Jezza Neumann – Trustee

For a long time, Jezza Neumann has had to deal with life in the shadow of Brian Woods. As a film-maker for True Vision, he accepted it as inevitable and hoped things would improve after he started winning awards. For a long time, it didn’t.

“I’d always talked about climbing out from under his shadow, but it was very hard. Everywhere we went, people wanted to just talk to him, and no one knew who I was,” he says.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the undercover nature of a lot of his work. “I’d won three Baftas and just be standing in the background. Then at some point in the past 18 months it changed almost overnight – people started wanting to know who I was.”

This quick advancement appears to be down to a fairly gung-ho attitude towards the films in which he gets involved. “I don’t have this burning desire to make a certain film, which is lucky,” he says. “A lot of people have a film they are desperate to make, whereas I just take what comes along.”

That open-mindedness has taken Neumann to places many would blanche at: he has snuck into Zimbabwe, China, Tibet and Gaza, and the results have won awards from Bafta, Peabody Trust, The Rory Peck Trust and Broadcast. The common thread to his six films is the plight of children living in some of the toughest conditions on Earth.

His directorial debut, China’s Stolen Children, won a Bafta – although when Channel 4 ordered the doc, it was Woods’ expertise they initially thought they were getting. Neumann was sent into the country as production manager, but after “unravelling” stories of child trafficking and meeting sources, he ended up taking charge of a doc that became a two-hour film in C4 primetime.

“Ultimately, if I managed to bring back the footage but couldn’t put it together, Brian would have been there to help. There was a lot of hand-holding because it was my first film, but in the end, I came up with the goods,” he says.

Broadcasters, including the BBC at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, have complained that film-makers such as Woods are pulling the wool over their eyes with this substitute director tactic, but Neumann argues it’s an important test for a young film-maker. “There are so few avenues otherwise – how else do you get a break?”

He adds: “The reality is, if Brian is banned from the country, how on Earth can he remotely direct something?”

Unlike Woods, Neumann admits his motivation was never about instigating change – although as he gets older, he says, he perhaps understands this better than he once did.

“Starting as a runner and PM, my ethos was always to get people to do as much as possible for as little as possible – and then to get them to thank you at the end of it,” he admits. “I took pride in dealing people down, and didn’t care about what it meant to them.

“The company ethos didn’t play into my world until I was on the frontline, and realised that making a difference was actually the only thing that meant something.”

Avatar
Alex Thompson