Video journalist explains the most bizarre situations he's found himself in
Jake Warren is a filmmaker and journalist who aims to lift the lid on some of the world's most unusual people. From the bizarre to the downright dangerous, Warren has met individuals whose belief systems seem impossibly different to ours.
Having nurtured a friendship with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, he has associates in a range of strange places. He has even spent time with a man who went to fight for ISIS and is believed to have replaced "Jihadi John" as ISIS's chief executioner.
VT: You have quite a close relationship with the government of North Korea. How did this come about?
“People don't often realise that here in the UK, unlike America, we have full diplomatic relations with North Korea. I can't go into too much detail about how I established a relationship, as I still have some potential ongoing projects there, but ultimately it came about like any access - establishing contacts, ingratiating yourself and building a degree of mutual trust. They are more willing to engage with the outside world, even with those who aren't sycophants for the regime, than perhaps we give them credit for.
"It is a fairly strange experience to find yourself in the North Korean embassy singing happy birthday to a picture of deceased president Kim Il-sung"
“I knew from quite early, on when I decided to pursue journalism that, shall we say, a more traditional route in wasn't for me. I have always been fascinated with the extremities and fringes of belief - this idea that you can you explore cultures so alien from what you know and have experienced but still find an overlapping commonality of interest or purpose. North Korea is billed as the last place behind the Iron Curtain, nearly impossible to access unless on some overcharged tour, so I knew I had to go -and will hopefully be returning soon.
“It is a fairly strange experience to find yourself in the North Korean embassy singing happy birthday to a picture of deceased president Kim Il-sung as if he were alive and well. But then, not much about dealing with North Korea isn't strange by normal convention. I still get personalised “happy New Year” cards from the NK government, so haven't been blacklisted...just yet.”
VT: And you receive invites to various embassy engagements?
“Yes, they typically have a few events a year at their official embassy-cum-semi-detached-house in Acton Town. The main ones are for their national day and Kim Il-sung's birthday. It seems to mainly be attended by a dying breed of old school British communists in ill-fitting suits with odd lapel badges, any North Korean in the UK in an official capacity, interns from think tanks and myself.”
VT: Has there ever been an opportunity that you didn’t pursue because you considered it to be too risky?
“Definitely. Two really stand out. One was fairly recently as part of our Message Heard podcast documentary series Undiscovered. In one episode, we investigate and track down that infamous warlord made famous by YouTube, Joseph Kony. Robert Young Pelton, an adventurer and journalist who was involved in our podcast, has been negotiating with Kony and his men about having me go and spend some time with him at his secret hideout. I was invited along, but decided that is perhaps a step too far for me, at least for now.
"Looks and experiences can be deceiving"
“The second, I was invited to Bulgaria by a man nicknamed the migrant hunter, real name Dinko Valev. Mr Valev comes from a Soprano-esque crime family and allegedly has links to almost every element of the eastern European underworld imaginable. Mr Valev took it upon himself to free Bulgaria from those entering his country as part of the migrant crisis. He supposedly has free reign from the Government to do this and has an arsenal of weapons, tanks and even an attack helicopter which he uses to round up poor, unsuspecting people. He documents a lot of this on social media and he invited me to spend time with him. I believe his exact phrasing was ‘come and see how it is done, soft English man’. I kind of regret not going now, thinking more about it.”
VT: What was it like to meet men who would later fight for ISIS? Did you get the sense that this was on the cards for them?
“In all honesty, no. The people I spent time with were Anjem Choudary and his loyal devotees, who for years and years were nothing more than figures for derision and ridicule. ISIS gave these outsiders an outlet to live out their fantasies. But when I spent time with them in east London, the dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate seemed confined to handing out badly designed leaflets and yelling nonsense over a megaphone. There is a tendency in the media to portray men like Choudary and others who joined ISIS as evil geniuses akin to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, constantly working towards reigning armageddon down upon us. The reality in my experience is that the film Four Lions, about bungling wannabe British Jihadis, may as well be a documentary.
