Exploring belonging through film

November 5, 2009 — Comment

Written by Jenny Bourne

In the UK, a number of innovative projects have been using film as a way of encouraging young people to look at their communities and engage with issues of identity and the meaning of heritage.

The projects are of differing sizes, address different age groups and have had access to different amounts of funding. But all have in common the ambition to work with young people in multiracial and deprived urban areas, to impart knowledge and skills about the media and, through film, to enhance young people’s awareness of their heritage and therefore their place in society today.

I’m Black and I’m proud

One of the first to embark on such a venture was BEAT – the Black Experience Archive Trust – in 2006. (See IRR News story: ‘Black Experience Archive Trust launch’) With backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, members of Migrant Media – better known for hard-hitting documentaries on migrant labour exploitation and deaths in custody – worked through the Parkview Academy and the West Green Learning Centre in Tottenham (north London) with over forty Black young pupils of 12 or 13 years old. Meeting for two hours after school each week, the pupils were trained in digital media skills by Ken Fero and Soulyeman Garcia. At the same time discussions were held with the young people about the importance of knowing one’s heritage and they were encouraged to investigate their own communities to uncover the contributions that local Black people had made. Interviews were then set up and filmed with local Black people talking of their experiences in Britain – which ranged from being a pilot in the war to being part of a local rap crew.

BEAT co-founder Ken Fero explained how important it was for the young people to retrieve their own history. ‘When the anniversary of Windrush happened [1998] it was like if you didn’t come over on that ship, you didn’t exist. This project is all about pride in Black heritage which has been ignored for so long.’

In March 2007, the young pupils were taken to see the play ‘Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame’ at the Hackney Empire, an important theatre in east London, after which they had the chance to interview some of the cast members. And the comments of the youngsters were telling. From Sheddean, ‘At first I thought the performances were going to be boring but then when I saw a boy that was rapping I changed my mind. The bit I enjoyed most was the part when Malcolm X said “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” … I found the whole day interesting and I have learned to be proud of who I am and my skin colour. As they said in the play “I’m Black and I’m proud”.’ From Carlynne, ‘The Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame was the most fun, exciting thing that I have ever see because it was about the black people in the days and how they lived. It was very hard, but they tried their best to cope.’ From Stephanie, ‘I was happy I went, impressed and inspired. This is the best source of information to learn black history … Mostly black people made a significant contribution to the world like we started music and dancing and if it were not for our contribution to England and America would not be the super-powers they are now.’

This educative outing obviously left a deep impression. As well as interviewing local people, the young people also wrote accompanying material about their own family and a Black person they found inspiring. This resulted in an exhibition of autobiographical panels from some of the teenagers who had taken part, with heroes ranging from Marcus Garvey to Thierry Henry (then a striker for north London club Arsenal). In June 2007 the BEAT community history of three CD Roms with nine hours of oral histories was given to the London Metropolitan Archives and a website containing a selection of video interviews and information about the project was also launched.

I’m here to stay

Manifesta, worked during 2008 along similar themes to BEAT, but on a larger scale and across Europe, with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian foundation, Portuguese Television RTP2 and the Equality and Human Rights Commission on its ‘Belonging’ project. Manifesta was set up by Institute of Race Relations’ chair Colin Prescod and cultural worker Marion Vargaftig, who have collaborated since 1996 to develop (marginalised) youth voices, using artistic expression. So ‘Belonging’ worked with youth, with the arts, with new media and with marginalised communities.

‘Belonging’ was a film project with over twenty 15 to 19-year-old young people from culturally mixed backgrounds in Newham (an area of east London in which many minority ethnic groups, including recent refugees, have settled), Casal da Boba (where many families from Cape Verde have lived in slums in Lisbon) and the 20th arrondissement (one of the poorest working-class areas of Paris where immigrants have traditionally settled).

According to Colin Prescod, ‘our first priority and leading ambition was to use the project workshops to encourage youth expression in regard to their excluded predicaments – to tap into, to promote and to platform their preferred ways of addressing matters … With “Belonging” we were engaging in interrogating the notion of “youth identity crisis” which is much touted as explaining cultural or social alienation experienced by new generations of peoples recently migrated and settled in metropolitan heartlands of the capitalist world system.’

‘Belonging’ encouraged young people of these urban areas to explore on film how migrations shape communities and how young people ‘manage multiple, flexible identities while belonging to more than one place’. Working with local creative video artists and film-makers in each place, the objective was to carry the voices and perspectives of young people not just to their own communities, but also on into the mainstream and to policymakers in the three countries. And the project was as much about how to engage with young people as it was about examining the ultimate output. (Even some of the adult animators in the workshops reported on their own personal growth as a result of the challenges specific to working with young people on ‘Belonging’.)

‘The lessons for policy-makers from our project are firstly not about what the film-works say, but about how the quality of (well intentioned) engagements with youth will influence the quality of outcomes of youth projects,’ says Prescod. ‘These will be lessons for project funders, as well as for project organisers and project deliverers.’ And the impact of the films is made at a number of different levels. ‘The films were first screened in young people’s neighbourhoods, then at a variety of public venues in their home cities, as well as internationally at media festivals and on youth media websites – fronted wherever possible by the young film-makers. Finally, these films have been incorporated as core materials in an education pack, specifically designed to address “citizenship” in the formal education curriculum.’

