Patience Pays

October Films' James Quinn on how the best things in doc-making can be worth waiting for
March 1, 2009

A film I was executive producing about the girlfriend of a serial killer was in the final week of a difficult edit. It was six o’clock on a Saturday morning and I was driving in to work. On the radio, a short item at the end of the news had caught my attention. At a school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, 18 girls – none of them more than 16-years-old – had seemingly set out to become pregnant, as part of a bizarre-sounding pact.

In the office, I discussed the story with Clare Cameron, my producer, and we began to get excited. Here was a story that seemed to touch on many of the themes we were both interested in at the time – teenage rebellion, the dramas of family life, ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

I specialize in observational films on controversial subjects and October Films, where I’m now based, has a long track record in documentaries and current affairs, so the project seemed a perfect fit. Clare – the best access-getter there is – got to work on the phones, and I wrote a five-line pitch to the BBC.

A full, immediate commission is very rare these days, but that’s what the BBC came back with. Harry Lansdown, the commissioning editor, wanted us to have the time and resources to do things properly. But it was immediately apparent, even from conversations on the phone, that this would be a testing film to make.

The local newspaper in Gloucester had its best people working round the clock to identify the girls involved in the supposed pact, but with little success so far. The story was shaping up as a mystery. Was the pact just an urban legend? What could make so many schoolgirls swear an oath to get pregnant and raise their babies collectively? Some sort of cult? Or perhaps an amazing attempt to establish their own idealized form of society?

Just a day or two later, Clare and I landed in Boston, picked up a rental car, and headed for the coast. When we arrived in Gloucester, it seemed like half the world’s media had beaten us to it. The story was now headline news across the globe.

Gloucester turned out to be a fishing port that had fallen on hard times. Still, there was a passionate pride in the community that seemed very striking to a pair of Londoners, and a wholehearted commitment to family values. And no one wanted to talk about the pact.

People would greet us with friendly New England smiles, and ask us if we were on vacation. But when we told them we were in fact filmmakers, the smiles would disappear. The sudden media intrusion, making the town synonymous with all the ills of modern America, had left locals feeling bruised, mistrustful and protective of their own.

Gradually, the news crews departed, then rival documentary makers, including one or two friends and acquaintances working for other channels. One week later, feeling no nearer to the heart of the story, we considered coming home ourselves. But an inspiring chat with Harry changed my mind. His advice – just tell the story of the story. How did the news break? Who was saying what, to whom, and when?

We met the mayor of the town, the head of the school, the doctor and nurse who had run the school clinic, and anyone else connected with the story. Gradually, we won their trust, and almost everyone connected to the tale agreed to let us film them. But we still had no contact with any of the people who could tell us what was really going on with the 18 pregnancies – namely, the pregnant schoolgirls themselves.

But just as we were preparing to leave, three weeks of patience paid off; the pregnant girls and their families began to approach us.

In the end we filmed with three of the girls. One had already given birth to a beautiful baby daughter. The other two were due to have their own babies very soon, just a week or so apart. All were lovely people, and spoke to us very honestly about their experiences.

18 Pregnant Schoolgirls turned out to be a rather surprising and touching film. Now everyone I speak to wants to know if there really was a pact. I tell them all the same thing; you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

James Quinn is head of factual at October Films, and director of 18 Pregnant Schoolgirls.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.