"I saw North Koreans in army uniforms drinking steins of beers being served by North Korean women dressed in Lederhosen"
“Looks and experiences can be deceiving though and people change. One of Anjem’s followers who I spent time with was a struggling bouncy castle salesman called Abu Rumaysah. He was actually pretty friendly by Islamic extremist standards and we even shared a delicious garlic naan bread in a Leytonstone restaurant where Anjem and his boys would celebrate their efforts of the day in spreading the word of Sharia. Eighteen months later, however, Abu Rumaysah had gone to Syria to join ISIS was the heir to ‘Jihadi John’. He was filmed beheading someone in a grizzly propaganda video, whilst brandishing a knife and threatening the UK.”
Abu Rumaysah wears a blue polo shirt in the video above
VT: What’s the strangest situation that you’ve found yourself in?
“That's a tough one. I have certainly had my fair share, although it has to be from North Korea. Almost any experience there is strange, as it is a world without context to a foreigner - a country and culture entirely alien to our own. One night, I was taken for dinner at a restaurant in Pyongyang, clearly reserved for important members of the party. It was a traditional Korean restaurant and had sliding doors, closing off various dining rooms.
"It is hard to apply definites to such wild and differing people and groups"
"Midway through the meal I excused myself and sought the bathroom. I clearly took a wrong turn. As I slid open a door, it felt like I was opening the back of the cupboard and peering into Narnia. Upon opening it, I had expected to see a toilet and perhaps some sort of peculiar bidet-esque contraption. In actuality, I found myself gazing at an entire replica Bavarian beer hall. I saw North Koreans in army uniforms drinking steins of beers being served by North Korean women dressed in Lederhosen with plaits in their hair. I was stunned but wanted nothing more than to enter and get a game of beer pong going. Sadly, it wasn't to be.”
VT: Are there any common themes when it comes to the unusual or dangerous people you meet?
“It is hard to apply definites to such wild and differing people and groups. But in my experience, one theme which can usually be applied is a commonality of 'interest'. We tend to portray and label people solely by their extreme or unusual beliefs. But there is often something to connect you on a human level. Some examples I have experienced are supporting the same football team as an ISIS extremist and having a family member in the same school class as the leader of a cult who worships aliens. Finding something to bridge the gap and connect on, however small, can be both common and key.”
VT: In attempting to befriend these people - especially those involved in cults - is there a danger that you could get sucked in?
“I think ‘befriend’ is the wrong word. To gain the confidence and trust of people is different from friendship. With some people, however, that has definitely stemmed into friendship. I vividly remember being in a room with around 40 new-age evangelical Christians, with them singing, chanting and praying. In situations like that, you become acutely aware of being the outsider, the singular non-believer and non-participant in a community. But crucially, the role of a journalist is to observe. You aren't there to buy into something if you are doing your job properly.”
VT: Out of all of the people you’ve met, who surprised you the most?
“I once went for coffee with Brother Colin from the Nation Of Islam. After about 45 minutes of chatting, Brother Colin felt comfortable enough to tell me that I was the first white person he had spent any time with over the last 20 odd years. I was obviously touched, but also surprised at how on earth that was possible in metropolitan London?
“The biggest surprise for me, in a positive sense, was spending time with Satanists. When you think of Satanists, you probably conjure up a Hollywood incarnation in your mind of bloodletting and sacrifice. Actually, the Satanists I have spent time with are activists for progressive and important issues and live their life by a simple mantra 'Think of all the terrible things that are done in the name of God, why can't we do wonderful things in the name of Satan?'”
The first ever Message Heard podcast launches on 27 February. Message Heard focuses on proactive journalism and immersive storytelling. Named "Conflicted", the show features an ex-Al Qaeda jihadi turned MI6 spy and a former monk turned filmmaker.