Stacey Dooley goes on hostile environment training courses, regularly. “The first aid is handy but you do think if the shit hit the fan, how much of this am I going to remember?” she says. “The worst bit is getting fake kidnapped. They put a hood over your head and can hold you for hours. You totally have to act like it’s the real deal. If you giggle out of nerves they tear into you, so you learn very quickly not to do that again.
“You’re taught to show you’re human to get the best chance of surviving. If they see you as a relatable individual, they might hesitate before they harm or kill you.”
That lesson echoes what’s at the heart of Dooley’s documentaries. The 31-year-old has carved out a career over the last decade travelling to some of the most turbulent parts of the world, telling the stories of people, especially women, who are overlooked, forgotten, abused and exploited. Problems in remote parts of the world are given an immediate, recognisable face. The subjects of her documentaries are often going through the most horrific experiences, bit part players in global crises overlooked by the mainstream media, but Dooley reminds us there are lives at stake and they are human, just like us.
“Traditional news feels quite sanitised, quite statisticky,” Dooley says. “We’re bombarded with images but often you don’t see the human stories, or if you do it’s only for 60 seconds, max. You can be aware and educated and informed but you’ve got to place emphasis on being compassionate, having empathy and understanding.”
Dooley doesn’t pull punches. We know much of the Middle East in in chaos, but it’s brought home when Dooley meets some of the 5000 young girls kidnapped and abused in unimaginable ways by IS in Iraq. We know there are desperate Syrian refugees stranded in Turkey, but Dooley introduces us to Yana who used to run a post office in Aleppo but in now forced into prostitution, charging the equivalent of £1.25 per sex act. Mexican drug cartels are evil, obviously, but it becomes sickeningly real when you hear the testimony of an 18-year-old whose initiation ceremony to one of the gangs was to watch as a three-year-old girl was killed before he was made to eat her still beating heart.
Dooley is telling stories nobody else has, in ways nobody else has done before because she is not a grizzled war correspondent
Then there are the tales we know little about in the UK. Dooley travelled to the Philippines to meet girls who had been abused to order by members of their own family for paedophiles watching online – 750,000 people are actively seeking out indecent images of children at any given time – and in Honduras, where the leading cause of death for women under 24 is murder, met Heydi. When she told her ex-boyfriend she was leaving him, he hacked off her legs with a machete to make sure she couldn’t.
Dooley is telling stories nobody else has, in ways nobody else has done before because she is not a grizzled war correspondent, instead a “gobby lunatic from Luton” who sometimes seems like she has strayed from an entirely different programme and ended up accidentally in the firing line. The subjects are shocking in themselves, and further amplified by the diminutive Dooley wading deep into the middle of them.
She says her USP is “relatability”. In another interview it was “sympathy”, and that interview mentions that in a previous interview she’d said it was “ordinariness”. Her break came when she was selected to take part in Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, a show which turned fashion conscious youths into socially conscious ones by taking them out to India to experience first-hand what the conditions were like for workers, including child labourers, in sweatshops.
Following that series and after some associated TV spots (before going live to discuss the subject on Newsnight she warned Paxman: “Look, Jeremy, I know you can sometimes give people a hard time, but don’t try it with me”) BBC Three entrusted Dooley with a run of investigative documentaries and ten years on she is one of the channel’s biggest draws, hitting a young demographic ignored by current affairs programmers.
Television is very middle class, particularly current affairs
Reviewers and commentators can never resist mentioning that before embarking on a career as a documentarian she was selling perfume in Luton Airport, usually to signal that she doesn’t know her place and shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing.
“At the start I was ridiculed,” she explains. “I left school at 15, I didn’t have any GCSEs, I didn’t go to Oxbridge. Television is very middle class, particularly current affairs, this unspoken rule that you all look the same, talk the same, went to the same school, grew up in similar backgrounds. I do think that’s slowly changing. But I don’t really care anymore, I’m fiercely proud of the fact I’ve been able to make a career despite the fact I wasn’t born into privately educated schools. I think I’ve proven myself.”
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In Face to Face with Isis, Dooley helps Shireen, a Yizidi survivor of sexual slavery, tell her story, revisiting the places she sold, imprisoned, beaten and tortured, trying to find out what happened to the rest of her family. They both sit down face to face with a captured militant who boasts about having raped dozens of women and children, and killing hundreds of men, trying to unsettle the women. Dooley replies, undaunted, “I’m not scared of you, I don’t think Shireen is scared of you”. It’s an incredible moment, a victory against a violent psychopath won in only words.
“I had no desire to go to Iraq. I never wanted to go to Mosul. I’m not a war correspondent. No part of me thrives on the adrenaline or anything like that. I feel really uncomfortable all of the time, but it’s one thing signing petitions on Facebook and being outraged from the comfort of your own home. To be given the opportunity to go there and show people what’s going on, to turn it down is not sticking to what you say you believe in.
“Wherever things are hostile or extreme and it’s hard for everyone, I think women are always up against it that bit more. And unless we continue to have these frank conversations there’s a danger of that being able to continue for a very long time.”
After a decade exploring the darkest recesses of humanity, Dooley needed a little respite.
“I’ve just made a documentary that’s a bit lighter, about ‘preppers’, people who are adamant that Armageddon is fast approaching. That was a bit of light relief.”
After Isis, child exploitation and mass murder, the end of the world must seem like a good news story.
Stacey Dooley on the frontline with the women who fight back is out now (BBC Books, £14.99) @StaceyDooley