We meet the Oscar-winning producer of Captive – a new, compelling documentary series exploring kidnappings around the globe
In 2008, Simon Chinn – the two-time Oscar-winning documentary film producer behind some of the genre’s most impressive movies, from Searching for Sugar Man to Man on Wire – came across a story that piqued his interest. “There was a documentary filmmaker called Sean Langan who was kidnapped in the tribal areas of Pakistan while working for Channel 4 and a production company I knew,” he tells us over the phone. “I started hearing the stories of how his release was negotiated and it was a very strange and opaque process that was not without significant complications. He was a British citizen, so in the background was the British government who were taking a very robust position – refusing to negotiate or pay the ransom – and that felt highly counterproductive to the people who were trying to secure Sean’s release.”
As a result “a lot of shadowy stuff” had to take place before Langan was finally set free, he explains. “And that central paradox – between the people with a very pure agenda to get their loved one or their employee out alive, at any price, and the bigger political machination in the background, which seemed to be in conflict with that – enticed me as an extraordinary dramatic proposition.”
Initially Chinn set about trying to turn the story into a fictional series, but after failing to get it off the ground, abandoned the idea in favour of a documentary angle. “At the end of that very long process I decided, what could be more interesting than telling real stories?” It was 2014, and he had just launched a new production company, Lightbox, with his cousin (American TV producer) Jonathan Chinn, with the aim of “taking the creative approach of the feature docs I’d done and applying it to a series model” – and the hostage-taking notion seemed like the ideal candidate for such treatment. The result of this is the Chinns’ new series Captive, launching on Netflix today, which hones in on a number of very different kidnapping scenarios for eight, hour-long episodes that succeed in achieving a distinctly cinematic quality in their slick, stylish and extremely compelling realisation.
The first, Prison Riot, focuses on the dramatic uprising that took place in 1993 at a maximum security prison in Lucasville, Ohio, while the second, dubbed The Cola Kidnap, shines a light on the opportunistic kidnapping of Corinne Coffin, a Brazilian Coca-Cola executive. Other scenarios range from the 2002 siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity to the capturing of a British couple for ransom by Somali pirates, in line with the cousins’ “global ambition” for the series. Netflix proved the perfect partner in this respect.
“We were very lucky in that we took it to them at a time when they were just beginning to get into documentary series,” Chinn explains. “We really wanted this to be a snapshot of hostage taking around the world – and they embraced that in a way that possibly no one else would or could.”
And indeed, the amazing diversity of locations is one of the most remarkable elements of the series, along with the extraordinary access its makers acquired to not only the hostages, but, more unusually, to the perpetrators themselves. “That was the doing of an incredibly talented and tenacious group of producers and directors,” says Chinn of the feat. “We were really keen to enable the viewers to understand both sides of the story.” Here, as Captive arrives to fill the Making A Murderer-shaped gap in the festive season, we catch up with Chinn to discover more about the making of the accomplished series, the various challenges it presented, and the rise of true crime as a phenomenon.
What was the selection process like for the eight different stories you focus on?
Simon Chinn: We’d found a number of stories during the development process and when we started the production, there was a very extensive period of trying to stand those stories up and find new ones. The process took months, with a dedicated team of researchers. We had a number of criteria for stories that would work. We wanted a really big range in terms of where they were set, and the kinds of hostage situations they focussed on. We knew we wanted a jihadist story, and then more opportunist kidnappings like the Brazil story. We were interested in Somali pirates and the way they operated and then when we came across the US prison siege, for example, we knew we had to do it because it was such an amazing story.
First we had to assess whether the stories could sustain an hour of television, with the prerequisite layers and twists and turns, and then of course access was fundamental. There were a number of stories we found that we absolutely wanted to do but for one reason or another the access just didn’t come through. So there were some frustrations but not too many – in the end most of the stories we wanted to do, we were able to, and often with access to the point of view of the kidnappers.
Yes, it’s amazing to hear the perpetrators’ perspective. Did you manage to get that access for every episode?
