The UK’s Reggie Yates is a man of many documentaries; he’s immersed himself in the extreme realities of people from his home country, to South Africa, the USA, and Russia, shedding a light on their stories of religion, prison, homosexuality, violence, politics, and everything in between. In his latest two part series for BBC, “Hidden Australia,” Reggie heads down under and investigates two prominent and untouched issues regarding aboriginals and a drug epidemic. The first half, “Black in the Outback,” aims to understand the suffering and inequality that the indigenous people have been experiencing for decades, while the second, “Addicted to Ice,” explores the crystal meth craze that has taken Melbourne by storm. Luckily, Reggie took some time to talk to our Editor, Rebecca Besnos, about his passion for people and their stories, how they enlighten him, his reactions to his Australian discoveries, and what else he’s working on! Be sure to catch “Hidden Australia” on BBC, airing this week!
Unlike most current celebrities, instead of acting in films that highlight important issues, you take a more hands on approach and put yourself in real people’s shoes, which has resulted in a slew of documentaries for BBC Three. Which one of those experiences was the most shocking?
They’re all shocking in their own way, and there also just as enlightening in their own way. That’s not me trying to spin a PR line; it’s me being deadly honest. I actually put myself in their experience, and with the films being so immersive, it really does effect you and stays with you, and you find yourself walking away with not only a learning experience, but a different level of shock with each environment you find yourself in.
What made you want to pursue the documentary side of things, instead of entertainment?
It happened organically. I have always had an interest in it…I grew up watching Michael Moore films and various documentaries and I was always fascinated by the content. I was given the opportunity to make my first documentary when I was in my early to mid twenties and I didn’t really want to do it because I didn’t think that anybody would value my opinion. The minute I was told it wasn’t about me being an expert on any subject matter, it’s about me engaging with the experience and speaking honestly about what I go through and how I feel, that’s when it becomes a professional program and that’s when I become vital to the outcome of the doc. I’m really glad it happened the way that it has because it’s something I’m going to continue to do!
How do you feel they have changed your outlook on life?
In terms of my outlook, I feel like I’ve learned from every single experience in a different way. Every film brings up challenging questions. If you make a film about religion in South Africa, you end up looking at your own belief system and questioning your own faith, etc. When you make a film about Autism, it makes you question love and how much of it you have for your family, and other relationships…there are so many challenges in love with the people that you meet and it makes you grow with every film.
In some of these films, you’ve been to foreign countries (Russia, South Africa, U.S.A), living with different groups for a week to take an in depth look at their extreme situations. Did you ever receive any backlash or resistance throughout filming?
Occasionally, yeah. To begin with, 9 times out of 10, if I’m in an environment that isn’t necessarily aware of me and what I do, then people initially resist because they’re questioning your motives, and questioning if you’re going to put a spin on them. It takes a while for people to relax. But sometimes, if you’re going into an environment that is massively defensive and wouldn’t let people in, it can work to your benefit. For example, with the film I did in Australia, the Aboriginal community was notorious for not letting people in and was incredibly private and guarded but I told them about what I did in South Africa, and the minute they saw that, they trusted me. I think a lot of it comes down to being fiercely objective in every film, and regardless of the outlook of a person that I meet, I ensure that I listen to their views no matter how shocking they might actually be.
For “Reggie Yates: Hidden Australia,” a two part series which comes out this week, you explore the ice epidemic in Melbourne and the challenges of an Aboriginal community in Wilcannia. How has the country and subject matter differed from your other films? Why did you choose those two aspects?
They’re important subject matter! The idea behind the series was to really get under the skin of Australia in a way that hasn’t really been done. With the access that we got with the Aboriginal community, I think that’s a first! I definitely haven’t seen anything like that before. With the ice epidemic, there might have been a million and one news stories on it in Melbourne and across Australia, but I had never even heard of the drug when my team presented the idea to me. I think what we’re doing is delivering content to the UK that hasn’t really been touched on when it comes to Australia…and that’s the point; to walk territory that hasn’t really been investigated and to deliver the story from an honest, fresh, and objective perspective.
