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!

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!

The Transfer Co-working space

Recently my lunches have got a lot more interesting.  Instragram-able even.  Not that I would expect people to get too excited by what I’m putting in my belly when I’m at work.  However, what it does represent is something very exciting happening in the way I work.

You see, over the past few months I have been co-working out of The Transfer, a co-working space within The Old Print Works on the Moseley Road in Balsall Heath.  Co-working involves pitching up in a shared office space to work for the day and paying a daily, weekly or monthly fee to do so.  It can be as flexible as you need it to be, which is so important for freelancers as work shifts and changes.  Here there is tea and coffee included, and a variety of spaces to nestle down.

You may know The Old Print Works through one of its many tenants – the cosy community Ort Café, the Artist led exhibition space at Ort Gallery or Sundragon Pottery.  Or perhaps you’ve been to one of the events here (monthly Muzikstan nights are highly recommended!).  It’s a work in progress as the community of freelancers, makers and creatives try to breathe new life into an old industrial building, but this is the vision…

If you haven’t yet explored the Old Print Works, we are an eclectic and growing bunch of makers, doers, designers, artists, musicians, teachers, dreamers, builders and thinkers, sharing our skills and art and creations with the community in an even more eclectic and exciting space. The Old Print Works is full of studios, galleries, spaces and surprises – both indoors and out.

For me, it’s a small haven, a cosy place to hide away and be productive which is right on my doorstep.  There are so many little hideaways here and it’s full of greenery.  Tea and coffee are on tap, and the sustainable ethos of the place means that there is a mish-mash of furniture and decor, giving it a really homely feel.  I’m even managing a weekly lunchtime swim across the road in Moseley Road Baths whilst I still can!

I’m not really one of the ‘doers or thinkers’ here, but I do enjoy being around people with a ‘can-do’ attitude to making the building viable and vibrant.  It’s very much what Balsall Heath is about.

Which is where my lunch comes into the equation.  Co-workers gather each lunchtime for a communal lunch, tucking into food prepared at home or bits and pieces grabbed from nearby shops (cheesy naan bread made in front of you in a tandoor oven at Kurdistan Mini Market anyone?).  In the Summer bits of fruit, veg and herbs are picked straight out of the garden at the back of the building.  Everyone contributes something and somehow the result is always greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s also a chance to get to know co-workers, catch up with each other and step away from the screen properly.  The upshot is that my time at the computer is far more productive, even if I feel like I’m being really indulgent by stopping for a sociable lunch.

So, given the option of staying at home trying to work, sitting in a café trying to make a Cappuccino last a few hours or coming to a dedicated, friendly and affordable co-working space I think it’s an obvious choice.  Come along for a free trial and see what you think.

What is ‘Care’?

Care.  It’s about wanting the best outcome for someone.  Working with them to make that happen.  Simple, right?

In practice, providing ‘care’ can be complex and far from straightforward, particularly within the NHS and the vast range of services it provides.  Recognising these conundrums, and against the backdrop of ‘The Francis Report’ into care standards which stemmed from malpractice within hospitals in Staffordshire, I was commissioned to make a series of short case studies looking at what patients, their families and health practitioners understand by the term ‘care’.  These films now form part of the training that all medical students at Birmingham City University undertake prior to their first placements.

It was an eye opening and frequently emotional experience, exploring the tough calls, tight relationships and massive dedication required on a daily basis to ensure that patients receive the care and treatment they need.  It was a real privilege to be invited into people’s homes and lives and have them speak so candidly about their experiences.

Here is one of the seven case studies – Madeleine and Liz.  Liz articulates so well how sometimes you have to be, if not cruel to be kind, certainly assertive.  More films in the series can be viewed through the Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust Student Hub portal.

Patient Stories – Madeleine and Liz from BCHC COMMS on Vimeo.

Importing AVCHD MTS footage to Final Cut Pro

I’m NO expert when it comes to the technical side of film-making, but I do, when required spend a fair bit of time on Google, sifting through discussion forums to find a solution to whatever problem I’m faced with. Recently I bought a Canon XA-10 camera to replace my trusty and well-loved Canon XL2 (which I’m on the cusp of selling but I’m still thinking that it’s a fantastic camera and could be brilliant in some circumstances, despite being SD.  If you’re interested in buying then get in touch).

When I got it home and started playing I realised that the MTS format I wanted to film in wasn’t immediately compatible with Final Cut Pro 7.  Rather frustrated that I couldn’t scoot through the footage on Preview (much like a .mov file when imported), I started looking through forums.  No, I didn’t cave in and open a bottle of wine.  Yes, it was tempting.

So (and this is just my limited experience so far), you DON’T need to pay to download expensive software.  Just change the import settings to one of the Apple ProRes 422 settings (use Proxy or LT for small file sizes, the normal Apple ProRes 422 setting for quite large, or HQ for the best quality) and import the MTS files through the Log and Transfer window.  It allows you to view clips in real time and decide what to import.  I’ve been able to edit with no problems, my first edit has been sent in this morning and I’m really happy with it.  There’s more information on the workflow in the FCP 7 handbook.

Editing

The reason I put this up is because it looks as though two companies, PavTube and BroSoft have hijacked all of the discussion threads to sell their software.  I may be missing a trick here.  Maybe I imagined that I converted my footage without any other software or plugins.  Maybe the software creates a better workflow.  Maybe the conversion results in better looking or sounding footage.  Maybe these companies are ripping people off.