Simon Chinn: A number of them that but not all – it was difficult to get access to the Swords of Truth Brigade in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Yemen – but in all of the stories you get to understand that perspective, and sometimes through the unlikeliest of sources. There’s an episode based in Chechnya, for example, where a British couple, who were aid workers, were held hostage by a very brutal, Chechen former militia, and the key to their survival was very much finding a way to empathise with their captors and trying to find their common humanity. It’s very moving in that respect.
“There’s an episode based in Chechnya, for example, where a British couple, who were aid workers, were held hostage by a very brutal, Chechen former militia” – Simon Chinn
Were you surprised at the perpetrators’ willingness to talk?
Simon Chinn: Where they did talk, it was surprising. In the Brazilian story, the kidnapper is a real character. He’s clearly a redeemed figure – without wanting to give too much away – who’s gone on an extraordinary journey since then, but he was very willing to talk in great detail about that period of his life, when he was a hardened criminal. And he is obviously the same guy so you definitely get the sense of him then, as a disenfranchised soul, and why he fell into that life; some of the issues in Brazil where race plays a role.
And was it difficult to get the victims of the kidnappings on board and to revisit such terrible events from their past?
Simon Chinn: We had to handle them with great sensitivity, especially the ones who’d had very traumatic experiences. It was a matter of persuading them of the integrity of our project and our intentions, and hopefully the quality of it and the production values. All of those things were delicate, and often negotiated themselves over the course of many weeks, but I think generally people understood quite quickly that this was a serious endeavour.
Which was the most challenging episode to make?
Simon Chinn: They all had their very distinct challenges. There was one episode that we realised wasn’t going to work, so we had to abandon it in the middle of shooting. But I think we were very lucky on the whole. The Somali pirates episode would have been a much inferior film had we not got access to the Somali businessman, living in Britain, who emerged as the saviour, and that was a very delicate, lengthy process of persuasion. Then for the prison riots one, we tried to persuade the authorities to let us into the facility to interview the prisoners on death row and that wasn’t forthcoming, so we found a way around it – we were able to rather surreptitiously interview them on the prison video system. We weren’t totally sure how that was going to work in the context of the film’s style or grammar but I think we made it work and it adds an unusual and interesting element to the film. They come across as very thoughtful, articulate individuals. There’s been a great deal of controversy about what happened to them – they proclaim their innocence for the death of a prison officer and that issue is a very much a live one that hasn’t been resolved yet.
“We tried to persuade the authorities to let us into the facility to interview the prisoners on death row and that wasn’t forthcoming...we were able to rather surreptitiously interview them on the prison video system” – Simon Chinn
What are your thoughts on the rise of true crime as a phenomenon?
Simon Chinn: I think true crime has inherent drama to it, and what better way to tackle it than through documentary, if you can get the access? I slightly hesitate to place our series very specifically within the true crime genre because often the intentions of the criminal are not just opportunistic, they’re often politically motivated. We did a film about the Bethlehem siege in Palestine, and you wouldn’t call that a true crime story: it’s a snapshot of the Israel/Palestine conflict told through the participants in a specific siege. On the one hand, you have the Palestinians – members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, two of whom appear very prominently in the film – and on the other the Israeli politicians, the IDF.
The other thing I would say is that the true crime series that people often think about – Making A Murderer, The Jinx, The Staircase, OJ – are episodic single narratives whereas ours is an anthology series so in a weird way I would say it has more in common with something like Black Mirror than it does with Making A Murderer. There’s an attempt to give the series a strong identity – through use of graphics, the title, the music, the general aesthetic and approach – but beyond that the films are all deliberately quite different. So hopefully there’s something in it for everyone, and I think the purveyors of true crime will come to it quite naturally too.
What are the key ingredients to a great documentary?
Simon Chinn: A great story, great characters, access. Those are the things without which you cannot make a great documentary. And then a really great director with a vision. I think documentary has evolved so much. I’m responsible for a number of feature documentaries such as Man in Wire and The Imposter all of which have sought to push and elevate the form of documentary by borrowing from other genres, and always trying to do what any great film seeks to do: tell a cracking story in the best way possible while compelling the audience. Thankfully we’re past the stage where documentary is simply there to educate and inform, or even just observe. It’s just another form of filmmaking now, and I think the bar is just as high for us as it is for fiction filmmakers.
Captive is on Netflix now.