As the incorrigible editor of The Sunday Times throughout the 1970s, Harold Evans used his position and influence to investigate the effects of Thalidomide on the British public. The drug was sold by British health professionals to expectant mothers as a cure for morning sickness. The drug ended up causing severe birth defects in the children of the mother’s who took it. The corporation shrugged at their responsibility and tried to kill the story. Harold refused to let the story die and devoted his paper to going after distiller’s who sold the drug. Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime follows Harold’s campaign and investigates what lies at the very soul of journalism. Toronto Film Scene had the chance to speak with co-director Jacqui Morris about the film, which screened at Hot Docs 2015.
Toronto Film Scene: The documentary itself is a rigorous piece of journalism and investigation. How long was the process to complete it?
Jacqui Morris: We first got going three years ago. The first filming was in 2012, at a weekend bash held by the thalidomiders to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the drug being banned in the UK. Harold was one of the guests of honor, and was awarded a prize.
TFS: When the project was first conceived did you interpret it as being biographical, historical, or the piece about journalism which it ultimately became? Speaking broadly, how did the project change in its focus from conception to completion?
JM: We started with the intention to make a documentary about the journalistic career of Harold Evans. Although we knew that thalidomide was going to be a big part of it, it soon became apparent that it dominated everything else. It had everything a filmmaker needs – a heartbreaking story, goodies and baddies, wonderful archive, and ultimate success. It ended up being a bit of everything: a piece about journalism; some biography; an example of what journalism can achieve.
The film evolved naturally. There was a temptation to steer it in a certain direction. But I think we made the right decision to let it find its own voice.
TFS: Was it difficult to get a documentary made about a largely unacknowledged subject from a half a century ago, in the technical sense of finding ample resources and testimonies?
JM: We were lucky that Harold has a lot of friends and admirers. Some put up money; some granted interviews and allowed access, where they normally wouldn’t. A case in point was the 50th anniversary bash held by the thalidomiders. Although others had asked, we were the only film crew granted access. This was because we were making a film about Harold. In the same way, some of the Sunday Times journalists gave us interviews, whereas normally they always refuse.
But who could refuse Harold?
TFS: Is the fact Thalidomide catastrophe still isn’t part of the lexicon or even present in our social consciousness today surprise you?
JM: Time moves on. But we hope to change that – especially for the many thousands of victims around the world who didn’t have the likes of Harold to fight their corner. It’s shameful that they are still trying to get recognition and compensation from their governments.
TFS: At what point did you contact Harry Evans about telling this story, what was his reaction? Did he become a collaborator in the production or did he remain mainly a subject?
JM: We met Harold during the filming of our first doc McCullin the story of the British war photographer, Don McCullin. He worked with Harold at the Sunday Times. Harold was his editor. And other than Don, Harold was the only other interviewee in the film. Harold liked what we did with McCullin, and had confidence in us that we would do our best to tell the overriding story that journalism can be a force for good.
Harold was mainly the subject of the film, although we kept him abreast of what we were doing. He’s seen the film and luckily he likes it.
TFS: The campaigns done by the Sunday Times are fascinating in their dogged resolution and at times bias. In this instance Harry Evans was using the influence of the press to fight for the marginalized, but do you think the lines started to get dangerously blurred between journalism and activism?
JM: There is a real danger of journalism (or documentary film-making) becoming propaganda for one side of an argument or another. It is important to keep one’s independence and tell it how it is. Neither Don McCullin or Harold Evans tried to interfere in the editorial process when we made our films about them.
TFS: Would a young Harry Evans survive in journalism today?
JM: Probably. He’s quite determined, you know.