Media: Mission improbable among the mortars: Michael Leapman meets a pair of unlikely war correspondents

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The Independent Online
Kensal Rise in west London is less perilous than Sarajevo or Mostar, but Belinda Giles, an independent television producer, still kept glancing edgily out of the window of her small office.

'There's a lot of theft in this area,' she explains. 'I've got a cage full of guinea-pigs in the car that I'm bringing back from our Christmas holiday; my daughter would never forgive me if something happened to them.'

A few weeks earlier Giles's concerns had been of a different order, as she and Paulette Farsides, a reporter, took shelter from shelling in west Mostar and braved the perils of besieged Sarajevo.

The result of their four-week visit to former Yugoslavia, a critical look at the role of the Croats in the continuing conflict, can be seen on Channel 4's Dispatches at 9 o'clock tonight.

Since the launch of Channel 4 and the subsequent growth of independent production companies, programme-makers have been able to consider increasingly improbable assignments, provided they can make a convincing pitch to the commissioning editors. However, it was not Giles's gender that made her project unusual - about a third of the press corps covering the conflict are women - but her background.

After eight years at the BBC as a researcher and assistant producer on current affairs programmes, she left to become a freelance. Two and a half years ago, Giles and a partner, Sarah Rutty, formed an independent company, Soul Purpose Productions, which focused mainly on religious subjects. It produced programmes on the Virgin Mary, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and made corporate videos for charities.

Giles and Farsides first worked together when they went to former Yugoslavia at the beginning of last year to make a programme on the nature of suffering, which was screened last Easter.

The experience persuaded them to seek a commission for tonight's programme. Its theme is more political than religious. They believe their background, different from that of most foreign correspondents, is an advantage, giving the film a different flavour from the hours of news and documentaries that have filled our screens.

Farsides says: 'The news from Bosnia has become so detailed, village by village, that people don't know what they're watching. They watch Kate Adie and see shooting, but they've lost sight of the general picture.

'We're taking one angle that hasn't really been looked at, and going all the way through with it. Croatia has played an important role in what's going on in Bosnia, and it's been overlooked by the press and the international community.'

Giles says that most documentaries concentrate too heavily on military aspects of the conflict. 'This isn't a shooting film at all. Because we're women that doesn't mean very much to us. Our story is about political betrayal. Who's shooting whom with what doesn't matter.'

Certainly Giles lacks the demeanour of a heavyweight reporter. With her eager, persistent grin, she looks as if she would be more at home cheering on a school hockey team. The reception offered both women by the press corps in Sarajevo was cold at first, but once accepted into the 'club', they received valuable assistance. Nevertheless they had difficulty finding a 'fixer', a local resident used by reporters to show them around and arrange contacts.

'We were let down by one we'd set up and got one who was an artist, the leader of the Surrealist group there,' Giles says.

'It was like working with Eric Idle or Salvador Dali. The effect of having reduced rations because of the siege, and the fact that he was probably out to lunch before the war even started, meant we had quite a hairy time. He seemed unaware where the front line was.'

Their perseverance ensured they secured the interviews they wanted. 'There's a definite advantage in being a woman,' Farsides says. 'You can pester and pester and pester, and people won't get angry. We had access that a man might not have received because people took us less seriously.

'People were unguarded in their comments because they didn't think we posed a threat. We had quite an aggressive interview with the President, but afterwards it was all smiles and, 'Would you like another Coca-Cola?' '

Giles says: 'People thought we were quite curious, these three wacky women (their Croatian fixer was female) wandering around in this little car. Somehow we were different from the other crews.'

She is reluctant to talk about dangerous moments. 'It's invidious, and it seems that I'm making out that I'm braver than I was. We were only there for four weeks, and I don't have to go back, although I want to. Print journalists are there all the time and have to take risks. The people who live there don't have any choice.'

She looked out of the window again. The guinea-pigs were still all right. 'Whatever you do,' she implored as I left, 'don't use the word plucky.'

(Photograph omitted)