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Researching BREAK

I'm coming to the end of my residency at Ben Uri Gallery, and wanted to write a post to in some way document the various things I've been up to there over the past few months; things I've learned; thoughts and feelings. This post documents the research phase of the project.

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I participated, generally as an observer, in Ben Uri's open activity days. Aimed at children and young families, these were a chance for visitors to explore their own family's history in terms of migration. Alice Odin and I (mainly Alice!) worked out a 'family passport' - a blank document, also available as an app, where young people could detail the various places their ancestors (or more immediate family) had come from; design a crest, of the kind seen on some passports, that took those origins into account; and add information about places they'd visited, or would like to visit.

I programmed a series of public film screenings. This had a dual purpose: on the one hand it was a kind of literature review, and on the other, it was a way to engage new audiences for the residency. I curated eight seminal films which depict contemporary migrant experiences to the UK. Each was groundbreaking or award-winning in its own right. I publicised them widely and screened them either with one of Ben Uri's partner organisations, or at the cinema I was involved in setting up, or with a new film making group I'm helping to establish in south east London.

The screenings were all completely different, principally affected I think by the venue and the community of interest around a particular film. More attendees with a south east Asian background came to see She, A Chinese, for example, whilst the screening took place at Deptford Cinema, which meant an audience who were already on the look-out for harder-to-see films. Two screenings appeared in Time Out's Top 5 Film Events in London, which meant an audience drawn from further across the city. The Thamesmead screening was hyper-local, a close discussion with young people who were becoming involved in film making themselves. These different audiences for each screening meant that the formal and informal discussions related to the films were different. I spoke with older white British people concerned about negative stereotypes of migrants; young people with a global perspective who had just come to see a great film; members of particular ethnic communities who had come to see a film in their first language, or to see someone with a similar background represented on screen.

Deptford Cinema just before the screening of Hong Khaou's Lilting (2014)

Deptford Cinema just before the screening of Hong Khaou's Lilting (2014)

It was interesting to see how representations of migrants have changed over the years. Pawlikowski's Last Resort, a wonderful film, looks positively naive ten years later – whilst it depicts the harsh reality of claiming asylum at that time, living conditions and legal rights for asylum seekers have been made so deliberately worse in the decade since. Tina Gharavi's I Am Nasrine was made on a shoestring and is contemporary, whilst Sarah Gavron's Brick Lane was based on an already acclaimed novel set in the 90s, and made with a budget of millions. Both are wonderful and much-needed films, but the experience of being a recent arrival in the UK, and the way each film tells that story, is completely different.

Interesting too was the timing: the residency was conceived and arranged at the end of 2014, but by the time I was entering the research phase it was mid-2015. The Syrian and Libyan civil wars were displacing millions. The Daily Mail was screaming about the innate immorality of migrants; the government was promising to crack down on them, cut already-meagre state benefits and reduce life-saving sea patrols; and all the while thousands of people, including the elderly, pregnant women, teenage kids fleeing war zones, were drowning at sea. The programme was praised for its 'urgency'. A woman came up and gave me a hug after a screening, for being 'brave' enough to programme such material in the current climate. I didn't deserve it, but the gallery probably did. The situation changes in severity from year to year, but sticking up for members of society who often have the least – no money, no rights, no representation – is never easy.

I conducted long-form, unstructured interviews with migrants from many different backgrounds. I've worked with groups of migrants of different kinds, and specifically asylum seekers, before, so I was prepared for something quite specific: horrific stories, told with a smile; flashes of justified anger mixed with forgiveness for one's own tormentors. I definitely got that. This time, though, I was also making a conscious effort to interview people who had immigrated for solely economic reasons, or from closer parts of the world like central and eastern Europe. I was also interested in internal migration: it's a funny quirk of the way politics affects our lives that soneone who crosses a border 50 miles away is a 'migrant', whilst someone who travels 500 miles within one's own country is not. It matters because of the different treatment each receives.

I spoke to a young artist who works two kitchen jobs to support herself, taking on an endless stream of unpaid internships for high-profile arts organisations at the same time, sleeping a few hours a night. I spoke to a young north African man who fled a civil war to arrive in the UK, and was taken into care. He became friends with street criminals because no-one was taking care of him. He had witnessed a civil war as a child, and didn't understand that it was a crime to use violence to solve problems. Speaking no English, he repeatedly went through the justice system and each time, emerged with an ever-more-serious bunch of violent criminal friends. He explained to me that he thought he was 'making good' because as his life progressed, the rooms he occupied became fancier – higher ceilings, darker panelling – not understanding that this was because ever-more serious crimes were landing him in higher courts. Now he's involved in a music project for younger kids, and it was a privilege to have met him. I mention this in detail only because so many stories deserve such, and I thought it better to go into one or two in what passes for depth on a blog, rather than skim over many.

I left the research phase with a head full of amazing stories, some of which I'd experienced on a screen and some of which had been told to me by the people in question. The next stage would be to turn this huge library of experience into something that the outside world would understand, whilst doing it some kind of justice.

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