Brockley-based Reggie Yates is swiftly making a name for himself as a documentary maker tackling tough subjects, from gun crime in Chicago to Melbourne’s crystal meth epidemic. But how does he cope in these dangerous situations? With a healthy dose of naivety, he says…
There were several moments in Reggie Yates’ recent exploration of gun crime in Chicago that left me open-mouthed in shock.
A mother is forcibly dragged from her car, with her young baby left crying in the back, by the police; there’s the funeral of a young black man, open casket and all; before Yates makes a trip to the local morgue to see how many of the corpses with tags on their toes have been the victim of gun crime – with the answer even more shocking.
I found the whole documentary, Life and Death in Chicago, difficult to watch and was emotionally drained come the end.
‘If a film I make is uncomfortable… good,’ Yates states to me from his rather more sedate south east London home. ‘The issue at hand is uncomfortable and if something is tough to swallow, then perhaps that will change somebody’s thought process or start a conversation, regardless of how difficult that may be. If [my documentary] makes someone uncomfortable, then it’s doing its job.’
There have been many more uncomfortable moments for the viewer thanks to Yates’ approach to the world. The latest, Hidden Australia, comes to us in two instalments: the first sees him travel to the outback to one of the country’s largest, but most deprived Aboriginal communities, where he finds marginalised people suffering from an addiction to alcohol and generations of institutionalised racism.
I have been fascinated by Australia for a long time. There is so much happening there that you just don’t find anywhere else in the world
The second part sees him travel to Melbourne, to find out why Australia’s second city is facing such a dangerous epidemic of the drug known as Ice (crystal meth).
‘I have been fascinated by Australia for a long time,’ he says on the documentary’s focus. ‘There is so much happening there that you just don’t find anywhere else in the world. The topics that we covered are unique to Australia and that is the inspiration for the factual programming we make: what is unique to a specific area and what issues are interesting to us, and what can we bring to the public in the UK that’s something they may have not necessarily seen before.’
What surprises us on screen is no different to Yates’ own reaction. ‘There is a certain level of research done by the team, but I go in with a basic knowledge,’ he explains. ‘The people I am meeting I have never met before. When you start watching these films you have no idea in what direction it’s going to go, and more importantly, because I throw myself into the challenges I face, you have no idea in which way I am going to be challenged, and what that will stir up within me.’
You certainly get the sense of who you see on screen is the real Reggie Yates. ‘I don’t know if it’s the secret [to success], but it works for me,’ he says on his documentary making approach.
Fundamentally it is television and you, naively perhaps, have this sense of protection when you come to making these films. The more I think about the scale of violence or danger I am walking into, the more opportunity I give myself to want to back out
‘People respond to people, and if you are a robot that has a bunch of buzz words to throw in, people can see through that. Fundamentally these films are a series of conversations.’ Conversations, I add, in extreme situations. Seeing Yates approaching a prison wing full of baying killers, or joining a racist group of thugs in Russia, I certainly feared for his safety.
‘Truthfully I have never felt that way,’ he insists. ‘Fundamentally it is television and you, naively perhaps, have this sense of protection when you come to making these films. On some level I think it’s important to have that level of naivety because the more I think about the scale of violence or danger I am walking into, the more opportunity I give myself to want to back out.
‘When I am speaking to the head of a nationalist movement, if I really think about what that man has done or how he might see me, then I am not going to want to speak to him. What is imperative and of most importance is not what my personal emotion is because these films are not about me, it’s about delivering a message or information to the audience at home and sharing with them an experience they will never have had.’
Watching Yates in these different situations, it’s like he has been doing these documentaries for years, but in fact it is the latest in a long line of different guises in the entertainment industry. It all started at the age of just eight with a role in seminal comedy Desmonds, and has been followed by further acting gigs, TV and radio presenting – ‘Just yesterday we shot the Top of the Pops Christmas special,’ he laughs.
‘I started doing that when I was 18, so I have been doing it for 15 years now and I love it’ – fronting the MOBOs and more in addition to his documentaries. ‘Of the things you have just mentioned, the thing I am not doing so much of now is acting,’ he points out.
‘I wouldn’t say I have fallen out of love with it, but that isn’t what I am supposed to do. I started out as an actor, but that was always part of the pathway towards becoming a writer and director.’
It’s a tantalising hint at what’s to come from Yates – expect more hard hitting documentaries for one – but for now he’s taking the opportunity to relax at home. Do his experiences overseas have an impact on how he looks at London?
‘One hundred percent,’ he states. ‘I feel like I move forward in terms of my personal development off the back of these films. That’s not me saying that every film I make is incredible or award worthy, but the personal experience I have, the people I meet, the lessons I learn… You can’t buy that.
‘We live, in my opinion, in the greatest city in the world, so it’s easy to lose perspective because you are surrounded by so much opportunity. It’s important to me to maintain and remember the lessons that have been gained on any one of these trips.’
Reggie Yates: Hidden Australia is available on BBC iPlayer until the end of June