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!

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!

Reaching Home, Reaching Out

Back in November I wrote about some dance rehearsals and workshops I had been documenting for ‘If I Could Reach Home’.  It was clear from the outset that something beautiful and vital was emerging.

The final performance certainly lived up to that early promise.  The result of the poetry workshops, dance rehearsals and careful choreography was a piece which showcased the beauty of classical Indian dance forms alongside the horror and heartbreak of modern day migration.  As so many of us struggle not to become desensitised to the human suffering on Europe’s shores, this was a very human and real response.

If I Could Reach Home at Rowheath Pavilion

Here is the film which documents the evolution of the project and which gives a few tantalising snapshots of the full performance.  I will be sharing those soon, so do check back if this whets your appetite!  For more information on Magdalen Gorringe’s work, including performance, choreography and her research work into Indian Dance forms in Britain, have a look at her website.

Untold Stories: sharing stories across the generations

This blogpost also appears on the People’s Heritage Co-operative website.

As part of The People’s Heritage Co-operative’s HLF funded project, ‘Untold Stories: Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1’, Year 8 pupils at Swanshurst School took part in a series of workshops with Rachel Gillies – Community Film Maker to learn how to conduct filmed oral history interviews.

The result of their hard work is 11 remarkable interviews with a range of people discussing their own experiences and the experiences of relatives in some of the major conflicts of the 20th Century.  From shelling in the trenches of The Somme to the shelling of Hartlepool, patrolling the Suez Canal to holding the line in Korea, back to the UK to the aftermath of conflict in people’s daily lives, including the reality of medical care, the interviews are eye-opening and frank.

Students took on a massive responsibility in helping interviewees share their often harrowing experiences.  Special thanks must go to staff at Swanshurst School and to former teacher, Doug Smith, who facilitated the project and who organises the school’s annual ‘Veteran’s Day’.  Thanks also to Veterans, School Staff and Lt Col. Steve Jeffery who were so forthcoming and generous in their interviews.

The quality of these interviews really does speak volumes about the maturity and sensitivity of pupils who were only born in the 21st Century.  They are ensuring the the lessons from previous generations are passed on.  And in a world that feels in a state of flux, what could be more important than that?

Editing Untold Stories

Back in September I joined with colleagues from ‘The People’s Heritage Co-operative’ to share the findings from our project, ‘Untold Stories – Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1’.  We launched a teaching resource and a film I had filmed and edited at Highbury Hall.  Ahead of sharing the oral history interviews from the project, here are some excerpts of a blog I wrote whilst editing the project film:

So here I’m sat at my desk, looking through scores of photos and hours of footage, wondering how I’m going to pull so much fantastic stuff together.  My job, you see, is to turn all of the lectures, interviews, workshops and explorations we have undertaken through our ‘Untold Stories’ project into a finished film for our launch on 13th September.

img_6975I have rich pickings here. Workshops where we delved into the archive to discover magazines produced by invalided soldiers, photos of injured servicemen following facial reconstructive surgery, lectures on the sheer scale of organisation required to ensure wounded soldiers were treated, genealogy workshops on tracing WW1 casualties, interviews with Korean war veterans, an interview with a serving Military Surgeon, explorations of Highbury Hall with a group of school pupils… it’s fair to say that we have been busy.

So perhaps for now I should just share some of my favourite snippets, and save the rest for the film.

img_7076My main involvement in the project has been working with pupils at Swanshurst School to teach them how to conduct Oral History interviews so that they are able to do their own interviews. Alongside former History Teacher, Doug Smith, and members of the People’s Heritage Co-operative, we ran a series of workshops to prepare the girls for interviewing war veterans during the school’s ‘Veterans Day’ event.

The stories that emerged over the course of Veterans’ Day really highlighted the variety of experiences. One gentleman spoke about his Grandfather being called up to serve at The Somme alongside his horse. Another interviewee highlighted a number of occasions when his father and comrades were injured in the trenches. Other interviewees spoke about more recent conflicts in WW2 and in the Korean War.

