can't fully learn this in school or a studio. You have to expect the unexpected.

Living in Colombia, you see how people manage risk and go on with normal lives even in simmering conflict zones. It stops being a big deal. If you want to be part of them, you have to stop thinking about those dangers. Of course I don't like or look for truly risky assignments. But when violence surrounds you for years, your sense of risk becomes relative.

We enter places that are a bit dangerous to tell stories about people that are living in these situations for their whole life. But we only enter for a short time. I feel a responsibility to tell these people’s stories and the least that we can do is take one or a couple days of risk.
—Bruno Federico
Bruno filming in a salt flat in Salinas Grandes, Jujuy Province, Argentina, 2023.

BF: Yes, living and working in Colombia desensitized our sense of fear because the local people live with constant risk. If they can carry on relatively fine, why shouldn't we be able to? And yes, we enter places that are a bit dangerous to tell stories about people that are living in these situations for their whole life. But we only enter for a short time. I feel a responsibility to tell these people’s stories and the least that we can do is take one or a couple days of risk. That doesn't mean you’re fearless. Of course I'm afraid for my safety and we always try to do whatever is possible to reduce the risks. You need to feel a bit of fear because if you don't feel fear, you are a dangerous person. If you don't feel fear going into a war zone, you are dangerous for yourself and for the other people around you. So you need to do everything you can to reduce and control risk.

MW: That's really admirable. Your motivations are so pure, doing such important work.

ND: Well, we all know none of us are in this for the money! I think most journalists and filmmakers do this work with good intentions, because there aren't enough other reasons.

BF: I kind of would like to make dumb jokes about our economic situation here in New York City, but I think I’ll leave the topic alone. But truly, we're here to help people's stories be heard, not for personal gain. It's a form of fighting the injustice of our unfair world.

Bruno filming the scenery in the Caquetá Region, Colombia, 2015.

MW: You two have collaborated on projects, but also work independently. How do you decide when to team up?

ND: It's happened organically. I hadn't worked in television until I met Bruno. At some point he asked if I wanted to work on a short film with him. That happened again the next time. Then we started doing a mix of our own independent projects, and television reporting together for the PBS NewsHour on Colombia and the Andean region. After moving to New York, we've continued reporting for NewsHour but it's been too much to take on another big independent project together. I've returned to print journalism more, and Bruno has been working as a cinematographer on docs.

For our collaborations, Bruno is always behind the camera and for news, I've written the scripts. Bruno looks after visuals, and I've written scripts for television pieces and often do interviews. With our feature documentary Alias La Mona, it's been more joint in terms of producing, interviewing, and shooting. But in recent years Bruno has gone back to Colombia more to shoot while I've focused on writing grant applications and scripts.

BF: Yeah, I work as a DP on television documentaries. That’s what I mostly do at this moment. And I sometimes produce documentaries for television too like the Al Jazeera documentary about extrajudicial murders committed by the Colombian military.

But in 2015 we started our independent feature documentary (Alias La Mona), and that is still going and it requires a lot of our attention.

Bruno and Nadja at camp at Farc guerrilla camp in 2016.

MW: Alias La Mona follows the life of a young woman who becomes a leader of the FARC rebels in Colombia. Can you tell me about the origins of this documentary project and what sparked the idea?

ND: We got access to embed with a FARC unit in the mountains. This was an elite mobile squad where about half were minors. The FARC were figuring out what to do with these kids. We spent around 10 days with them, not knowing how long we'd stay. We started thinking this could be more than a news piece.

BF: We want to give people a window into a guerrilla fighter's motivations and day-to-day life, which are often misunderstood.

MW: How did you initially get access to film inside FARC camps? This seems like a rare opportunity.

BF: It took a lot of persistence over nearly a year. I had done some previous documentaries about human rights issues which gave me some credibility with the guerrillas. But they were very closed at that time because of ongoing peace negotiations. So I went to a town I knew was largely controlled by the FARC and started asking around, talking to different people to try to get an introduction to meet FARC leadership. But I couldn’t get anyone to introduce me. So I just hung out in town, and I put the word out that I was looking to connect with the guerillas.

After a week just reading books in the town square, finally a guy f came up to me and said, “You know, you are very stubborn. I will take you at 4 a.m. tomorrow to the FARC. Be prepared for a long trip.”

The next morning he picked me up and after a long ride, I met a FARC commander and made my pitch. And after several months they invited us to visit a unit. That's where we met La Mona, one of the main characters in our documentary, and started filming.

La Mona through the volley nets at a FARC transitional camp, 2016.
A still of La Mona in the jungles in Caquetá, Colombia, 2015.

MW: What drew you to focus your documentary so closely on La Mona and her personal story?

ND: When we started filming La Mona and a few other guerrillas in 2015, there was no ceasefire yet with the government. The FARC were interested in conveying what their soldiers felt about the peace process and their future. So we started interviewing people like you might for a television piece, but one person in particular really stunned us. She just visually was very arresting. She came out of this green verdant jungle with her gun slapped across her chest and this mane of flaming red hair under a Nirvana cap. Our first interview with La Mona lasted four hours — she was just so compelling both as a character and in how she conveyed her experiences. That made us start thinking about structuring it as a long-term documentary focused on her and a few other main characters. Over time we kept coming back to La Mona more than the others, and the footage was becoming mostly her story organically. So we finally embraced that momentum and decided to focus solely on her.

