Jemima Khan sheds light on the experience of making documentaries and how it compares to working on scripted projects.
emima Khan has been in the public eye for much of her adult life, garnering (often unsolicited) attention for everything from her personal exploits to her philanthropic efforts. But what you may not realize about her is that she has also established an impressive career as a documentary producer. Through Instinct Productions – a content company she founded almost a decade ago – Jemima has helped shine a light on interesting real-life stories and fascinating individuals, with her work earning praise along the way.
“I really like producing documentaries,” Jemima tells Instep, “and I normally have a really personal reason for making the stories that I then devote myself to.”
The projects she has backed include the Emmy-nominated docuseries The Clinton Affair, which explored the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal – a subject she revisited in the Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated Impeachment, the third season of the scripted American Crime Story anthology series, for which she, again, served as a producer – and another Emmy-nominated documentary, The Case Against Adnan Syed, the story of a young man wrongfully convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend.
Comparing the experience of producing documentaries to that of working on a scripted project – like her new film What’s Love Got to Do with It?, her foray into screenwriting – the Brit highlights the difference in control over the projects and how long it takes to complete them. “Producing normally takes a couple of years, and you see it through to the end and you are intricately involved, but it’s not the same thing as writing,” she says. “Writing was a completely different experience.”
She also feels there are things you can achieve with a scripted project that you perhaps can’t do with a documentary. “I have one project where I did both the documentary version and the scripted drama version. That was the Monica Lewinsky impeachment story,” she elaborates. “I think we could possibly do more to show the turmoil and pain of the central character of Monica Lewinsky with a scripted drama, because you could go behind the scenes, and you could see stuff that isn’t on camera; you have to make that stuff up but I think there’s a level of emotional engagement that you can get sometimes with scripted that you might not be able to get if the archive is lacking with a documentary.”
It was perhaps this flexibility that inspired her to go the scripted route with What’s Love, a film with which she aimed to present Pakistan in a positive light. “I wanted it to be a very celebratory film about Pakistan. I wanted it to be about colour and music and architecture and the food and really to get a very visceral sense of the country. I felt that a cinematic experience on the big screen would do that more effectively.”
She remains passionate about her documentary work though, and you can see why, given the impact some of her projects appear to have had.
Coming out this year is the final episode of the docuseries she made about the case of Adnan Syed, the American Muslim who was put away for life when he was 17 for a crime that he did not commit. “We made a documentary about that for American and British TV called The Case Against Adnan Syed. Basically that boy was incarcerated because of Islamophobia straight up because they had a so-called cultural consultant – a white American consultant – who went into the court and said these people do honour killings; basically on that basis, without any DNA evidence, without any motive, he was put away for life. So he’s been in jail for the whole of his life.”
Adnan, now in his early 40s, has just been exonerated, thanks in part to the work by Jemima and her team. The upcoming episode sees Adnan walking free and moved the producer to tears. “I watched the cut last night and it made me sob, because his family really remind me of Imran’s family, my ex-husband’s family,” she says.
“They’re a Pathan family and I think his ancestors are from Lahore, and it’s so moving, because this family has been destroyed by what happened to them. The father hasn’t left his bedroom and became agoraphobic because of the shame and because of the grief of what happened. This A grade student who was wrongly convicted, and you see the moment where he walks in and he hugs his father after 20 plus years and it’s very moving, so I’m very privileged to have been part of that [project] because some of the evidence that we collected over the making of the documentary is what got him freed in the final episode.” And that, she explains, is why she remains passionate about exploring real-life stories and documenting reality.