• Frederique Bedos’ NGO, Le Projet Imagine – The Humble Heroes, has made more than 30 films about people who’ve made a difference around the world
• She hopes to find inspirational stories in Hong Kong and China to counter the global media’s narrative of despair, as she sees it
French journalist and filmmaker Frederique Bedos is sitting in the “bunker” at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It’s day two of her three-day visit to the city to raise awareness about her NGO, Le Projet Imagine – The Humble Heroes, and to identify unsung heroes in the region.
The television screen above us is playing coverage of the Christchurch attacks in a frenzied loop. Glancing up at mass murderer Brenton Tarrant, she sighs. The blanket coverage is making the man who live-streamed his savage attacks on two mosques into something of a star, and the twisted ideology that fuelled the shootings is now being widely circulated.
“I’m not trying to point an accusing finger at the media. It’s a tool, so we just ask ourselves how we can use this tool in the most beneficial way,” Bedos says.
The 48-year-old – she celebrated her birthday in Hong Kong – quit her glamorous television and radio career in 2008 and founded Le Projet Imagine. It stands apart from the other 10 million NGOs in the world because it is the sole NGO of information.
“We are the only NGO to make the real link between the media and the consequences on the ground,” she says. Bedos is among that special breed of people who radiate positive energy. Spend an afternoon with her and you’ll leave with a bounce in your step. Her big made-for-TV smile isn’t just turned on for the cameras – it’s there for everyone she meets and does not waver, even in the face of adversity.
The decision to start the NGO was the result of the double whammy – a personal and professional crisis. She does not elaborate but explains that it was enough to make her question what she was doing with her life. The shake-up got her thinking about her adoptive parents and the values they espoused.
Bedos had an unconventional childhood. Her mother had mental health issues and was in out of hospital, so she was adopted by a couple in the north of France. Her new parents – “simple people with big hearts” – adopted 20 children from around the world, all of whom were considered “unadoptable”.
“Society had already condemned those children because they were too traumatised, too old, too heavily handicapped. Very often it was a mix of all at the same time,” Bedos says.
Thinking of her adoptive parents – true “humble heroes” – she decided to take a fresh, critical look at the media, particularly television.
“When we look at the programmes, we quickly realise that violence has invaded the screens, and the way TV describes the world generates more and more anxiety. It spreads fear in our hearts and minds. Fear is the worst counsellor – it promotes selfishness, the search for the scapegoat. It makes us stigmatise those who are different from us and ultimately it pushes us to build walls to separate each other,” Bedos says.
She left the world of traditional media, but not journalism, altogether. Instead, through her NGO, she decided to embrace a means of storytelling that is constructive and hopeful, the kind of reporting that inspires positive action. To be clear, this is not “good news” journalism. It’s about tackling real problems on the ground.
“Good news? It’s boring. Where is the adventure? The reality is the battle. We are all invited to do the battle together. The battle for justice, the battle to bring peace. Everything about justice does not come naturally, but it’s always a good fight,” Bedos says. In this era of fake news and conspiracies, she believes it’s ever more urgent to harness the powerful influence of the media to inspire people to get up and work collectively towards positive change.
“If you’ve got such a powerful tool at the service of despair, people are influenced by that every single day. So much energy is wasted because people don’t think it’s possible, so they just sit in the chair,” Bedos says.
It’s for this reason that the NGO’s logo is of a hummingbird, after the legend of the little bird that tried to extinguish a forest fire by darting back and forth between a stream and the forest carrying a little water in its beak. When the other animals asked why it was wasting its time, it replied: “I’m doing what I can.”
For Bedos, a constructive use of journalism – “the PR of democracy” – is to make films that portray “humble heroes” around the world, the men and women who do exceptional things at the service of the common good, to improve our world.
In the decade since she launched her NGO, she has produced more than 30 documentaries about people who are making a difference in their communities. The first couple of documentaries were made with a borrowed camera and a handful of volunteers. Today she has a network of 450 volunteers, many of them professional media people including sound engineers and cameramen, and some of the films have won awards.
Take the 2016 Projet Imagine documentary, Dr Shetty, The Poetics of the Heart. The moving film tells the story of the Indian heart surgeon who in 2001 founded a non-profit medical chain in India offering high-level surgery at very low prices. His hospitals serve wealthy clients and some medical tourists, but the goal is to bring the latest medical advances to the poor.
“Dr Shetty runs 37 hospitals. Even children from the slums can have access to a high level of surgery and be healed. It’s scandalous that much of the time we don’t hear about such things, and it’s so full of hope. This isn’t good news journalism, it’s about how we tackle real problems,” Bedos says.
Martin Maindiaux, One-way Ticket to the Mekong is another powerful story of a humble hero who we might not otherwise have heard of. After nearly dying in Mexico, the Belgian adventurer decided to devote the rest of his life to serving the poor. He set out to work in the most dangerous, desperate place and found himself working with the NGO Children of the Mekong in Cambodia. That was more than 20 years ago and he is still going, with no plans to leave.
Projet Imagine also addresses social and environmental issues. The documentary Women and Men highlights the discrimination faced by women around the world through a series of testimonies. It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival 2016, and won the silver prize for best documentary film at the Deauville Green Awards 2016.
“The goal of our NGO is not only to make beautiful movies, otherwise we would just be a film production company. The goal is to bring about a large movement of action at the service of a more just and sustainable world,” Bedos says.
It is the first time she has been in Hong Kong to represent Le Projet Imagine, and she spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and Alliance Francaise. She is looking to identify unsung heroes in the region, and also find Chinese media and television who might be interested in broadcasting the work, which would not only provide support with financing but also ensure that the film is seen. She hopes this initial foray to Hong Kong and the connections she made will lead to bigger things.
“Here in Asia the economy is flourishing. That can be seen in Western countries as a source of anxiety, because of this competition mentality. But if I can show to the world some wonderful Asian humble heroes, then everyone will discover the kindness, altruism and generosity of the population around here,” she says.