Before the filming began there were a number of small workshops. There was a ‘careful search and selection and preparation of the professional video-artists and film-makers as well as of the local historians who took charge of the workshops in each city neighbourhood’ and ‘deliberate and thoughtful “front-loading” of the workshops, eg priming the young participants with relevant historical and sociological information about their neighbourhoods/cities/nations.’ Close attention was paid to assisting the young participants through each stage of the process. The Lisbon and Paris workshops were ‘animated’ by up to ten adults for up to fifteen young people.

From the workshops emerged forty-three short films. Those about London focus on cultural identity and the idea of Newham being a multiracial melting pot – with many street shots of colourful sari shops and markets. Interestingly, those from Lisbon and Paris, explore more complex social and political aspects of belonging, often through reconstructed mini dramas, having a greater emotional impact. ‘J’y suis, j’y reste’ (‘I am here to stay’), for example, shows a young woman – impassive but firm – contesting day-to-day racism on the Metro.

According to the project coordinators they learnt ‘that the way young people feel is determined by a range of things including generational issues, male/female relationships, fear and danger on the streets, the role of the police … A recurrent theme in all three locations is doing nothing, having nothing to do and being bored; so too are issues relating to peer pressure … unsurprisingly, scenes of habitual prejudice and daily life racism are also represented in some of the films.’

The DVD entitled Belonging/Pertencer/Chez Nous, presenting eighteen of the short films is available in English, Portuguese or French from the Runnymede Trust in the UK. An education pack for use in schools to go alongside the DVD is also available.

To change the world

The last film project is run from a somewhat unlikely source – a charity which commemorates the work of 19th century social reformer Octavia Hill. The Octavia Foundation is a charity in west London which encourages community involvement, the delivery of employment and training opportunities and the promotion of financial inclusion and social care. In 2008, with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Foundation gave eight young west Londoners the opportunity to document the history of their local areas in a film tracing the evolution of Labroke Grove (in Notting Hill, west London) from the 1958 race riots to the present day. The young people attended research sessions and had training in film, interviewing, oral history and archiving. Grove Roots, the highly-acclaimed film they made, premiered in February 2009 at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road and went on to be screened across the country and was widely reviewed in the national press.

Following up on that success, the Octavia Foundation embarked in 2009 on a ‘Hidden Heroes’ film project (since renamed Hidden Herstories) to celebrate the heritage of four local women – Jayaben Desai, Claudia Jones, Amy Ashwood Garvey and Octavia Hill herself – who had a profound impact on community welfare. With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund the new project started in July 2009 and runs for eighteen months. Twenty local young people, seven of them disabled, received training in researching and interviewing techniques as well as production skills for filming and editing an hour-long film and magazine. They also had seminars with key people knowledgeable about Black history such as Marika Sherwood (founder of the Black and Asian Studies Association), Hakim Adi (academic and author on Black History) and Colin Prescod and received disability equality training to promote inclusion within the group. The archive research and filming was carried out over the summer of 2009 and the DVD incorporating three documentaries will be launched on International Women’s Day in March 2010.

According to Gabrielle Tierney who coordinates the project the young people ‘have had in-depth and lively research searches, interesting day trips to places such as parliament and Ealing sudios, and, most importantly, they have had extensive training throughout. Their confidence has grown and they have made friends within the project.’ A worker at the Institute of Race Relations, which supported the project via its Black History archive, commented on the way that the young people benefitted fom the intellectual contamination of going out to new venues. Eighteen-year-old Moktar, of Yemeni descent, thumbing through the IRR’s copies of the West Indian Gazette for information on Claudia Jones and Amy Ashwood Garvey came across stories about Patrice Lumumba’s murder. ‘Who is he? Can we do a film on him next? He looks really interesting?’ Tamieka, a young woman, educated in Jamaica, found one of her old school primers on a shelf and delightedly explained to the group the fables about Anansi the Spider-man.

Mohammed Adam El Omrani, who was introduced to the project by friend Moktar, who had worked on Grove Roots, sums up what he has gained. ‘The experience was a chance to get to know my area’s history and a touch of history of society. This gave me the opportunity, not to just learn about the historical background of society, but its politics which lie beneath it. This gave me knowledge I needed to know and that knowledge gained needs to be used and spoken of as I am initially into politics. There is a lot of wrong in the world today, but to imagine what it must have been like 40-60 years ago, more than credit must be given. With the willpower and motivation people can actually strive to change the world and make it a better place and we should take this opportunity to use people like Claudia Jones and Octavia to learn by example and to change the world as much as we can. I’d like to quote Malcolm X, “Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”.’

Obviously such film projects involve much preparation and educative programmes that go far beyond mere technical classes. But handled in the right way, they can give young people a unique opportunity not just to interact as a group, not just to acquire new skills and learn about their histories but to harness their imaginations to the fight to change the world.

Related links

Migrant Media

The Octavia Foundation

Watch the Belonging films here

Manifesta

Black Experience Archive Trust – BEAT

The Institute of Race Relations is currently conducting a two-year research project on 'Alternative Voices on Integration' funded by the Network of European Foundations (European Programme on Integration and Migration).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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