From upcoming NHS-centric projects to hard-hitting documentaries on mental health, documentary maker-turned-founder Dominic Streeter sits down to discuss all of the powerful work being born out of his production company.
Documentaries have the potential to be a powerful vessel for socio-political discussion, and no one knows this better than Dominic Streeter.
Having set up the now-infamous documentary production company Hide & Seek Media in 2019, the filmmaker-turned-founder has not only been championing social justice through his work since his beginnings, but also shedding light on the media’s capacity to induce impactful changes in the world. And, from plunging viewers into the depth of North America’s opioid epidemic with 10 Dollar Death Trip, to lifting the lid on the UK’s health service’s pandemic struggles with an upcoming NHS-focused documentary, no conversation is out of bounds for his company and its films.
“Most of us won’t dramatically change the world in our short time here, but I do believe we can all use our talents to document the stuff we really care about,” explains Dominic. “In my case making documentaries is all I’m really good at, so the concept of Hide & Seek, with its mission to create social change through film, was a fairly natural manifestation of that philosophy.”
With the company’s most recent film Feel The Burn offering a much-needed look into the mental states of male frontline workers, it is clear that the necessary conversations of our time are at the helm of Hide & Seek’s work as they continue with their crusade to shed light on hard-hitting topics. And, with a slew of upcoming features set to join its list of acclaimed releases, the production company is one to pay close attention to.
Head below to see our interview with Dominic Streeter and follow @hideseekfilms for all of the company’s updates…
Hey Dominic, how’s this past year been for you?
Hiya! Well I think it’s been a pretty topsy turvy ride for everyone. At Hide & Seek we had three projects postponed because we couldn’t safely get the crew to the countries they were due to be filmed in. And so, like many businesses we quickly found that our plan for the year ahead wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. But necessity is the mother of all creation and I’ve really enjoyed adapting and finding new stories to tell closer to home. Sometimes we can scour the whole world looking for treasure and the shiniest gems are in our own backyard!
How did Hide & Seek media come about? What made you start the production company?
I think I’ve always gravitated towards art which bears witness and lobbies for change. History is littered with inspiring examples from war poetry and photography, to protest songs which became anthems for key social movements, to important graffiti and murals, to the paintings of prisoners who recorded the atrocities of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge.
Most of us won’t dramatically change the world in our short time here, but I do believe we can all use our talents to document the stuff we really care about. In my case making documentaries is all I’m really good at, so the concept of Hide & Seek, with its mission to create social change through film, was a fairly natural manifestation of that philosophy.
Your documentaries focus on mental health, racism and human rights, why these topics in particular?
Mental health has been the poor cousin to physical health for decades now, both in terms of funding and social recognition. It’s changing but it needs to change much faster. For me, as we deal with the fallout from Covid, we need to address the impending mental health crisis as an urgent international priority.
Racism is something which my partner has had to contend with in her life and it breaks my heart that after six million years as a species we still haven’t worked out how to be more tolerant of each other.
Human rights is probably the recurring one. Whether it’s addressing addiction in North America or filming a humanitarian crisis in Asia our films are always about trying to find better outcomes for people.
As a production team there’s two key questions we ask before adding a new film to the slate. The first is ‘Do we care enough about the topic?’ and the second is ‘Can we add something different to the conversation?’
Audiences can smell insincerity at a thousand paces and in this digital age attention spans are short. So if you’re not passionately, almost evangelically driven by the issue and you haven’t got something original to say then the work will always come across as hackneyed and banal.
Talk us through your latest feature Feel the Burn, how did this come to light and what made you choose this topic?
We’d had it on our radar to do something about mental health for a while. The subject passed the first of our two thresholds, but we couldn’t think of a way to package it that felt fresh or original.
Then we found out about this firefighter who’s running through the Saharan desert to as a sort of personal pilgrimage to better understand his own mental health. The race is a notorious survival challenge in brutal conditions; 250km in a week through 50-degree heat, so physically it’s gruelling, but what made it so compelling is that for James, our protagonist, this is just as much a journey of the mind. He has suffered from severe PTSD, depression and anxiety for the past twenty years and suffered in silence because he was worried about the stigma of speaking out, so he’s taking himself into the deep recesses of the desert to find some answers.
So when we looked at the raw ingredients of a feature-length mental health documentary, featuring a story arc as powerful as James’, in one of the world’s most naturally beautiful settings; the prospect was irresistible.
The documentary really peels back the layers of men and mental health, do you hope this documentary will spark a conversation on this topic and why is it important?
Yes! That is exactly what I hope and there’s never been a better time for this conversation. Depression has already doubled as a result of the pandemic and there is likely to be a lag on the collateral damage, so those figures are set to get worse.
As a 39-year-old male, the biggest cause of death amongst my demographic is suicide. That it is a stark and chilling reality. It is gut-wrenching that so many males choose to end it because they don’t know how to ask for help. There’s nothing emasculating about having a chat to someone and we need to urgently counter that narrative.
Historically there has been this hard-wired ideology of what it is to be male: stoical and emotionally repressed basically! If you cry in the playground you’re labelled a “pussy” or a “wimp” and ridiculous phrases like “man up” have even seeped into the workplace.
That has contributed towards a pervading culture of toxic masculinity, but with #MeToo and other social movements hopefully the tide is changing. There’s a growing understanding that as well as having horrendous consequences for women, this culture has also been extremely unhelpful for the development of young men.
In Feel The Burn, we deliberately found a protagonist who on first appearances is your classic alpha male, to challenge the stereotype. You’ve got this burly, macho firefighter; he’s six foot two, handsome, chiselled, built like a brick shithouse, plastered in tatts and hard as coffin nails. But here he is opening up about his feelings and showing that it’s OK not to be OK. To me that is an incredibly powerful role model and message for young men.