Having never drank or done drugs, what were some of your initial feelings when meeting addicts Sharni, Brett, and the residents at the Gatwick house?
It was desperation to understand, actually. Obviously not knowing first hand what addicts experience was always going to make it difficult, but my aim was always to understand them as people and to understand their motivations…the whys are far more interesting than what’s happened. The minute you get into the why is the minute you really get into the crux of a situation or see how the pain of a person is the reason behind behaviour. The only real thing that shifted for me was my belief as to what can power different levels of addiction. I always thought it was triggered by some sort of trauma and used as a form of escape, but in talking to some of the people there, I found out quite quickly, that’s not necessarily the case. It does motivate some people, but for others, it’s just falling into something and then it takes over your life. That’s the scariest thing about addiction as well; it can take over your life, regardless of your background, your economic position, etc.
In “Addicted to Ice,” viewers learn that the number of regular ice users doubled in a year, from 40,000 to 80,000. Why do you think this has become such an epidemic? Is there any way to stop it?
I think the drug has become as popular as it has because it’s so cheap, and it shows itself in a way that I’ve never heard of before. Certain drugs slow you down, certain drugs speed you up, but ice (crystal meth) just completely nullifies you and takes away all emotion. For a lot of people, I can understand how that would be appealing. For people who have suffered from abuse, or are currently going through a situation that they can’t manage, to have something that takes away any feeling is attractive and I understand why they do it. I don’t agree with it or do it myself, but I can see why it’s spreading. The longer-term effects are something we aren’t aware of just yet because it’s such a new drug, so I can see why it’s so popular. That’s what’s scary to me.
With Brett and Sharni, you accompanied them to rehab and saw them improve very quickly, within 3-7 days. Was that shocking to you at all? What did you think when you went back and saw them?
When it came to Sharni, I was really excited about her progression and it felt authentic, where as with Brett, I was a little worried that he was saying what he needed to say because he’s smart enough to understand how to riddle. For somebody like Brett, it’s easy to convince himself that he doesn’t have a problem because all you have to do is look around the room and see people who are the “expected drug users:” people from low socio-economic backgrounds, people dealing with poverty, people addiction issues, people you’d expect to be in rehab. Brett was a former athlete, businessman, and city boy, coming from a good family. He decided not to take drugs for two weeks leading up to rehab starting, so I can understand why he’d think he was fine…but I don’t think he was. I didn’t really expect to him to react the way that he did but when he did, I wasn’t massively surprised.
In the Wilcannia documentary, you discover that they are really on the outskirts of society and have been ignored by the government for decades. What effects has this had on the way Australians perceive them, their view of Australians, and what has happened to their culture/lifestyle?
It’s definitely a split country. You’ve got your communities that are living on their own essentially and, based on the people that I’ve met, they don’t feel like a part of mainland Australia. They don’t feel connected to what’s happening in the rest of their country. It’s something like a lost generation and there’s a level of resentment that hasn’t been managed, looked at, or dealt with. If you know that your uncle’s world was dispersed across the country because the government said so, because the government said assimilation would be the best thing for them, I can understand why they resent the government or Australia. The scary thing is that there haven’t been any real efforts made to amend the problem.
When you first drove up to Wilcannia, you stumbled upon a group of people heavily drinking and partying, very early on in the day. How did it make you feel to be immediately met with the stereotype of Aboriginal people? Did it have any influence on the rest of your discoveries there?
It was shocking to see and incredibly disappointing and really made me feel sad because the last thing that I ever want to do is be the person who has stereotypes imprinted in me about other people. I can’t bear when people make presumptions of my character based on prejudice, so for me to have been given some information via hearsay about the Aboriginal community and then to see it first hand, was really, really upsetting. What it did do was make me understand that there was a definite need to get to the whys of what the situation actually was. Straight away, it was clear that there were people with addiction problems, desperately trying to find a way to nullify the pain and escape their situation. I realized what I had to do in that moment was figure out and try to understand what they’re running away from and where this pain comes from.