BF: La Mona's personal story embodies so much about why youth joined the FARC. She grew up in a remote area controlled by the FARC with no education options besides joining them. After a local pastor tried to recruit her as an army informer when she was 13, she told the guerrillas about it and they executed him. She then joined the FARC soon after since they were so familiar in her community.

Bruno and Nadja standing in front of a car in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, 2019.

MW: What are your hopes for the impact of this documentary?

ND: We’ve always hoped that this project would open a window onto a world that people had so little access to and so little knowledge of. We want to give people a more complete understanding of the complex motivations and diversity of experiences within armed groups like the FARC. Especially for La Mona's rural community, the guerrillas were familiar and often supported local needs when the state didn't. The war has often been misunderstood and it’s been reduced to simply a drug war. But in reality it’s very complex with many different actors. So we want to show that complexity.

BF: We hope humanizing someone like La Mona can show how people's choices in war zones are driven by lack of options and cycles of violence more than ideology — La Mona didn't really have any choices. She embraced the war with the hope of improving the conditions for the rural poor in her country.

We also hope to convey the difficulties for ex-combatants in transitioning and breaking those cycles even after peace is declared. La Mona needs to take a very dramatic decision — whether or not to seek revenge for a personal tragedy — if she wants to break the cycle of violence. And her life becomes a metaphor of the Colombian conflict.

The film is in post-production now thanks to a grant, and we're aiming to have a rough cut this May. That will help generate more support to finish what has been a long creative journey for us.

Bruno at their camp while crossing through the Darien Gap. Panama, 2019.

MW: You recently did an Emmy-award-winning video and a Pulitzer-winning print story from Latin America that was just as challenging as covering the FARC, perhaps more so — You reported on one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, the Darien Gap on the border between Panama and Colombia. What drove you to cross the Darien Gap yourselves to document this perilous crossing?

BF: One of the most shameful things to me is that we are here safe in our home (in Brooklyn), and at the door of our country, people are dying in order to enter. And the Darien Gap in particular has caused so much death and suffering. So for me, it was important to report on this and to hold people and governments accountable for this situation. And we wanted to truly tell who migrants are and what they endure to reach the US border.

ND: It was the height of the Trump era and there was hysteria around immigrations and narratives coming from the Trump administration about these hordes of invaders arriving at the US southern border. And so that added impetus that we have to show what it actually takes to get to the US border, because the average Joe was probably thinking that anybody can just walk into Mexico and just walk across the border. But the reality is so different. So there was definitely an emphasis to show what these migrants actually have to endure, the hardships and danger they face getting themselves to the border.

Our experience as journalists, even though we were literally treading the same footpath as the migrants, was an entirely different experience because we had knowledge about the trip that they didn't; and we had resources that helped us make it through safely, that they didn’t. And we didn't have the same reason to fear various elements of the trip as deeply as they did.
—Nadja Drost
Nadja listening and recording a Paquistani asylum seeker, in a provisional camp in Peñitas, Canama after crossing the Darien Gap.

MW: Crossing the Darien Gap was a grueling expedition from what I understand. How did you prepare for it and were there any points in the midst of the journey where you questioned your decision?

BF: The pre-production preparation was really big. I tried the trip one year before, and I failed. And everything that could go wrong during that trip did. So I had this encyclopedic knowledge about everything you don't want to do and this understanding of how to pre-produce the piece. And at the end, we found an amazing photographer who has a deep knowledge of the Darien Gap. And we planned the trip with him. And that was absolutely essential to the success of our production because he spent so many years investigating and making contacts in the area.

ND: And I want to point out that the most important aspect to the success of this trip and to us having traversed the Darien Gap successfully was because we were accompanied by smuggler guides for almost the entire time. And we had resources that the migrants didn't. And I think that's a really important distinction to point out. Our experience as journalists, even though we were literally treading the same footpath as the migrants, was an entirely different experience because we had knowledge about the trip that they didn't; and we had resources that helped us make it through safely, that they didn’t. And we didn't have the same reason to fear various elements of the trip as deeply as they did.

As we know, there are these basic journalism tenets where you’re not supposed to do anything to intervene in the story. But I think that when you're faced with such a dramatic situation there needs to be some leeway given. And at the end of the day, we're humans before we're journalists.
—Nadja Drost
Bruno crossing the Tuquesa river on a log in Panama 2019.

MW: During the crossing, there was a migrant (George) who injured his leg and was abandoned by his companions. That must’ve been an emotional situation for not just the injured man, but for you two as well. Did you feel any responsibility or need to stay with him?

ND: It was really, really difficult. And we were contemplating whether we basically give up this entire trip and just focus on trying to get him out of the jungle. But we realized that there wasn't actually a way to help him unless a helicopter could somehow come and pick him up. But luckily his friends hired some horsemen from a nearby indigenous community to help him get out.