It isn’t an easy process for James, who in the past has also come close to suicide and as a viewer we go on that journey with him. So the film is poignant and emotional, but despite the heavy subject matter it is also funny, uplifting and visually beautiful. We are so proud to be doing it at Hide & Seek and the crew have been absolutely buzzing from the start.
Working on the documentary, what’s one thing you’ve learned?
I had experienced depression and anxiety personally, but I had no first-hand experience of PTSD and didn’t really understand it.
James fed back that he can visualise the face of every single fatality he’s attended through his career – and when you’ve been doing this every day for 20 years that’s a lot of faces.
I was surprised to learn that sometimes the long-lasting trauma can relate to the smaller things. Finding family photos of the deceased, comforting a grief-stricken pet who’s survived its owner. James recounted one of the incidents that took the hardest toll. He turned up at a road traffic accident one December morning to find the driver, a middle-aged woman, had died on impact. She’d known little about it and the scene wasn’t bloody or gruesome at all. But the car was filled with Christmas presents. That killed him inside.
In the making of this film we’ve had incredible access to the service in Hertfordshire and learning about PTSD has given me an even greater admiration for the work that they do and the sacrifices they make to keep us safe.
You’re also working on a documentary following London’s biggest NHS Trust throughout Covid, have you faced any challenges so far on the project?
Again, it has been an incredible privilege to have been trusted with that access, especially in the middle of a public health emergency. The film is about the challenges Covid has presented throughout the NHS as a whole and from the start of the first lockdown they gave us carte blanche to follow the journeys of staff and patients across all their areas of care. We haven’t lost sight of what an incredible honour that is.
Over an eighteen-month period we’ve filmed extensively on the Covid ward but also with palliative care, emergency response, operational staff, the cleaners; every cog that drives the engine. It has been a frantic, white knuckle ride at times for the staff and we’ve been there through the highs and lows. There has been incredible camaraderie, tears, unwavering dedication, compassion and duty and not much sleep. The UK really does have the greatest public health system in the world.
In terms of filming our challenges really pale into insignificance in comparison, but yes it has been a technically challenging film to make. We’ve been led by the experts in the wards on PPE protocols and other safety concerns and we’ve taken risk mitigation measures like reducing the crew size, travelling separately, meticulously disinfecting the kit, having the contributors attach their own microphones and so on.
There’s also been the challenge of having no idea when this thing will end and what will happen from one week to the next, so at times it’s felt like the film is directing me rather than the other way round.
One nurse in the film described the experience of dealing with Covid as “like flying an airplane. At 40,000 feet. Whilst building the airplane!” I thought that was a pretty perfect metaphor.
Looking back on all the projects you’ve worked on, which one has been the most eye-opening for you and why?
Covering the opioid crisis has been illuminating and harrowing. With the introduction of fentanyl to the illicit market that crisis has become a runaway train.
You now have a situation in parts of North America where disadvantaged social conditions have created pockets of very concentrated addiction and economic forces have meant that the production of fentanyl has bulldozed the heroin market. Fentanyl is 100 times stronger and much cheaper than heroin, making it easy to smuggle and lethal in tiny doses. In the film Ten Dollar Death Trip one of the contributors told us that “fentanyl makes heroin look like Calpol.”
The death toll is almost incomprehensible. A life is lost to overdose every seven minutes and in British Columbia where we filmed, the situation has become so bad that average life expectancy has officially reduced.
What we witnessed there was a largely homeless addicted population, who are self-medicating the pain away. And they are currently sitting ducks in the face of a poisoned street drug supply.
We shot that film two years ago and half of our contributors are already dead. I literally got told of another two deaths only this morning. Every phone call or email like that absolutely kills me. There is such a weird intimacy with the contributors when making a documentary. You spend loads of time hanging out with them and then sit with their footage every day for months in the edit room, to the point where you know every nuance in their speech, every mannerism, every character trait. By the end of it they are an indelible part of you and you are rooting for them so hard.
Making the film has reinforced my belief that we need to take a different approach with drug use. Since Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’ we’ve spent sixty years criminalising and stigmatising people who use drugs rather than helping them.
In North America, that war on drugs has been lost and whole communities are now living in the wreckage. It has created an almighty mess, further entrenched social disadvantage, handed production of a multi-billion dollar illegal market to mafia-style cartels and created a death toll which now equates to a horrifying, unrelenting massacre of human life.
Illicit street fentanyl hasn’t flooded the drug supply in the UK in the same way yet, but we should look to North America as a cautionary tale and look to treat drug use as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal one, before it’s too late.
Looking to the future, what are you most excited for and what can we expect from you next?
I’m pretty excited about everyday life returning to some semblance of normality, being able to watch Arsenal lose live in the ground rather than on TV, go on holiday again, reconnect with loved ones. Those simple things we once took for granted, but will cherish forever now.
In terms of Hide & Seek, we are travelling to Syria later in the year to make a series of humanitarian films about the impact ISIS has had in the region. We will examine the radicalisation process and look at the UK’s responsibility under international law once people leave for Iraq, Syria and the Kurdistan region. We are working on some world-first access, which I think will be fascinating for viewers and challenge also challenge some perceptions.
We have started filming a piece about UK drug policy, aimed at a youth audience and we’re also working on a pilot for a new true-crime series, with a mental health twist. It’s true crime like you’ve never seen it before and I think that will really strike a chord with viewers.
And of course, we’re looking forward to releasing our NHS film and Feel The Burn. So watch this space!