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May 2, 2023

Why Geordie Greig and Bel Trew put footage of a murder in Independent film about Ukraine

Former editor Christian Broughton said there was “debate in the office” at including the footage.

By Bron Maher

The Independent’s international correspondent Bel Trew has said she wanted to avoid “fetishising” violence in the brand’s first feature-length film – although one scene showing a man being murdered sparked debate in the newsroom.

The documentary The Body in the Woods follows Trew and her team over a year in Ukraine as they attempt to identify the body of a teenage boy they found at an abandoned Russian camp in April 2022.

Trew, as well as recently-installed Independent editor-in-chief Geordie Greig and former editor Christian Broughton, were among those gathered at London’s Frontline Club on Tuesday for the UK premiere of the documentary.

Almost entirely avoiding footage of explosions or fighting, The Body in the Woods does feature one extended scene, shot at a distance from a Ukrainian military drone, in which a man is shot dead by Russian snipers.

Broughton, who is now the managing director of The Independent, said at a post-screening discussion panel that “there was some debate in the office” at how much of the footage should be included.

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“To be frank, I was someone who initially questioned… seeing the moment by the roadside, particularly,” Broughton said. “You [Trew] were really strong, and actually I remember Geordie very much saw things as you did.”

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Trew said: “There is often a focus on the violent side on the frontlines, and I think what you’ll notice in this film is that we’re not on the frontlines – partially, but you don’t see a single trench or a single soldier – and that was actually deliberate.

“So what you do see is violence, obviously, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t fetishise the killing, which is what I wanted to try and do. So we had a long conversation, particularly about the death of Maxim, who is the young man, the father, who you saw being shot in the drone footage – who was actually holding up his hands and saying the word ‘children’ – ‘I have a child in the car’ – when he was killed.”

Maxim had been driving west from Kyiv in the hope of escaping the city with his wife, son and a friend. Russian snipers fired on their vehicle, shooting out the engine and killing the mother.

Trew said she knew Maxim’s last words because “the female passenger, who you saw being led off by soldiers, she survived with his son, so I spoke to the family and I got the inside story of what happened there.

“And a lot of news outlets wouldn’t be able to show that moment where he is shot, but I think it’s important to show because he wasn’t doing anything but shouting ‘I have a child in the car’ and he was murdered and it’s actually very hard for me to watch that because I got to know his family.

“It’s a fine line between fetishising it, glorifying it, and showing what it is for what it is, and how pointless and unnecessary it is.”

In comments emailed after the screening, Greig told Press Gazette: “War is always ugly and difficult to report and with Bel’s groundbreaking documentary, shot in the middle of the war in Ukraine, we had intense discussions as to what imagery is acceptable to show, as it includes some disturbing scenes which we did think necessary for the particular narrative of war that Bel has explored.

“We wanted to maintain impact but to also show due sensitivity as to what was broadcast. Independent TV is in the vanguard of journalism, going to places where light is shone on difficult truths. That always leads to debate by reporters and editors as to what make good journalism in a way that is responsible and sensitive to those affected in the war as well as our viewers.”

The Body in the Woods is the first longer documentary film produced by The Independent, which launched Independent TV in September 2020.

Introducing the film, which can be watched for free on the news brand’s website, Greig said it was a “great moment in the history of The Independent”.

“It’s a great milestone in what we do and I want to pay tribute to Bel and to the team who’ve made this happen.

“The cliche, which is often the truth, is that truth often gets lost in war. Well the truth has been found in this narrative, which is moving, which is courageous, and which sheds light on a shadowy hinterland of war for people who were there during the bombing, during the violence, and who have to pick up the pieces.”

Greig became editor of The Independent in January, filling a longstanding vacancy at the Lebedev-owned, online-only newspaper since Broughton’s appointment as managing director in October 2020.

Greig had previously been editor of the Mail on Sunday from 2012 until 2018 and then of the Daily Mail between 2018 and November 2021.

He recently made his first public comments on his ousting from the Mail, telling Radio 4’s Media Show: “I am of the simple belief that editors are a bit like football managers, that the owner of the club has a right to move the personnel around.”

Greig finished his remarks at the screening by saying: “It’s a remarkable piece of reporting and Bel, who I’ve known for more than ten years – at different publications – has really come into her own here, and I’m very, very proud to see this moment where we have our UK premiere.”

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Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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