Behind the scenes of the Vox web series “Borders”

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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Filmmaker and video journalist Johnny Harris travels the world to tell compelling and moving stories. Harris is based out of Washington, D.C., and works for Vox Media. His style combines motion graphics with powerful visual and cinematic content that explains complex global issues in a profound but relatable way. 

Harris earned his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in International Relations and a master’s degree from American University in international peace and conflict resolution. His Emmy-nominated series Borders explores the human stories of people who live on the edge of national borders between two contentious countries. The Borders subject is personal to Harris. He grew up Mormon and did missionary work at a young age along the U.S.-Mexico border and saw how people’s lives were affected. Harris, who is a married father of two, took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Storybench about Borders.

What inspired you to create Borders?

It was something that had been on my mind for a long time: the concept of borders and the way they are so physical and have such a strong, intense physical presence. I lived in Mexico and Tijuana, actually right on the U.S.-Mexico border when I was 19, so it was very, very formative for me to live there, especially that border. It’s incredibly intense, and just the visual of it really stuck with me. So when Vox said to make a series and asked what the series would be, Borders was kind of the most natural frame for me to explore. I was always fascinated with borders from a map perspective, but more importantly from on-the-ground human experience. And that was what the original pitch of the series was.

Why is a series like this important?

It incites curiosity for certain parts of the world that I guess a lot of people wouldn’t really think about most of the time. I think the news kind of gets a lot of attention in the Middle East and North Korea, and it’s hot-button places where there’s conflict and bombs and threats to the United States. And what I wanted with Borders is to kind of wake people up to the fact that there are other stories happening that do not necessarily have anything to do with the United States but are still interesting. And even if they are often hidden from view to a big audience because they’re complicated and things like that, there are ways to make them comprehensible to a large audience. That to me is what Borders is, and Vox generally has that as a mission. Anyone who is doing that sort of journalism that takes really complicated stuff and brings it to a mass audience, I feel like that is important and certainly something I take value in.

What kind of impact has the series had on its audience?

I guess the thing I love to hear most is like I never thought I would be interested in housing policy in Hong Kong or migration and in Venezuela and Colombia. But this episode kind of brought me into it. I watched it for 15 minutes and now I kind of have an understanding of tax policy and housing policy in Hong Kong. That to me is the thing that I find the most important – that I’m not just entertaining people with fun filmmaking, which is a big part of it. But there’s another part where we are giving people tools to understand the world. And I put a lot of work into that. And then it’s not just me, it’s anyone that touches Borders. The end goal is to allow people to have an enlightening experience. 

What were some of the most surprising moments filming the series? 

I often find that as you get close to a border division line, you would think that there’s more tension right at that border. And I often find that people relate more to the people on the other side of the law. When they see them, they’re kind of like, they’re just people. A lot of those kinds of nationalistic narratives don’t really hold when you can see people on the other side. That’s not always the case. But I found that it’s kind of a surprising lesson as I have been around a lot of border situations. When you’re right on that line, you tend to have a more empathetic view toward the person on the other side of the wall.

What are some of the most rewarding and difficult parts of the job? 

In terms of difficulty in the process itself, I would say that these are really big issues that I often am trying to untangle and communicate in just a few minutes, you know, 15 minutes at the most. The hardest part is finding a way to be generous to the fact that this is complicated, while also being able to communicate to millions of human beings who have never heard of this before. And so that is a really tough balance. And obviously, the production itself is always a really long, high-energy experience. And (they’re) tired by the end of them. At first, I was just running on adrenaline. It was so exciting, I was like, “Look what I’m doing, this is great.” Now (the fifth season), you know, this is tiring stuff. But no, I would never complain. It’s a fantastic gig. And my brain is opened up to so many new things because of this job.

You have a very unique, non-traditional style of using a selfie stick and walking and talking to the camera. Why do you think it’s an effective way to tell the story? What goes into the process of filming?

So, there’s two sides. One is kind of unintentional stuff. I’ve just been holding a camera for a lot of years since I was a kid. So my impulse to tell stories in this way comes from just a kind of scrappy way of always messing around with the camera. It’s just a lot of practice. So I would say that it’s not just this kind of intentional grand plan of storytelling. It’s very intuitive, kind of like a lot of hours behind the tools and like this is how I’m going to do it.

In terms of the intentional, how I do these productions and how I think about them. The only way I can make them really, really, really potent and really compelling for a new audience is if I find what I call visual anchors. Things that are happening on the ground, that anyone in the world could look at and understand generally what is going on. They don’t need to know all the theories. They don’t even know the history to know. This is a big deal. 

For example, the cage home in Hong Kong or, you know, millions of people coming across this border in Colombia, or in India. Most recently, the Sikh pilgrims looked across at their holy place. Those are visual anchors for me. And those are things that tell the story. So I don’t have to say it. I can just show that. And it can give it a little bit of context and can do a lot of lifting for me. That is the part that isn’t intuitive or easy. And it kind of looks like I’m just running around and I stumble on these like amazing pieces of evidence. But no,  I’m hunting for that stuff for months and months and months before I go and talk to people on the ground, trying to find the right thing. And then I found it, like in Columbia, it was the guy making bags and stuff out of money. I have devalued Venezuelan money. That’s a visual anchor and it shows up and boom, that’s gold. The lady selling her hair, the stuff that you don’t need to know anything, like something messed up here, look at that. That takes the majority of the effort in pre-production is just finding those examples. 

How often do you travel for these videos? For example, are you spending an entire year or is it more like a month here and there? 

It’s very quick, actually. I am based in Washington, D.C., and when I’m doing “Borders,” I’ll usually go, like to India, just for 11 days. And I’ll do all the pre-production here in D.C. and then I’ll go for 11 days and just bust it all out. I have a really good person on the ground who, you know, will help me navigate and translate all that stuff. But no, it’s a very quick thing. If I didn’t have two little kids, I would probably go live in these places for six weeks or a couple months and really immerse myself. But I can’t do that. You know, I’ve got family constraints and so I tend to do a lot of the work here and then go home and just have a blitz of 10 days of madness. 

Are you the only one who writes, shoots, produces and edits these pieces? Or do you have a team in place?

I have a research producer now who’s been on since the beginning of “Borders” and she helps secure access. She now is helping more and more to write stories and edit stories. Originally I was just doing it all on my own. But I couldn’t do as ambitious stories [as I wanted to]. Now, I have a research producer that helps get access and research. And then for about six weeks, I get an AP, assistant producer, who helps fact-check and do research and stuff. And then when I’m on the ground, I have a fixer like I was saying, a person who allows me to get in places, especially if it’s a sensitive thing, that translates if I don’t speak the language and is vital for certain places. You know, like if I go to India or Colombia or some of these are places where I’m really going to need it for language, fixers are vital. So there’s definitely people involved in the whole thing. I just tend to write and shoot and edit and animate to create a journalistic side. But no, it’s definitely not a one-man band.

Max Schochet studies journalism at Northeastern University.

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