“Empathy is key” Thread Studios Reveal The Secret To Capturing Heartfelt Stories in Hostile Places

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Words and interview by Simon Bland 


Cinema is a powerful tool. Often, it’s nothing more than a colourful form of entertainment. However, if used correctly it can transform into an invaluable form of visual therapy that allows viewers to better understand the experiences of others. It’s this crucial element that has emerged as a by-product of the content created by Thread Studios. By venturing into dangerous battle zones and speaking to veterans with astonishing stories to tell, these award-winning storytellers have become experts at sharing rare experiences that others won’t — or simply can’t — capture themselves.  

According to their team, the studio aims to “tell those stories that are hard to get to… The ones in remote and often hostile places, with people going through life-changing experiences” — and through their critically acclaimed work, that’s exactly what they’ve achieved. Founded by Creative Director Mauricio Gris and Head of Production Alex Farquharson, Thread Studios has told unlikely stories about the British Army, mental fitness and the hidden history of military tattoos, with their most recent work inviting survivors of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing to share their stories for the first time. Despite their sometimes difficult-to-digest subject matter, Gris and Farquharson are committed to placing heart and humanity at the centre of everything they do.  

“I’d gone to the New York Film Academy to study Film Direction but chickened out and ended up joining the army,” smiles Gris, recalling his route to becoming a filmmaker for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team. “On my first tour of Afghanistan, I spotted a bunch of soldiers with cameras who turned out to be a combat camera unit that’s designed to deliver stories from places that are too dangerous or politically sensitive for conventional media,” he continues. “I made it my mission within the military to lead this unit.”   

It didn’t take long for Gris to achieve his goal and soon he was confident that it was the career path he wanted to pursue. He eventually followed his passion into the freelance world, again venturing into dangerous territory to capture stories that are often too perilous to reach. “I ended up doing a lot of tough documentary filmmaking in Syria and Iraq and was asked to help tell the story of wounded veterans, some of whom were my friends from Afghanistan who were redefining themselves post-injury,” he tells us. “The work spiralled from there and Thread Studios was born.”   

This hands-on experience is a key factor that helps Thread Studios gain access to personal accounts that are typically difficult to retread. “We have an understanding of the military world but also the civilian world and that’s quite unique,” suggests Farquharson. “It enables us to understand military veteran stories — some of which can be quite harrowing — in a way that lots of others can’t. It also gives us some really amazing access,” she adds. “It’s quite a tight-knit community; one where you really have to earn your stars and gain a lot of trust but we’re in a very privileged position, in part due to the work that we’ve done with veterans and military veterans charities. We’ve earned a position of trust and we’re able to create some really amazing documentaries off the back of it.”   

That said, Gris and Farquharson are keen to ensure their work is accessible to everyone, regardless of people’s awareness of their chosen subjects. It’s here where the duo’s understanding of the civilian world and the key elements that make a compelling narrative come into play. “We always look for the human angle that everyone will understand,” says Gris, “and then we see how that story can be spun out into something deeper.” Farquharson echoes the sentiment: “We’re not making stories for a specifically military-based audience; the stories we’re telling have much wider implications for society. The word that comes to mind is ‘authenticity,’” she says. “That really is the guiding light for everything we do.” 

Being able to relate to difficult personal experiences also helps them to tell unique stories. “Empathy is key,” argues Gris. “Because I’ve been to war and experienced a lot of the stuff or emotions that the people we’re talking to would’ve experienced, we’re able to engage with them on a level that not many others can. It informs everything — the way we approach a story, who we choose to speak to and how we speak to them.” Having equal levels of empathy within the studio team itself is also key, says Farquharson. “That helps with decompression, especially on long shoots. Coming back, we understand day-by-day and blow-by-blow what the other person has been experiencing.”  

The pair’s latest documentary Hyde Park Bombing is a great example of this ethos in action. Throughout its 30-minute run-time, people who were in attendance during this tragedy were able to share their stories and set the record straight about their own experiences of the IRA’s bombing of the Queen’s Life Guard and the fallout that ensued. “It was a big moment for us,” admits Farquharson. “It’s a story that’s particularly close to Mauricio’s heart because it affected his former regiment so it was really important to tell but also a difficult one for us to tell too.”  

Gris adds: “This project was very cathartic [for participants]. Part of our reason for wanting to make it was that I realised this was a story that, for them, hadn’t been told properly. Seeing it on screen and told in a way that their peers and future generations can understand was a real benefit for them.” After crowdfunding the project and hosting a number of busy screenings, it also helped to show the wider industry that there’s a growing audience for this type of content: “I think the industry has responded particularly well to it so far,” says Gris. 

Having previously graduated from Female Founders, our support scheme aimed at female business owners, the opportunity to continue the company’s growth with Enterprise: Evolve appealed to Farquharson. “Female Founders was a really incredible experience. It made us refocus on what our priorities are, where we wanted the business to be in the next five to 10 years and how we were going to get there,” she explains. “We knew we’d need external expertise in order to focus on the investment side of things as it’s not something either of us are experts in. Evolve felt like the most amazing resource and the perfect stepping stone.” Gris has similar thoughts: “We’ve organically doubled and in some cases tripled our turnover year-on-year but we wanted to find a way to super-charge things.”  

What’s more, having the support of Creative UK helps with securing future opportunities, something that’s especially important in an industry that prioritises personal relationships. “It helps to have the Creative UK logo in your footer and gives you a little bit of an edge,” smiles Farquharson. “We’re alongside a really diverse group of companies and I’m hoping we can pick up creative tips on how we can get to where we want to go. It’s also just lovely meeting other people who are doing something similar to you but in different ways,” she says of the experience. “They understand where you’re coming from and the challenges you face when running a small business.”