Anyhow, I hope that this is of some use.  As I say, I’m no tech-head so I’m not wanting to get into a prolonged debate.  This works for me at the moment, it may work for others.  This post may save you some money.  Read around, decide what works for you…

I’m back!

IMAG0056

It’s almost a year since I last updated the blog (If you read my last post then you will have some idea why.  Little Bean is now a big, crawling all over the place Big Bean who goes by the name of Adam – or Adamdamdamdam if you ask him).

I’m now working part time and I’m fortunate enough to be working on a really interesting and diverse range of projects.  Some of them are a continuation of work I was doing before Maternity Leave, most of them are completely new projects I’m working on.

I’d like to say a big thank you to all of the people that I’ve worked with that have been willing to be flexible as I juggle being a new Mum with my freelance work.  What I feared would be a really stressful period has been really enjoyable!

The future of Creative Partnerships

You’ve probably picked up on these pages that I’m incredibly enthusiastic about fresh, exciting and creative ways of learning. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with a broad range of youth groups and young people for all kinds of projects.

I have a particular soft spot for the Creative Partnerships scheme which involves so-called ‘Creative Practitioners’ (that’s shorthand for talented, creative people from a range of disciplines with a passion for learning!), going into schools and inspiring young people and staff through all manner of different workshops.  I do film workshops which can focus on literacy, IT, research and communication skills to name the most obvious ones, there are plenty more!  The bottom line is that attainment and engagement amongst pupils increases massively in places where these projects run.

So, whilst it’s been on the cards for a while, it’s devastating to hear that the planned cuts to arts funding may hit Creative Partnerships hard.  Have a read of this article in today’s Guardian for more on the background to it.  On the plus side, this report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that there is a clear economic benefit to these projects.  Whilst measuring Creative Partnerships projects by their economic value kind of misses the point, it does hopefully provide a stronger case for the continuation of the scheme.

Just in case you’re in any doubt about the scheme, here is a video I worked on with young people from Baxter College in Kidderminster.  I can’t claim to have been the lead in the project – credit there goes to Hayley Pepler and Alison Grade – it was an inspiring project to be a part of and really highlights the benefits of CP projects.  Young people scripted the trailer for a series of programmes they have yet to produce, then quickly picked up the rudiments of filming, sound recording and directing, before going on to liaise with staff and pupils throughout the school to film everything in a day.  I’ve met professional film makers that would be unable to pull that off!  The buzz that you see in the video isn’t just all show, it’s a genuine excitement that passed around the school as the day wore on.  Magic.

Baxter TV Trailer from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

Birmingham’s Culture blogged

As I type the seconds are ticking down until midday on Saturday 24th April, the deadline for submitting your cultural shenanigans in Brum onto the Birmingham Big City Culture Blog.

The blog is part of Birmingham’s bid to become the ‘City of Culture’ in 2013. It’s hoped that through allowing people to add their ‘cultural activities’ over a 24 hour period that the website can get a snapshot of the broad range of exciting activities taking place across the city. Reading through the blog so far I’m really enthused by the variety of events, both in the city centre and in local neighbourhoods. It’s really lovely to see children’s events in community libraries next to contemporary art exhibitions at the IKON, next to research projects by students, next to lunchtime chamber music at the CBSO centre.

What really strikes me is that we seem to see culture as encompassing all kinds of different activities, many of which would never normally register on the radar of those who spend time hand-wringing over Birmingham’s lack of culture. The blog is incredibly refreshing, and really highlights the passion and pride we have about what happens in our city.

So, in the spirit of the blog, and not wanting to fall into the stereotype of the unassuming Brummie, here’s my contribution on what I got up to yesterday!

For more information on the bid you can go to the bid’s website or follow them on Twitter.

A good direction

In my last post I mentioned that I was going to be attending two events on 11th November.  Both were incredibly stimulating, and got me really enthused about developing my own creative practice to bring exciting new educational opportunities to young people, and crucially, to help them to be confident to voice their own thoughts and ideas.

I’m very pleased to share the news that I was accepted onto the Radiate Training Scheme which gives ‘creative practitioners’ (that’s me apparently!) the skills and support to develop their own creative practice in schools.  The scheme runs from December to next July, and in that time I’ll be attending a number of training days and will devising and implementing a project in a school, mentored by Radiate and school staff.

All in all last week gave me a renewed sense of why I think that film can be such a useful tool.  A good direction methinks.  As the quote on the Radiate frontpage says ”It’s a fantastic opportunity to see the working environment in which I want to be a part of…’

Back to School

It’s taken me months to get round to writing up a page about my work at Robin Hood JI School over the Summer Term.  Luckily some of the reason for this has been that I have busy with running around on several other project, including an extensive project with The Wildlife Trust (more on that later!) and another film project for Solihull Libraries!  However, the main reason is that it involved so many different and exciting strands that I wasn’t too sure where to begin!

You can now find a summary of the project on the Schools Page although it still feels as though I’ve not done it justice.  As a freelance film-maker it was such a fantastic experience to challenged to produce something fun and exciting which would leave staff and pupils with a lasting legacy.  Pupils not only had DVDs to take home, I genuinely believe that they grew in confidence and would now be able to produce their own films.  In fact, a browse round the school’s excellent website this morning revealed that Year 4 have been making their own Origami Videos! Great stuff!

I’m hoping to build on this schools work through taking part in further training.  I’m thrilled to have been shortlisted for the Radiate Training Scheme (fingers crossed for that!) and next week I’ll also be attending the ‘Youth Voice’ seminar at Queensbridge School which looks excellent!