An Interview with Stolen Daughters’ writer-producer Karen Edwards
In 2014, then-First Lady Michelle Obama caught the world’s attention with just one photograph. In it, Obama held a sign on which the phrase “#BringBackOurGirls” was written. The girls in question were the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who had been kidnapped by the local terrorist group Boko Haram that April.
Since then, 103 schoolgirls have made their way back home; 82 of them were released and others were able to escape their captivity. A new documentary — Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram, which is available on HBO Go, HBO Now, and On Demand — follows their lives after their ordeal, and also features interviews with girls who had been previously taken from their homes by the same group.
The writer and producer of the documentary, Karen Edwards, told The FBomb about the development of this project, the intersectional lens necessary for media coverage of this event, and why it is important to keep up with the experiences and ongoing events of kidnappings related to Boko Haram.
The FBomb: Why did you decide to make a documentary about the 82 girls kidnapped, and then released, by Boko Haram?
Karen Edwards: I came to the story quite quickly after the Chibok Girls were kidnapped. I’ve worked on this project for three and a half years. Just like everyone, I had followed the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Then, a contact with links to the Nigerian government (and then-President Goodluck Jonathan) asked if I would like to do a documentary on the story.
At the time, the Nigerian government claimed it was about negotiating the release of some of the Chibok Girls. In truth, the Nigerian government had been slow to react to the story and was trying to manage how it was being portrayed. The government also claimed at the time that the kidnapping had been a politically orchestrated kidnapping. I explained that I wasn’t interested in making a political story based on their evidence, as there was nothing to substantiate it. But sadly, it was also the case that Goodluck Jonathan was not successful in negotiating the release of any girls in 2014. So, I couldn’t make the documentary.
But the story and the fate of these girls had already got under my skin. By then I was also aware of the scale of the problem. I realized that the Chibok Girls were just the tip of the iceberg and there were many thousands of Forgotten Girls who had been kidnapped and were not being talked about. For the next three and half years, many contacts and journalists fed back to me information of what was happening on the ground in Nigeria, including the growing impact of Boko Haram, the subsequent famine, testimony from some of the millions of displaced people, and the stigma of the girls who had escaped Boko Haram.
So, when we heard that some of the Chibok Girls were about to be released, we were already in talks with HBO about making a film. Shortly afterwards I sent out a team to Nigeria to film in Maiduguri.
What were some of the initial things you learned while making this documentary? Did any of the stories or reactions to the kidnapping — like of those of the girls themselves, others in their community, or Nigerian culture at large — surprise you?
I think what was surprising when covering this story was how difficult it was to get to the truth. We had an amazing team helping us in Nigeria, but even they had heard complicated and often contradictory stories about what had happened. It’s always hard working with anyone who has experienced trauma, so we had to be very careful about how we managed the young women in this film, and the director, Gemma Atwal, spent a lot of time gaining their trust. During the filming period there were also many suicide bombings because Boko Haram uses children, particularly young women, to carry out these bomb attacks. This also means that the people living in Maiduguri were never sure who they could trust, and made it difficult to ensure the safety of the film crew.
One of the surprising things that we learned during our research for this documentary was that a small minority of the women who had been kidnapped and “rescued” would have preferred to return to Boko Haram. Sometimes this was because they’d been radicalized, but also there were some young women who said they simply preferred living with the group. This was not something that we anticipated.
What kinds of things did the formerly kidnapped women face while trying to reintegrate into their communities?
The women who escaped Boko Haram were worried about how they would be seen by the rest of society. There is a stigma attached to being captured and held by Boko Haram. They’re scared of people finding out that they’ve been kidnapped, so we had to be very careful throughout the filming process. The director had to work very hard to ensure that they felt safe and filmed them away from their homes so as not to compromise their safety.
How has Nigerian society, especially Nigerian authorities, responded to the kidnapping? Are they doing anything to prevent something similar from happening in the future?
The Nigerian government is still trying to defeat Boko Haram. It is a key political battleground in Nigeria. The government has at various times imposed curfews and/or state of emergency warnings in north Eastern Nigeria. The current Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, came to power claiming that he was the man to defeat Boko Haram and was also the person who would secure the return of the Chibok Girls. In early 2017, Buhari claimed that Boko Haram had almost been defeated after a successful battle in Sambisa Forest. At the time he announced that the IDP (internally displaced people) camps would be closed and it was safe for all the people to return to their homes in northeastern Nigeria. He had to back down from that statement — as it was not safe and they had no homes to return to. Recently, Buhari claimed a victory over Boko Haram, yet the battles continue and there is no sign that Boko Haram have been defeated. It is an election year again in Nigeria, and I think the fight against Boko Haram and stopping the kidnapping will be a key consideration in the presidential campaigns.
In truth, it is a difficult battle to win.
It arguably wasn't until then-First Lady Michelle Obama publicly asked for help for the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram that people in the West became acquainted with the event. Do you have thoughts on why tragedies from Western countries tend to occupy more mainstream media attention than those in the rest of the world — especially African nations?
I think it was the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that really brought this story to the attention of the world. It shows the power of social media and how it can break down borders and cross the world in a way that traditional media cannot.
But also, the parents of these girls, other campaigners, and people of Nigeria did rise up and make themselves heard on this story, and that had an impact. I wouldn’t like to dismiss their voices and their passion. They have never stopped calling for the return of all the girls. There was a real passion in Nigeria to make the Nigerian government take this seriously. That’s how Michelle Obama came to hear about the story. But you are right in your assertion that it was Michelle Obama and many celebrities in the West who took it to the next level and caught the imagination of the world outside of Nigeria.
I think it’s sad that the scale of the tragedies in Nigeria, such as the famine and the number of people displaced by the fight against Boko Haram, has not been the focus of more media attention. But, what the BBOG campaign did show is that the audiences around the world do care — once they are made aware of something. Hopefully, moving forward we will see more stories covered in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. I think the terrible tragedies and atrocities taking place in Syria have caused the media to be looking at that story more than any other in recent years.
Also it should be said that for more than three years there was very little news regarding the Chibok Girls even being covered in Nigeria. The girls had been kidnapped and there was little information coming out as to where they were or what was happening to them. So yes, the news cycle does move on and that’s a truth wherever a story is in the world. But if there are no developments in the story then it’s hard for the news reporters to repeatedly say there has been no development. I was monitoring the Nigerian press for three years, and even they were not able to provide developments or fresh updates because there was little news about the Chibok Girls.
Do you plan to keep following this story in some way?
Yes, we will continue to follow it. During the three-year production, many people told us that it would be years before we know the full truth about the kidnapping of the Chibok Girls, the scale of the problem regarding the kidnapping of young boys and girls, and the fight against Boko Haram. I think they were right: There are so many unanswered questions. I hope that one day in the future I can make a follow-up film that perhaps tackles some of those unanswered questions.
We continue, through our fantastic team in Nigeria, to stay in contact with the young women we feature in the film. I hope that their futures are bright and that a second film will show how they have not only survived but what they have done with their lives.
More articles by Category: Girls, International, Violence against women
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