His case brought up so many ethical questions that we had to confront literally every hour of every day of the trip. And these were questions over, Do you help people? If so, who do you help because you can't help everybody? How much do you help them? Are you going to interfere in the story?

As we know, there are these basic journalism tenets where you’re not supposed to do anything to intervene in the story. But I think that when you're faced with such a dramatic situation there needs to be some leeway given. And at the end of the day, we're humans before we're journalists. None of us would feel comfortable with ourselves if we hadn't shared our food or clean water or medication.

But to compensate for that, we wanted to make sure that nobody ever felt that they were granting us an interview or participating in our story because they felt like they owed us something. So we just made extra sure that when people spoke to us, we really stressed that they shouldn't feel obligated at all. So we felt good, actually, when sometimes people opted out because to us that indicated that they don't feel like they owe us something.

I do think that situations like this really call into question some of the journalism guidelines that are designed in New York City newsrooms. And I think that those guidelines are really appropriate for a politician who you want to hold to account and who invites you out for a free lunch. But I do think we need to start talking more about an appropriate set of guidelines for doing what some in the field call immersion journalism. And that covers a lot of documentary filmmaking too. If you're spending days and nights, or weeks or years with documentary subjects, relationship is a huge factor that you cannot simply limit to a set of predetermined guidelines. When we are embedding with a group of people and if we are intervening in the situation or changing it in some way, then let's be transparent and acknowledge it.

Bruno eating food while crossing the Darien Gap. Panama, 2019
Nadja loading her backpack in the jungle while trecking through the Darien Gap. Panama, 2019.

MW: What were some of the big takeaways from meeting and traveling with migrants?

ND: There was huge variety in circumstances — You know, some people were fleeing

wars, other people were fleeing different forms of violence. Others were fleeing political persecution, and others were coming from countries where there was very little hope for a good education or economic betterment and they were seeking opportunity. But the common thread was lives becoming untenable where they were, so they had to seek out something better, whether for safety or economic reasons.

BF: We should all understand that when you flee it’s because your country is not safe, because they burned down your home, they killed your brother, raped your sister, and they’re torturing you, you run. You escape. You don't look back, you don't plan the trip. You just want to reach safe ground. That's like the most important lesson because sometimes people say, Why don't these people apply in an embassy and wait two to three years? The answer is because you don't have time, you need to run. There is no time to make a request to the UN or the embassy or apply for refugee status. And that should be such basic knowledge for everyone.

Bruno walking through the Tuquesa River in Panama, 2019.

MW: Doing emotionally difficult stories like this can take a toll. How do you two find ways to manage that?

ND: I don't think I handle the emotional toll well. There's a level of acceptance that this work affects you deeply. You start to feel it in every fiber of your being, and there's just no way around that. I've heard advice like separate work and personal life, but honestly, with stories you care about you feel this great sense of responsibility to do the story justice and to do right by the people who were in the story. The reality is, it's going to bleed into your life all the time.

One thing that has really helped me is going through these experiences with someone else. And that's one thing I really loved about working with Bruno, because then you have somebody else who knows what you've seen and what you've heard. Knowing that somebody else gets it is a true comfort.

BF: I try to remind myself I'm there to tell people's stories. But that doesn't mean that I can just shut off my emotions. There have been several times when I cried behind the camera. And there is nothing else you can do in that situation, apart from suffering through the focus problems that it provokes (laughs). Sometimes there are stories that affect me for weeks after. But I think about people living that trauma daily, which helps me process and move on.

Bruno and Nadja filming a Haitian migrant while traveling through the Darien Gap.

MW: Last question that we like to ask all our guests, what's the best piece of advice you've received in your career?

BF: I really would have loved to have someone say to me, Hey, you should go in this direction with your career. But I haven’t really had that and I feel like my career has really happened by chance.

ND: There was something that a former professor of mine said that I’ve thought back to several times in my career when I’ve felt frustrated about the lack of impact that you often feel and when sometimes there's very little tangible effect that you can see from your stories. Every single time I've reported a story, I felt like I was just reporting on the tip of the iceberg and there was so much more that I could never do the story justice. And I remember him advising me to not feel this pressure that my story had to be the be all and end all on that particular topic. And instead I should think of each story that I worked on as a photograph that gets put into a photo album. And that photo album really does contribute to our understanding of whether it's a country like Colombia, or a theme, or a topic or a person. And that made me feel better, because it just alleviated a little bit of that weight that you feel. It made me feel a sense of solidarity and connection with my fellow journalists and filmmakers that we can all be contributing a photo into the album. Collectively, it can make a difference.

MW: That is a really great piece of advice, because I think it's something that so many people who do this work struggle with. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experiences so openly. It's been a real privilege to speak with two filmmakers I admire so much.

ND: Thank you. It was lovely chatting, and we're so glad we could provide some insight into this work we feel so passionate about.

BF: Yes, thank you Michael it was a pleasure.

MW: Wishing you the very best with all your impactful work.

Have an idea for a Reel Truth guest? Send Michael a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.

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