Whaimg_6965t was particularly striking was how much the pupils took away from the experience. Here are a few comments from pupils themselves:

‘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’.

Of course I couldn’t share all of this without also sharing the project film itself!

Untold Stories: Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1 from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

Babies, fonts, baked goods and ducks…

…all of which are linked and make perfect sense when making films with a talented, and very witty, bunch of young people!

Recently I’ve been working with the ‘Woodcraft Pioneers’ in Kings Heath, helping them to make a series of short films. Our starting point was that the group love a decent debate, so we decided to make it light-hearted by giving them some statements to defend through a short film.

We started off doing some basic film-making sessions, looking at how to use equipment and how to conduct interviews. Then it was over to the Pioneers to storyboard and script their own films.  A few highlights of filming included brawling babies, stalking ducks and a mass protest in the middle of Kings Heath Park.

So, a few weeks ago we screened the Premiere of our films, loosely based on the statements: ‘All babies should be taught to ice-skate – just in case’, ‘Comic Sans is the best font’, ‘All money should be replaced with baked goods’ and ‘Ducks are the most evil animal’. Unfortunately (as with most work I do with young people) I can’t share the films online, but hopefully these images give you a flavour of what has been a really enjoyable, if highly surreal, project!

Huge thanks is due to the fantastic volunteers who run the Woodcraft Folk group, a band of very creative, enthusiastic and supportive parents.

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Confessions of a lazy blogger

Hum – so it’s been a while since I’m blogged anything I notice.  I’ve not gone away.  Or at least I did go away, had a baby (yes, another one!) then got back to the business of making more lovely films, albeit on a part time basis.  Fellow travellers in the world of creative and freelance work will know that time is precious when small people enter the equation, so I’ve been head down in work when I’ve not had small children tugging at my legs (and sometimes even when they have been tugging at my legs!).  Sorry for the silence!

So, what to update you with?  Here are a few projects I’ve worked on to give you a flavour…

I’ve been so lucky to work yet again with the fabulous team at DanceXchange who as ever are doing pioneering work in bringing Dance to new audiences.  This time I documented ‘Strive’, a training scheme devised to support Dance Artists in their work with vulnerable and marginalised groups.  The rigor and thought that went into the scheme was fantastic, with plenty for me to take away and use in my own practice.

There have been some really powerful stories that I have been privileged enough to share over the past couple of years.  A series of short films for Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust focused on the stories of patients and carers to try to unpick what ‘care’ means to them.  From a mother of a terminally ill child to a nurse with an unapologetically forthright approach to delivering care, the films really showed how complex a subject it can be.  The films are now part of a package of training materials shown to medical students prior to placements.

Another project in Rowley Regis brought to the screen some research done by a group of adults with learning disabilities. They wanted to share their experiences and frustrations as they navigate their way through the many challenges they face in the day to day – including paying bills and filling in forms, finding work, doing shopping and paying for the Bedroom Tax.

On a much more lighthearted note, I continued my longstanding relationship with The Lichfield Festival by helping a group of young people film a series of shorts, all filmed at Chasewater Light Railway.  The filming was silly amounts of fun and hopefully that’s reflected in the finished films!

I have also been collaborating with other Film Makers – the very talented Sam Lockyer and James Watson of Iconic Productions.  We worked together throughout last Summer to film twelves short films for Nottinghamshire County Council, focusing on The Care Act and the range of services being delivered throughout the County.  You may recognise the voice on some of the voiceovers!

Right – back to it with an edit. And this time I will be sharing it widely when it’s done!

Playing Out

Back in August three roads closed to traffic in Kings Heath to allow kids (and willing adults!) to ‘play out’.  It’s something associated with a bygone era – all of those street games that were so much a part of our grandparents’ childhoods.  A new initiative, called ‘Playing Out’ is trying to create spaces for children to rediscover the art of play – and with it give them opportunities to meet neighbours, form new friendships and to gain a sense of belonging within their own neighbourhoods.

