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Tackling “Impossible Briefs”, BORDERLAND Is Making Authentic Work That Resonates


LBB speaks to the award-winning production company’s co-founders - Zoe Barlow, Ben Hanson, and Simon Frost - about their love of documentary filmmaking, their 2022 Cannes Grand Prix win, and the value of work that “makes clients nervous”

Tackling “Impossible Briefs”, BORDERLAND Is Making Authentic Work That Resonates

‘I Will Always Be Me’ is a deeply touching film about people living with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). The campaign, commissioned by Dell and Intel, took home the 2022 Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It was directed by Simon+Ben, and it was produced by BORDERLAND – a creative production company specialising in purpose-driven branded documentaries and commercials. The Grand Prix win surely cemented the company as the go-to destination for brands that want to tell challenging stories.

Documenting with authenticity

BORDERLAND is helmed by Simon Frost and Ben Hanson together with Zoe Barlow. The trio met at an agency where Zoe was a partner and head of production and Simon and Ben formed their directing relationship; immediately, something between them clicked. Soon after, they struck out on their own.

Five years later, the team still use their agency heritage to their advantage. “We’ve always been drawn to impossible briefs,” says Zoe. BORDERLAND’s ambition is rooted in the 'craft of making' and “making the impossible happen”; it’s that attitude towards the work that the team has since applied to films for SKY, National Geographic, Reuters, The Guardian, CALM, Amnesty International, Dell, and the BBC.

The team goes further than not shying away from difficult subjects, they pursue those subjects deliberately and with the knowledge that they’ll be able to do them justice with their documentary style. In ‘Plastic – a Second Life’, a short film for National Geographic, Simon+Ben travelled to Kenya to capture the true face of plastic pollution as experienced by Kenyan locals, and how innovative tech is helping to reverse it.

For SKY, the directors went to Hawaii with ten SKY viewers in tow for ‘Turning the Tide’ to show them a different side of paradise, one that’s fast disappearing beneath rubbish and plastic that’s washing up on its shores. Both films are uncompromising in the way they depict an ongoing environmental disaster while offering a glimmer of hope that not all is yet lost.

For CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), Simon+Ben tackled the subject of suicide featuring people who experience suicidal ideation or who have attempted suicide in the last year for the film ‘STAY’. With past experience of working with difficult subjects and the people experiencing the issues at hand, Ben+Simon struck the ultimate balance - faithfully representing the mental health struggles of those experiencing suicidal ideation without sensationalisation. The film is intimate and ultimately reassuring, expressing the charity’s message with elegance.

Beyond the Cannes Lions Grand Prix win, ‘I Will Always Be Me’ has racked up an unbelievable tally of 39 awards globally. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why. Ben and Simon’s camera is imperceptible as the lives of the people living with MND is reconstructed on screen, and the viewer is taken inside homes, lives, and families during the difficult time.

A non-scripted approach

As BORDERLAND, Zoe, Ben and Simon have garnered quite a reputation for working on tough projects, whether that’s due to the subject matter at hand, the logistical challenges of a production, or – as is often the case – both. Having been in the agencies’ shoes before, the trio know what kind of challenges and anxieties their clients are facing at every step of the way, which means they can assuage and advise from the idea’s conception through to production and then delivery.

One thing the trio won’t compromise on is the script insofar as they don’t believe in scripting authentic expression and feelings of the documentary’s subjects. Realising how that’s a difficult pill for clients to swallow, Zoe explains: “We get it, we’re working with brands who need to hit specific points. But we know there is nothing more impactful than a true reflection or feeling about an experience or a product coming from the very people who need it.” 

In this way, BORDERLAND is a conduit between the people they’re filming, the client they’re working for, and the viewers. Working intentionally yet fluidly, they approach each of those elements individually to best fulfil the brief.

How do they do it? Firstly, they have years of skilled experience under their belts. Secondly, over those years, they’ve honed their approach to finding and filming real people down to a meticulous craft. Simon+Ben (with help from Ben’s background in psychology) are also highly adept at the interview process, knowing on an instinctive level how to make people feel at ease, and how to guide them through the interview with the right questions to elicit responses that they’re looking for, without compromising on integrity or undermining a brand’s message.

Nimble, agile, adaptable – any and all of these words apply to how BORDERLAND works. Due to the nature of how they started making films, Simon+Ben shoot most of what they make - It means that they’re able to give their subjects time, no matter how small or big a part they play in the final film, to build a rapport and prepare them for filming.

Beyond documentaries

Beyond delivering exceptional documentary work for clients, BORDERLAND is also building a roster of in-house talent who share the same passion and drive as the founding team. “We get excited when we see young directors making films about the issues they are deadly serious about,” Zoe says. 

One such talent is Zeina Aref, the Egyptian-born director who started out by exploring through film the way women are represented in Middle Eastern culture. Her work is colourful and filled with energy, already distinct in style and with a strong point of view. “This boldness and fearlessness has allowed her to take on the trickiest of subjects but with a subtle sense of fun. Her exploration of womanhood was picked up by NOWNESS and she has just finished her first TVC,” adds Zoe.

Then there is Myles Desenberg. Having cut his teeth creating beautiful character lead films for the likes of Nike and DAZN, Myles' passion for understanding the human psyche recently led him to explore the lives of men living in the North East of England in the aftermath of Brexit. His film ‘A Man’s Man’ sets out to break down stereotypes and go beyond the facade of what it means to be a man. It also ultimately tells us something vital about this country we call home and the challenges it creates for men today.

The year ahead is going to be a challenging one for all, with brands and agencies likewise feeling the effects of uncertain economic and political times. With that in mind, they need to consider how to best reach their customers with messages that’ll truly resonate. Who should be crafting those messages? Experts finely attuned to the benefits and challenges of working with difficult issues and the people experiencing them. BORDERLAND has proven to be a company that tackles the tough head on, without compromise, and they’re more than ready to bring that dedication and authentic storytelling to their next challenge. 

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BORDERLAND, Fri, 17 Feb 2023 09:36:16 GMT