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Richard Symons talks to Rosy Moorhead about his documentary on Yasser Arafat
From an independent film company whose interview questions have caused Lord Michael Howard QC to throw a tantrum and a Minister for Justice to cry, a documentary on Yasser Arafat promises to be pretty powerful.
The film marks the launch of Spirit Level Film’s most ambitious project to date - The Price of Kings, a series of 12 films which look at leadership and the price paid, personally and politically, in order to lead a nation.
The team, lead by director, producer and founder Richard Symons, gained unprecedented access to heads of state from each continent, as well as their families, closest allies and rivals, and documented for the first time their inner struggles, hopes and fears, and the impact their chosen path has had on other people’s lives, as well as on their own health, morals and conscience.
Richard, who went to school in Hampstead, explains where the idea for such a wide-reaching series came from.
"In 2007, we made for the BBC one of their highest-rating documentaries, Ministry of Truth, which asked whether it should be a criminal offence for politicians to misrepresent the facts. It opened our eyes to the difficulties of leadership. I think you always want to know how people would react when they’re faced with terrible choices under extreme circumstances with dire consequences.
"No-one has ever done this before - asked about leadership and the challenges of it, and the emotional and personal context of their sacrifice for what they believe. The overall aim of the series is to challenge our perception of leadership - we certainly had our own perceptions turned on their heads. When you’re confronted with the inside story, you ask ‘what would I do?’ When we screen it to people, they go ‘oh, he was wrong to do that’, but what would they have done?"
Arafat had almost five decades of extreme decisions to make. Revered by the Palestinian people and many Arabs as an iconic figure, and branded a corrupt terrorist and liar by many, whatever your stance, his importance as a world leader is undeniable.
The film charts his early years as a revolutionary leader, his landmark address to the UN General Assembly in 1974, his role in the Oslo Peace Accords, his besiegement and, finally, his death in a Paris hospital. Richard and the Spirit Level team were given unprecedented access to the president’s widow, Suha Arafat - the first time she’d spoken about her late husband.
While all the films are equally important to Richard, he says: "I come from a very traditional north London Jewish background, so, although I like to think I’m very open-minded, I came to the Arafat film with decades of a very particular perception of him presented to me.
"Across the board, many of them say many things we don’t agree with but you do get to empathise with them. It’s fascinating to understand their logic. I certainly never appreciated the decisions Arafat faced - like whether to support the Second Intifada [Palestinian uprising]."
The next two films are about Israeli president Shimon Peres, released on April 16, and Oscar Arias, the former Costa Rican president, due for release this summer. These three films have an underlying theme of leadership in conflict and the search for peace.
"It feels to us, from the inside, that this is an epic, global project. We’re covering all the continents in 12 films and each one gives a good overview of the projects in those regions. The whole is a definitive document on leadership."
The UK premiere of Price of Kings: Yasser Arafat takes place at Cineworld, Haymarket on Tuesday, March 13 at 7pm. Out now on DVD. Details: www.priceofkings.co.uk.