Interview: Mark Henderson, ‘My Kidnapper’

In My Kidnapper (2010), three members of a group of eight backpackers who spent 102 days in captivity after being kidnapped in Columbia in 2003 return to the country to confront the men and women who detained them, in an attempt to finally put the most distressing experience of their lives behind them. The film plays out as an anthropological analysis of the effects of being kidnapped, and how this event has irrevocably changed the lives of those involved.

The film’s main focus lies on one member of the kidnapped group, Mark Henderson (who also directs), and immediately we are invited into his mindset as he describes how hard it is to be going back there, and how the presence of a Colombian Army escort only makes matters worse.

The personal tone expressed by the opening sequence is present throughout My Kidnapper, and as we closely follow Mark’s journey it resonates profoundly at key moments of the film, reminding us that this is no fictionalised dramatisation; this is the story of a man who is trying to make peace with the most traumatic experience of his life.

The honest and undressed style of the film, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra Nevada jungle, constantly plays with our emotions, tapping into, and reminding us of our humanity at its most basic – where day-to-day survival is the only real goal. As a result, My Kidnapper is a bold and distinct piece that stands out from numerous past documentary films that have attempted to provide dramatised reconstructions of deeply personal experiences, to various degrees of success.

In a recent interview between myself and director Mark Henderson, the obvious importance of an honest and humanised approach to telling his story was apparent. Henderson states, “I never wanted to make a film that involved reconstructed material. In fact, I was approached at least once every year following the kidnap about telling my story but I really did not want to sit in a nicely lit room to tell it. What we wanted to do was to go back to Colombia and re-experience it all and re-examine what happened.”

It’s clear that for Henderson, My Kidnapper is primarily a means of moving on and a way of dealing with what happened: “Making the film was the most cathartic experience I could have had in relation to the kidnap; I didn’t even realise it at the time but it really was” said the director. He goes on to state, “Not only did we go back to where it all happened, we met many of the people involved, and even one of the guys who did this to us”, referring to one of his kidnappers “Antonio”, who is depicted – albeit anonymously – in the film.

Following his release and subsequent return to the UK in 2003, Henderson spent nearly a year looking for answers and explanations to help him deal with the experiences he had to endure, but eventually hit a wall, realising he could get no more information. Then one day, out of the blue, he received an email from his kidnapper, Antonio. In our discussion Henderson described the emotions that he went through after hearing from one of the men who held him captive: “At first there was a little excitement because I had spent the whole eleven months following the kidnap just looking for answers, and had pretty much exhausted everything, so hearing from Antonio gave me the opportunity to complete the circle and perhaps move on.”

In perhaps the most compelling part of the documentary, Mark and Reini (another of the hostages) meet their kidnappers, Antonio, and his wife Camilla. The atmosphere is so uncomfortably relaxed, enhanced by the fixed camera work that remains frozen and focused, illustrating loudly the discomfort and all round tension that clearly emanates from those in the room, making the whole scene come across as wholly unsettling. Mark is here for answers and Antonio ultimately seeks forgiveness for his actions, with both men seemingly getting at least a little of what they want and arguably perhaps enough to give them an answer to their thoughts and feelings.

Referring to the meeting with Antonio, Henderson states that he thought that “going out there and speaking with him [Antonio] face to face would be a very interesting way of telling the story” as he “never really wanted to tell it in retrospect anyway.” He goes on to highlight the personal importance of the film by saying how he “never made it with an audience in mind” and how he just needed to make the film for himself on many levels, highlighting the complexity of making such a personal film.

My Kidnapper is an incredibly powerful personal account of what it is like to be kidnapped and to be held captive – devoid of any dramatised reconstructions and special effects – that will hopefully bring both closure and recognition to an extremely talented film maker in Mark Henderson.

My Kidnapper is released today and will be aired on More4 on 22 Feb at 10pm

Russell Cook