Jane Treays: Up close and highly personal

It's the unflinching intimacy that marks out a documentary by Jane Treays, whose new series is set to restore some lustre to Channel 4. Jane Thynne meets her

"So," says Jane Treays casually, during a break in our interview, "how do you see the next 10 years of your life panning out?" This is not the kind of question a journalist often gets asked. Most interviewees inquire about quotes, or copy approval, or whether you can claim the drinks on expenses. But it is Jane Treays' ability to pose such direct, discombobulating queries, questions to which we all secretly long to respond, that make her one of Britain's most successful documentary-makers.

In her latest trio of films, starting next Monday on Channel 4, this sympathetic, non-judgemental probing is deployed with exceptional effect in her studies of people on the edge. Previously she has peered into the lives of flashers, male prostitutes, models, rock stars and polygamists. She made an astonishing portrait of the conductor Clive Wearing, left by illness with a memory of seven seconds.

Her latest series, A Child's Life, continues her fascination with the marginalised and misunderstood. The first film is about primordial dwarfs, the second about child carers, the third about children whose parents have committed suicide.

"I've always been passionate about communities that live on the edge and are unspoken for," she says. "With the child carers, I was wondering how you could be normal if you were having all these responsibilities - with one family, it was like going back into another world. Their situation was almost Dickensian and really tugged at the heartstrings."

Lavishly shot, lit like oil paintings, her films feature lingering, uncut close-ups of the subjects' faces as she questions them off camera. Some of the scenes of children talking about their dead fathers, or reading their suicide notes, are almost unbearable for their unflinching intimacy. "My dad killed himself and his dad killed himself," says one boy. "I hope it doesn't run in families."

Treays is everything a charming, polite, middle-class Englishwoman should be. But there is plainly something about her, something deeply un-English, that makes people want to unburden themselves.

Of the suicide film, she says: "I don't think these children had ever been talked to like that before. I sit close to them and never take my eyes off them, and I keep the questions very simple. I never prepare or write anything down - I just watch and listen. My passion is to listen to stories and watch how the light falls on people's faces."

What with prostitutes, polygamists, flashers and dwarfs, there is no denying that her portfolio focuses on the freakish. But Treays insists that she is looking for the ordinary in the extraordinary: "It struck me at an early age that you could learn a great deal by people who either choose to live differently or have to because of the way they look, and I look for the connections as people that we have with them."

Treays' work underlines the strength of the documentary as a television format. It's a puzzle why viewers don't know her name as well as they know those of Molly Dineen or Nick Broomfield. Yet she is concerned by certain trends affecting the format, chiefly decreasing budgets and the emphasis on the confrontational. "It's very alarming. Young film-makers are being sent out with little cameras to difficult situations without the support of a crew. They do what is called 'hosing down' the subject, which means they film so much stuff that when the subject is tired they'll confess to something. While I think Wife Swap is very interesting on one level, and occasionally brilliant, they do deliberately put in opposites to create tension, so it's not what's really going on in people's lives."

But can observational documentaries reflect any better the truth of everyday lives? "It's a huge question. What is reality? Are they different when I'm not there? I cope with it by literally making it my view of the situation. I write it, direct it, research it, and I ask very deep questions: 'What does that mean to you? What happened next? What are your dreams?' The films are like moments in time, because they are what happens on a particular day when I'm there."

Treays has regretfully stopped shooting on film because of the cost, but the tapes - shot by Steve Robinson - are put through a film effect to soften them. The result is very different from the mass of documentaries shot with digital video cameras.

As a divorced mother of a teenage girl and boy, she believes that personal experience has helped her as a film-maker. "I got better at it when I had children and I've got better since I've been divorced because of the sadness I felt. If I'd never experienced pain or sadness I would find it hard to identify. Documentary-making is an area people get better at as they get older. You have to know yourself. You have to be very tender in your relationship with the person you're making a film about."

One of Treays' most memorable films was Painted Babies (1996) about child beauty pageants in America. After developments in the JonBenet Ramsey case, the BBC is remaking it. Her next two-year project returns to the domain of the socially reviled - in this case teenagers who sexually abuse other children.

Even as she tells me this, she laughs. "I know! I'm a bit of a tortured soul and I go and meet tortured souls so we're probably not everybody's cup of tea. But I think at the end of it, everything I do is made with love and is about love in its many different forms and perversions."

'A Child's Life' begins on Channel 4 next Monday at 9pm

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
British author Howard Jacobson has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn