Why Oral Histories?

I recently tentatively wrote a little bit about some of my explorations into thinking a bit more about my role as a film maker or storyteller, about how I can develop my work to have more impact and about how I can collaborate with others who inspire me.

A superb opportunity for reflection and learning has been the University of Sunderland‘s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Arts and Media’ online course, developed in partnership with ArtsWorks Alliance and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  It’s packed with really interesting case studies, as well as lots of opportunities to reflect on what the learning means in respect of my own work.  As part of the course, I have been asked to write a blogpost reflecting on an aspect of my own participatory practice and why I feel passionate about this.  So, here goes…


When I reflect on the most enjoyable and satisfying projects that I’ve worked on, they have consistently related to using oral histories and archives with young people.  I see participatory heritage projects as a starting point for participants to understand more about who they are, how they can connect to the world around them, how they fit into the wider picture and how change happens in society.

Pupils are turned off learning about people and places which are distant geographically, historically and in relation to their own lived experiences.  Yet when events from the past are presented in an exciting and relevant way, rather than a series of facts to be digested and regurgitated, really interesting things begin to happen.  When they play a role in taking ownership of the work then things get really exciting!

The Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ ‘Pool of Memories’ project was one such project.  It linked pupils’ experiences of swimming at their local swimming pool to the experiences of people who had swum, bathed or worked in the building in the past.  Through tours of the building, online research and oral history interviews, we created some very passionate champions for local swimming facilities!

Heritage Projects can also give space for young people to open up about their family’s personal stories.  Here is an old film created for The Lichfield Festival by a pupil about her Great Grandfather’s experiences of military service in North Africa in WWII.

In this film produced with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, students from Swanshurst School were involved in researching the experiences of wounded soldiers from WW1 in South Birmingham and interviewing War Veterans from other conflicts.  In their reflections on the project they highlighted why these kind of heritage projects are important:

‘You learn so much about where you live and what goes on that you feel responsible to continue this’.

‘I think that taking part in experiences like this can be even more informative than learning about it in lessons, because in this situation you’re learning more about actual people’s experiences’.

I am interested in developing this work further, so that workshop participants can come away with the skills and confidence needed to explore spaces, places and people around them independently.  Instead of one-off experiences, is it possible to create a culture of curiosity, where understanding events of the past is valued more than it is at present?

This will mean using archives and stories more creatively – ‘curating’ material in creative ways to develop narratives which have a resonance for others, beyond the initial participants.  How can the ‘responsibility’ that the student spoke about develop into action which impacts on people’s lives in the present day?  What kind of infrastructure is needed to support young people to take on this task?  What are the best examples of participatory, creative and empowering heritage work?  Do share your thoughts!

40 years of Birmingham Friends of the Earth

Birmingham Friends of the Earth are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year. To help mark four decades of campaigns and action, I am working with local historian, Liz Palmer,​ on a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project.  It will involve working with activists, past and present, to explore memories and archives.

Back in April I attended the 40th Anniversary Party.  The fact that it was so well attended (see above!) really shows what an important role Birmingham Friends of the Earth, and The Warehouse, have played in people’s lives.  So much has been achieved, so many friendships formed and so much creative and committed work has been put into making positive and sustainable environmental change.

If you want to get involved with delving into archives or recording oral histories, there is an informal meet-up next Tuesday, 8th August at 6pm at The Warehouse on Allison Street. Or, if you would like to be kept in the loop with news and events, you can subscribe to the project newsletter for occasional updates.

Do you have a 2 year old?

I’ve written several times about the excellent work that Balsall Heath Children’s Centre do.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t really coming across in a PowerPoint presentation that staff had been using about free childcare provision for pre-school children.  The challenge was to incorporate the experiences of local families into a short film.

As you can probably guess from watching the film, I had rather a lot of fun hanging out with Siobhan and Kiara who have both benefited hugely from accessing services at the Children’s Centre.  If you need any evidence that Early Years provision changes lives, then this is it.

This film to promote the Government Scheme was produced for Balsall Heath Children’s Centre to encourage local parents to take up the free childcare offer. Balsall Heath and surrounding neighbourhoods have low rates of pre-school children in education, yet as Siobhan and Kiara demonstrate, attending an early education setting can have real benefits to children and their families.

Lichfield Travels

Where are you from?  Where have you been?  Where are you going?  These are all questions that I have been asking as part of a new commission for The Lichfield Festival.  As part of the Festival’s focus on journeys, we wanted to explore Lichfield’s connections to the wider world – and what better way to do that then through a gargantuan map!

Last Saturday, on Day 2 of the Festival, I took up residency for the day in the Festival’s pop-up shop, armed with the said map, a wad of colourful stickers and a bag of craft materials.  As well as a band of trusty Festival volunteers, I also had a Hare and Tortoise for company!  Using the map, I invited members of the public to mark out where they were from, where they have lived or worked, and one place (only one!) where they would like to go.  This sparked off some fantastic discussions, particularly between families.  Kids planned out holidays, their parents pointed out some far flung places they had visited, some visitors revealed ‘other lives’ spent as children overseas.