I filmed the event in August for a short promotional film.  There is now a large network of people – residents, play organisations, artists – beavering away to make sure that there will be plenty more events like this.  The film aims to give others inspiration to get their streets closed.  If you are interested then go to www.playingout.net or contact Louise Palfreyman – details at the end of the film.

Discover Dance!

I was a keen little dancer as a kid – ballet, tap, stage dancing.  A precocious little ball of energy, clad in pink lycra with hair in a tight, tight bun and face caked in blue eyeshadow on the stage of Aldridge Youth Theatre.  I loved it, and always get a tingle when I see others experiencing the liberation of leaping about, the point when they are given permission to let go of inhibitions and discover how joyous dance can be.

So how wonderful was it to document a project that encourages dance in the middle of lessons?  Yes, that’s right.  Dance in English.  Dance in Maths.  Dance in French!  And for that to be coupled with seeing professional dancers perform in the middle of your classroom?  To have the opportunity to go on a trip to see a live contemporary dance show?  Tingly.

‘Discover Dance’, a project developed by DanceXchange and Dance4, brings live professional dance to the classroom and uses dance to engage pupils in learning key subjects in a creative, exciting way.  It’s hard to visualise how dance can be relevant to learning about algebra, but as you can see from the film, this works.  Pupils use their bodies to explore concepts and ideas that may not make so much sense on paper.  It’s fun, and so, so liberating to push the desks to one side.  Pupils also have the opportunity to attend a live dance performance, to make connections between what they have learnt in school and the world of professional dance performance in professional venues.  Inspiring stuff.

I’ve been documenting the pilot project in two schools.  The short documentary is now doing the rounds of schools to encourage other schools to participate in developing the project further and bring this wonderful scheme to others.  I think it’s a great idea.  See for yourself.

Discover Dance from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

I’ve worked with the fabulous staff at DanceXchange before – their creativity, vision and commitment to advocate for dance as an art form is wonderful to be around.  Jane Ralls, DanceXchange’s Dance Development Director also provided me with this wonderful reference.

“Rachel Gillies is a wonderful community film-maker, demonstrating real ability to make people feel at ease with her presence and obtain exciting and relevant footage. As the film-maker for our Discover Dance project in 2013, she had a warm and friendly manner and was exceptionally flexible in approach. She did a excellent job of editing the material that she captured to create a snappy advocacy film for us to promote the project – and its already been used on numerous occasions. She would be a real asset to any education/community project – either to help document and evaluate work or to help with promotion.”

If you are a teacher and want to learn more then do contact DanceXchange (in the West Midlands) or Dance4 (in the East Midlands).  Teachers and pupils were raving about the project – I’m excited to see how it develops!

‘Looking After’ children in care

Life can be stressful enough for children and young people within the care system without being passed from pillar to post when it comes to healthcare.  The Looked After Children’s Nursing Service provides a ‘one-stop shop’ for health screening and support.

I worked with pupils at Firsbrook School in Quinton to produce a short animation to illustrate what happens at an annual check up.  The young people, themselves classed as ‘Looked After Children’, worked with their Art teacher, Richard Upton and myself to create the animation.  This involved discussing their own apprehensions and experiences of accessing health care and advice.  This formed the basis of the script which we developed into a stop frame animation, using characters the group developed themselves.

AnimationThe young people are given annual check ups by a specialist team of nurses, and they also have the opportunity to discuss health issues with a specialist paediatrician.  This means that their physical and mental health can be monitored and managed, and support can be offered where needed.  Files are kept in one place and the young person will usually see the same person each year.

This animation formed part of a further film, based on interviews with nurses, doctors and healthcare assistants within the Looked After Children’s Health Team.  This explains in some details what children and young people can expect.

Daisy Hale, Elliot Sturman did a sterling acting job undergoing a mock check, and Jennifer Smith did a fantastic turn as a Social Worker (maybe a new career beckons?).  Huge thanks to everyone within the team was brave enough to go in front of the camera!  Thanks also to everyone at Firsbrook for making me feel so welcome – staff and pupils alike.