Do you think you discovered that in the documentary? For yourself, for them, and your viewers?
There’s only so much that I can learn in the short period of time that I’m there. When we make these films, we don’t ever go there expecting to fix people’s problems…I mean, who the hell am I? I’m just somebody who’s interested in people, I’m not an expert, or a psychologist, I’m just genuinely interested in people and through meeting people, I get to an issue. The aim of these films is never to dictate how we expect people to see an issue or treat it, or manage it, what we aim to do is start a conversation. I think we’ve successfully done that with this part of the series, we’ve been as objective as possible with some of the worst parts of Wilcannia, but we’ve also presented a level of humanity and pride in their culture and have given them the opportunity to speak about why they feel things are the way they are and why they feel things have turned out the way they have. At one point, I speak to a local named Monica, and she had this amazing moment of clarity and delivered this amazing speech where she uses the metaphor of a band-aid for the issue of addiction. It’s a cover up for the pain. For me, that speaks so much to how people are getting it wrong in terms of what’s actually going on there. It opens up a new side of the conversation and says these people are really dealing with so much, and this generation has experienced a lot of trauma.
Your series, “Extreme UK,” has won a couple of awards. What was the most disturbing thing you discovered about your own country?
I think language is quite important, and disturbing is quite a loaded word. I don’t think I find disturbing things in any of my films, what I do come across is people who are living extreme and alternate realities. They aren’t representative of an entire country by any means. I don’t believe that everyone in Russia is a racist or a nationalist, and I don’t believe that every Aboriginal person has an issue with addiction; the people that I meet tell their own stories and it’s up to viewers to decide whether or not those stories are indicative of the country as a whole. When it comes to the UK film, what we ended up finding was that fringe groups were a world that we didn’t know was underneath our noses. That was the most surprising thing about the entire experience! There were these men’s right activists that could easily be my cousin, or one of my friends, and there are these young men who are obsessed with their body image. It very easily could have been my little brother or me. That was the thing I found the most fascinating about the people that we met…they were all seemingly normal people living average British lives, but behind closed doors, had so much going on that never would have been on my radar.
Documentaries aside, you’ve also written and directed short films. Can you tell us about your most recent project, “Shelter?”
“Shelter” is a short film that I’m really proud of and one that is just the beginning of a bigger and broader story that I’m writing at the moment. I’ve been commissioned to write a feature film, which is really exciting and hopefully production for that will start next year. It’s not that dissimilar to what I do with the documentaries. All I ever aim to do is challenge the audience and ask them tough questions. It might not deliver an answer but when the credits role, I want people to leave with questions in their mind and hopefully help them think in a different way. To challenge the audience is almost a responsibility given the platform I have, and I think that can be achieved both in drama and factual films. “Shelter” definitely does that; it deals with issues of identity, perception, and equality and I think it does it in a healthy way. It challenges both sides of the conversation. It’s very easy to believe that if you are a minority or from a low socio-economic background; you are going to be judged everywhere you go. Not enough people ask the question, “why is this person reacting to me and what part do I play in that reaction? What’s going on in their lives?” It’s just something that doesn’t get discussed enough.
Aside from “Reggie Yates: Hidden Australia,” what can fans expect from you in 2017?
Plenty more documentaries! More drama, hopefully. I’ve written a TV series and we’re working on that right now…just more of the same, really. Continuing to challenge myself on behalf of human beings and trying to make good telly! That’s all J
PHOTOGRAPHER: Danny Baldwin
STYLIST: Jackson Burke
GROOMER: Katie Moore
STUDIO: Studio 213 London
INTERVIEW: Rebecca Besnos, Editor @ VULKAN
Post expires at 8:36am on Saturday September 23rd, 2017