Alongside the map, we have been creating a ‘patchwork quilt’ of our collective journeys, ahead of Textile Artist Elizabeth Blades’ upcoming textile project (keep an eye on the Festival website or even better, join their mailing list for more details).  Using maps, stickers, crayons, pens and plenty of imagination, participants created their own ‘patch’, illustrating a journey which has been, or will be important to them.  Some have been fantastical (flying cars and trips to the moon), some have been fond memories (childhood holidays on the beach) and others have been possibly the first stage in planning an adventure (Manga fans wanting to visit Japan and children excited about going on an African Safari).

Come and view the quilt and the map so far and add your own journey this coming Saturday, 10-3pm at the Festival Shop, next door to Costa Coffee in Three Spires Shopping Centre.  If you can’t make it, maybe add your own journey to the conversation using the #lichfieldtravels hashtag.

Here is a quick timelapse that I put together of the day – if you were there, see if you can spot yourself!

Reflections on ‘Breaking the Silence’

I’m currently trying to take in the impact that this film that I edited for Remembering Srebrenica has had since its launch. 370,000 views so far and rising, and an overwhelming response from a packed audience at London’s Guildhall for Srebrenica Memorial Day last night.
 
Journalist Peter Oborne, who compered the evening, struggled to compose himself after it was shown, whilst Nicola Sturgeon told the room that it was powerful, moving and that it was important for everyone to view it.
 
On a day when partial remains of 71 people were interred near Srebrenica, at an event where two women spoke of the atrocities committed against their children and husbands, in a city coming to terms with attacks by extremists, these horrors feel very real, raw and present.
 
This edit has been a huge emotional undertaking, despite the fact that I have not met the interviewees in person. There are hours of interviews which didn’t make the cut, pages of transcripts which are equally horrific in their account of extreme brutality, huge files of unused archive material showing the darkest side of humanity. Thanks to Joe, Amelia, Amra and Amy at Remembering Srebrenica for their hard work in bringing it all together.
 
There is no real pleasure or joy in seeing the response. It is, however, immensely satisfying that I have been able to edit something together which does justice to the brave survivors who entrusted me, a distant and unknown film maker, to edit together their stories. My hope is now that these testimonies lead to more people breaking their silence – not just against sexual violence, but to raise their voices to counter those who seek to dehumanise others. 

Breaking the Silence: The Women of Bosnia

“In all our public appearances, the message to victims is to break the silence and speak out, publicly and loudly about what they survived. Not just for us, but for themselves and for future generations to know, if, god forbid, such evil happens again, how to stand up to it, how to fight for their dignity.”

Bakira Hasečić – Bosnian Women’s Activist and Rape Survivor

In 1995, at the height of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serb Nationalist forces conducted a campaign of rape, sexual abuse and torture against Bosnian Muslim women as part of a policy of ethnic cleansing.  It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, many of them in ‘rape camps’ where they were forcibly detained to prevent them terminating unwanted pregnancies as a result of the attacks.

The genocidal campaign also resulted in the deaths of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica and the surrounding forests.  Some men and boys managed to find their way home years later from internment camps and centres in neighbouring countries, others will never be found, so we will never know the true number of victims.

How does a society even begin to process such brutality?  How can the survivors begin to rebuild their lives as single parents in a war savaged society?  How can we find the language to speak of these atrocities to ensure that they are never repeated?  When I started film making, it was to try and redress the balance in media – to amplify voices of people who are rarely heard.  In places of conflict, the need to hear other narratives is even more important, to foster understanding between people and create conditions for peace and reconciliation.

It has therefore been a privilege and a challenge to play a part in sharing the testimonies of survivors of genocidal rape for Remembering Srebrenica.  The Charity is encouraging the public to ‘Break the Silence’ on violence against women and girls, and has used these powerful stories to highlight just how important it is to speak out against such extreme violence and hatred.

A Bosnian film crew interviewed a number of women, who recounted their horrendous experiences.  Unbelievably, many people deny that the genocide took place and many women live alongside the perpetrators of these crimes, who continue to walk freely.  Speaking out is a brave and radical act, which risks repercussions.

It has been my job to edit these interviews together into two films, alongside archive footage from the conflict.  The films are available to view on Remembering Srebrenica’s website and Social Media accounts – to date they have had almost 80,000 views between them.  The longer, seven minute film, was screened in May at the Scottish Parliament at a special event hosted by MSPs Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont.  Scottish Labour Party leader, Kezia Dugdale has since been out to Bosnia to learn more.

Tomorrow I am attending a very special event at London’s Guildhall for Srebrenica Memorial Day.  In attendance will be some Bosnian women who have been active and vocal in ensuring that such atrocities are never repeated.  They have dedicated their lives to seeking justice in their communities and in the courts.  Politicians from across the political spectrum will also be there and will watch the film.

We all have a role to play in challenging the bigotry, intolerance and hatred which create the conditions for these horrors to occur.  That such events happened so recently and so close to home should act as a warning to us all that dehumanising groups of people and creating a climate of fear and paranoia can have real and devastating consequences.

