Director Richard Parry found himself wrestling with his conscience when tragedy struck during the filming of a series about the lives and legal wrangles of the travelling community.
It's 6am and the phone is ringing ... "Rich ... She's dead." "Sorry?" "Her and John are both dead." "What are you talking about?" "Richard, it's terrible ... Kathleen's dead, her chalet burnt down ..." Four days ago I filmed Kathleen, an Irish traveller on a site in Essex, as part of the series, Gypsy Wars, we've been making for BBC3. Kathleen was bright-eyed and laughed a lot and was very charming in the way that Irish travellers can be once they've welcomed you into their homes. A fire had broken out and her chalet had been reduced to ashes, taking with it Kathleen and her husband and leaving three orphaned children. Mel McDougall, my AP, had been down on the site for months and she and Kathleen had developed a friendship. Mel wasn't answering her phone so I drove round to wake her up and give her the bad news. My head was spinning in a way it hadn't done since my days as a war cameraman. The tragedy and sadness on the one hand; and on the other, knowing this was a powerful twist in our story. Getting to know and like someone and then seeing the advantage in their demise can really make you feel like a bastard. Part of the problem is that we're not flies on the wall - no matter how small the cameras get (HDV in this case). We're present and people relate to us behind the camera. And like any other relationship in life, this is fraught with complexity. So I tried to bury some of my demons and think what would be best for her family. The fire had destroyed almost all the records of Kathleen, so the film we had of her singing, from the week before, was obviously precious to the family. Mel and I stood amongst the skeletal remains of this gypsy home with Kathleen's 16-year old-daughter. She wanted to hear the CD I'd made of her mother singing and she put it on the car system. She cranked up the volume and her mother's voice rang out across the site. It was quite a scene. Women came from all around and there was a swelling sound like a collective moan of grief. A great scene to capture for the documentary but I kept the camera in the bag. Some scenes you just have to let through your fingers for the sake of diplomacy, maintaining access and holding onto some sense of your own morality, albeit shaky. A week later they invited us back to record a mass for the dead couple. In the past I used to push relentlessly to film everything but now I'm more inclined to sit back and wait. Partly because people are better on camera when they actually want to be on it; more significantly, because I'm sick of feeling so suspicious of my motives. In the past I've waited in makeshift hospitals, in beleaguered cities, for the casualties to be brought in. Then eagerly filmed dead children and their shattered parents' lives. Why did I do it? How do I justify it? Mostly I didn't think about it ... I made money out of it. I brought the images to the TV screen. These people wanted their suffering recorded ... There's a myriad of answers that flitter through my mind but none of them really nail it. Gypsies ... I suppose I always knew it would be a difficult series to make when David Henshaw (from Hardcash Productions) first brought me to it. I'd been directing and writing a feature and it had been a while since I'd had a camera in my hands. It was like jumping back into the deep end again. Commissioned by Lucy Hetheringon, the idea of Gypsy Wars - scheduled to run first on BBC3 and then BBC2 - was to get under the skin of people from the travelling and settled communities and convey some of the ensuing struggles over land. Not an easy subject to get to: try walking onto a gypsy site and filming and you'll find out pretty soon how allergic they are to cameras. Access was the biggest stumbling block; but I learned not to push too hard. I'd gone onto a small site in Surrey on new year's eve and got talking to some Irish travellers. They were friendly but didn't want to be filmed. They were also funny and charming and I began calling by on my way through. We had a few beers together but I had completely given up the idea of ever filming them. To be honest I was enjoying engaging with people without having an ulterior motive (rare in this business). Then one day one of the travellers said he'd changed his mind, he wanted to be filmed. He opened a door and let me record a part of gypsy life rarely seen before. Amid a huge amount of criticism from his own community, he took me on the road with him, letting me capture the journey from council ground, to industrial sites, to roadside verges and other illegal encampments. He just wanted their side of the story told and was willing to take the risks. So, the lesson in all this is what? Personally, not to push too hard. Try to retain some sense of morality, even if it's only to preserve a sense of self-worth. If I'm a vulture, then I shouldn't always swoop on every opportunity ... circling in the breeze is also part of the business, sometimes the best part. Gypsy Wars will air on BBC3 from 25 September at 10pm.