Documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist Sarah Macdonald talks about working on the Aarushi Talwar murder case for her four-part movie.
An acclaimed journalist and BAFTA award winning documentary filmmaker, Sarah Macdonald was intrigued by the sensational Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj double homicide case that had baffled authorities and the Indian populace alike. Having worked earlier on documentaries that launched investigations into child abuse and the Catholic Church, as well as one on North Korea escapees, Aarushi’s murder managed to captivate Sarah enough to make a four-part documentary with Star World and HBO Asia.
In a chat about her work that has real-life implications — including three men accused of child abuse in Liverpool being jailed for a total of 90 years — Sarah reveals her trials in making the Aarushi documentary titled The Talwars – Behind Closed Doors.
Where did you first learn about the double homicide case?
When I was told HBO wanted to make a gripping crime series that would sustain four hours of programming, I began looking for stories across the region that had many twists and turns. That’s a surprisingly difficult thing to find. I hadn’t heard of the Talwar case until I came across a story on the Internet. After probing it a bit more and then contacting Avirook Sen, the author of Aarushi, I realised it is a very tragic story that was both gripping and ongoing. It also carried themes that would resonate with viewers across the globe.
How was the research process for the case?
The immediate plan was to put together a top-notch team. Phil Carter (director) and I were incredibly fortunate to have worked with a Delhi-based researcher and producer, and we turned to him immediately. We slowly began reading everything that was published about the case, and reached out to people on both sides.
Across 18 months, we interviewed more than 40 people, only some of whom appear in the documentary, and tried to seek balance and understanding. We needed expert guidance from our Indian producer to help us understand nuances we would not naturally comprehend as foreigners.
What was the plan in terms of how to approach the case?
We have prided ourselves on seeking voices from both sides of a very polarised debate that remains polarised to this date. We have always sought to be revelatory without being sensational. We set out to say something new, and I hope we have achieved this, but not at the expense of balance and fact checking.
Are there any striking details of the Aarushi case that the common man isn’t aware of?
The greatest opportunity for a documentary is to be able to pull disparate threads together and present a cohesive overview, which most people won’t have seen. The average person will not have followed the minutest details, nor would they have sat back and really examined motives, intents, facts and fiction. We were very fortunate to have had 18 months to do nothing but scrutinise a huge amount of evidence in the public domain — and some that isn’t — and come to some kind of a conclusion across four hours. I hope viewers find it revealing.
Were there any troubles you faced before you got your desired interviews?
Unfortunately, many significant names associated with this case felt prohibited from speaking to us until after the appeal had been decided. This meant we have been working until just before the broadcast on many of the episodes, trying to bring them as up to date as possible. Even to this day, despite most of our episodes having been broadcast, most people are coming forward, offering to speak.
Sarah, you’ve worked on some extremely important documentaries. What’s the one that’s been closest to you?
I have specialised in child abuse cases in the UK, but even in relation to the Catholic Church and the abuse of minors by priests. Three movies I made for the BBC led to resignation of a Catholic bishop and a government inquiry. All investigations involving child abuse leave a permanent mark on one’s soul. And this one was no different.
Did the Aarushi case make an impact on you too?
In the Talwar case, we had the death of a young girl, someone whose life was ended under extremely tragic and seemingly unusual circumstances. We asked the question — what could have led to this murder? Let us go back before the murder and unpick as much around Aarushi, Hemraj and the Talwars as we could. It’s been a slow and painful investigation, always trying to ensure we kept humanity at the heart of the story we’re trying to tell. In that sense, it’s similar to my other films. But of course, it’s so very different in that we are working in a culture that’s alien to us.
Does the fact that your work has an impact on society egg you on further?
It’s great to feel that something I care about personally and work hard to highlight in the public domain is also something that others care about. More importantly, they care enough to seek change. The biggest development in documentary making over the last decade is that it’s no longer acceptable to make a programme, without building a concerted social media and outreach campaign around it. Of course, not every subject lends itself to this. But many do, and it gives the documentary a much longer life and educates viewers on how to become involved in change.
What motivated you to take on powerful entities like the Catholic Church?
The extreme injustice and harm that I could see. I began my journalistic career as a business correspondent, and I always viewed the abuse of children by the Catholic priests and the blatant and institutional conspiracy of silence as a business story. It was a corporation doing everything it could to protect its reputation, even at the expense of children’s safety. It was a classic ‘follow the money’ type of a story. It has taken many brave journalists, victims and campaigners across the world to affect real change within the church. But it took a long time. And I do wonder if the empty pews had more of an effect on that, than real concern for child welfare.