Both films contain graphic accounts of sexual violence.

Hedgehog Helpers are go!

Back in February I wrote about an exciting HEDGEHOG related project that I had in the pipeline.  Well, I’m thrilled to share the finished film – it’s going down a storm with the kids who made it, their classmates, teachers, parents and the super people who worked on the project.

Mr Griffin from St Albans RC School receives a hedgehog friend from Julia from the Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery.

The film is the culmination of a partnership between Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery, The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, Birmingham City Council Park Rangers and pupils from St Albans RC Primary School and Woodthorpe JI School to give ‘Help for Hedgehogs’!

The short film was made by pupils at both schools, and I gave hands on support along the way, as well as editing it all together. It is packed with information about how YOU can help encourage hedgehogs into your own garden and neighbourhood. Hedgehog numbers have declined dramatically in the past 50 years – unless communities take urgent action we may witness their terminal decline in our lifetime.

This project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and took place between August 2016 and July 2017. 

Really enjoyed my child taking part in the hedgehog project.  It has made us all curious as a family to do our bit to help the hedgehogs, but also spread the word to others.  This project has built confidence and self esteem in the children, strengthened relationships for all involved, promoted curiosity in nature and started a very special journey for children, families, schools and their communities.  It is a joyous project that should be rolled out and continue to be funded to help many more.  Thank you.

Anyone for tea and cake?

On Thursday I will be representing the People’s Heritage Co-operative at Arts Connect’s Artist and Teachers Tea Party.  It’s an chance for teachers to explore opportunities for commissioning creative projects in schools which can enhance the school curriculum.  I’ve blogged about some of the projects I’ll be showcasing over on the People’s Heritage Co-operative blog, including giving a sneak peek of the Women’s History Birmingham project pictured above (more on that soon!).

If you are in any doubt as to how important the arts are to education then it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time to watch Ken Robinson’s TED talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity?  In his talk he outlines the importance of encouraging young people to access creative learning opportunities.

If you are a teacher and are interested then book online.  The event runs from 3:00pm-5:30pm at mac Birmingham.  Come and say hi – there will be cake aplenty!

Sparklers – a beacon in their communities

Last Summer I was asked by Balsall Heath Children’s Centre to document their ‘Sparklers’ parent peer mentoring programme.  Now, the Children’s Centre’s Stay and Play groups have been like a second home for my little family and I over the past few years, so I am slightly biased when I say that their vision and provision for local families are excellent.

‘Sparklers’ are a group of parents in Birmingham who are doing dynamic, life changing work in their local community. Through parenting classes and peer support they are pushing themselves to take on important roles as mentors whilst assisting other families through signposting.  The project, which is a collaboration between Balsall Heath Children’s Centre, Washwood Heath Children’s Centre, Clifton Primary School and Approachable Parenting, has been recognised at a national level through the prestigious ‘Nursery World’ awards. This is their story.

Feasting on Brain Food

Freelancers may recognise the conundrum.  We get to pick and choose projects, working nomadically, taking inspiration from those we work with, learning new skills and forging new relationships.  But getting tantalising tastes of what others are doing and not having our own roots can be a frustrating experience.

Over a decade into working in this way, I’m seeking a way to develop projects with more depth, more impact and longer term relationships and collaborations.  That means standing back and asking some important questions.  How can I be braver in using film and media (or another medium altogether?) to tell stories that matter?  How can I find co-conspirators and collaborators to develop projects which are genuinely participatory and have a positive impact on people’s lives?  What is it that I do well and what is unique about what I do?  What skills am I lacking?  How do I define what I do when my interests seem so broad and hard to pin down?

Lately I’ve been investing some time in trying to find answers to some of these big questions.  The first step was actually articulating some of this to people around me.  It turns out I have some very wise and inspiring friends who were able to see a perspective on my work and career that has eluded me whilst in the midst of raising two little ones.  Special thanks goes to Jane Ralls for her excellent coaching session, Sandra and Lee at Friction Arts for insisting on making space for me to get curious and Aimee Green Bourne for prodding me to play.  Note to self: meet up with friends more.

The next step has been to enrol in some more formal learning around leadership, participatory arts practice and facilitation.  I am on the cusp of completing Arts Connect WM’s ‘Arts Leadership Development Programme’.  Learning about the journeys of other ‘Leaders’ in the Arts and Cultural sector has been really inspiring – I guess that’s why I’m determined to share my own thoughts, to throw open the conversation a bit more.  There is so much to learn from others in the arts, yet we usually just see the finished product, rather than the journey that people have made.  That’s the bit I want to learn more about, warts and all, and I hope to interrogate people a lot more in the near future!

I have some rough ideas of next steps that I’m not quite ready to share – there are a few more courses and conversations planned in the near future which will help me decide on what happens next.

I’m curious as to whether any of this resonates with anyone else reading this.  Where are you on the journey, what have you learnt along the way and is there value in sharing your own journey with others?  I’ll be sharing updates from time to time, I’d love to hear your thoughts!