Elhum Shakerifar – We are the stories we tell

At the Social Media Exchange 2019 sounddelivery welcomed BAFTA-nominated Producer and Curator Elhum Shakerifar to give the Keynote speech.   I am a documentary producer and curator. I have been making films for 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in the third sector, […]

At the Social Media Exchange 2019 sounddelivery welcomed BAFTA-nominated Producer and Curator Elhum Shakerifar to give the Keynote speech.  

I am a documentary producer and curator. I have been making films for 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in the third sector, primarily in a community centre in Newham on a project called Dost working with unaccompanied minor – young refugees who are separated from their families. Making films brings together all the things I love – primarily storytelling. But stepping into the shoes of a storyteller taught me a little bit about the politics of voice and of whose stories speak loudest.

The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner, by Saeed Taji Farouky. I became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. I was very wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. Public screenings of the film would often be complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy to the organisers, festivals or cinemas. Sometimes events about Western Sahara see filibusters turn up and talk through the event/Q&A so that nobody else could. I learnt from this film what a filibuster is – a very political procedure of speaking so that nobody else can, to delay a resolution, to stop communication.

So that was my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that film – how wrong I was. I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, in the UK. Every film has its own distinct journey and challenges. The one thing that unites all of these, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story, I am interested in questioning the mainstream narrative.

I run a company called Hakawati – which means the storyteller in Arabic – and we believe “that we are the stories we tell” meaning that what we project into the world is a representation of who we are and what we stand for. As individuals at the frontlines of stories, charities know that the mainstream narrative isn’t always representative of everyone.

No matter how a good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling

There’s been a lot of talk about diversity for several years now and certainly there are ways to make the films you want to make. There are ways to make films on our own terms, to speak in your own words, to have agency. But the battle is in it being seen, being listened to, being heard, being believed. The battle is for space – on mainstream stages and not only stages you’ve created for yourself.

There’s really no such thing as the voiceless

I am finding that it isn’t getting easier to challenge mainstream narratives. However, there are an increasing number of people trying to do it. And, more and more people are listening.

What can we do? First of all – we do have a choice of what and who we listen to. We mustn’t fall into the trap of not speaking to the people who have a different truth or experience because our joint experience helps us see the big picture better – understand the full picture of the element.

We also must not fall into the trap of amplifying the loudest voices at the expense of the quieter ones.

So know that your individual voice has an impact; champion quieter voices, follow organisations who do, talk about the things that have challenged your understanding by giving you a different perspective, tell people about the things you have learnt; listen.

As the initiators of stories, I believe we have a difficult job on our hands – I imagine that like me, charities aim to bring those quieter voices to the fore. To communicate complex narratives.  To communicate subtlety. To challenge mainstream narratives, or often mainstream misconceptions.

Truth isn’t always the most entertaining guest at the table

I imagine that the work you do is challenging but also inspiring, energising, often as grounding as it might be difficult. Many of you are on the frontline – meaning that you are close to the reasons why you do what you do.

The media moves fast. It’s not surprising that people sometimes lose sight of why they’re doing what they’re doing. So don’t lose sight of where you stand. Channel your reason WHY you do what you do, into helping other people understand it. If we can collectively demand that people to tell stories BETTER, it will begin to have an impact on what gets seen on mainstream stages as well.

Even When I Fall by Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon is a film I produced a few years ago

I had known Sky and Kate from university. Sky was herself a circus performer and had wanted to volunteer in a circus in India. She learnt there had been a history of trafficking in the circus and decided instead to go to a refuge in Kathmandu. With a high proportion of circus returnees, kids and young people with amazing skills were literally somersaulting off tables, and so she helped develop a circus training project and began to document the process. Kate joined her shortly afterwards and so the film began to develop, alongside the formation of Circus Kathmandu – the first contemporary circus in Nepal. When I joined the team I didn’t think there was anything more inspiring. Circus Kathmandu had not only reframed their narrative and taken control of their skills to use them in their own circus, they also used that circus to talk about trafficking. But I underestimated the power of the mainstream narrative. We came across two ongoing challenges; people could not understand why the young people had set up their own circus. The answer is subtle but significant: skills learnt in a situation of bonded labour were re-appropriated and used in a situation of choice. The difference was freedom.

The second thing, that was more insidious is the difference between victim and survivor stories. The film was made “pre #MeToo” – the idea of women as survivors was simply not present or given validation. We were conscious that to tell a story of young people who had overcome the things that oppressed them, had to also be empowering.  However, victim stories, supposedly, sell. I feel quite strongly that victim stories are not a helpful frame, they do not lead to meaningful representations because they create OTHERS. Others are far away – distant, somewhere else – they allow a viewer to think “that would never happen to me”. So we were very rigourous in our notes to media and our framing of the film. This is an example of a note that was included in all our press packs, public notes, website etc. We refused media that wasn’t going to adhere to this.

We organised a screening of the finished film for charitable organisations, invited a number of different organisations who all loved the film. This led us to knowledge of a Comic Relief funding bid, which we were successful with, eventually seeing the Circus fully funded and mentored in order to become more sustainable.

A film I made more recently, called ISLAND by Steven Eastwood was actually referred to as in one review as “filmmaking as an act of care”. It is a film about death and follows four individuals to the end of their lives. When Steven began making the film, he wanted to question why we do not see images of natural death. To challenge this taboo.  ISLAND was entirely shot on the Isle of Wight. It was made with the collaboration of Mountbatten, the hospice at the centre of the island. It follows four wonderful individuals – Alan, Jamie, Mary and Roy – in the year that their lives end. Our post screening discussions last on average 45 minutes – it seems to respond to a real need to talk about death and dying. There really is a very strong taboo and fear around death. The taboo is in a way, the subject of the film, and we know it’s there.

A Northern Soul sees director Sean McAllister return to his hometown, Hull, as curator of its UK City of Culture opening show. He’s back living with his 90-year-old parents and reflecting on changes to a city hit by cuts in public spending and divided by Brexit. As ever, he’s curious about what is happening outside of the media spotlight, and drawn to the fringes of town, he encounters Steve, a struggling warehouse worker with a dream to take hip-hop to disadvantaged kids through his “Beats Bus”.  Sean had talked for many years about exploring in work poverty and representing his home-town of Hull in a different way to what he saw in the mainstream.

A Northern Soul has had a big outreach campaign alongside it, which is ongoing and impacting on towns across the UK. It has been referenced in parliament three times around questions of working class representation and the impact of universal credit, it has been screened to MPs. It has had the support of all of Hull’s MPs, consistently and vocally.

I wanted to end with a note about this film because what I love about Steve – the film’s central character – is that his quest is to give voice.

Reflecting on all of these, I would say that as a filmmaker, my work sits somewhere in between understanding the world through its truths, and storytelling.

This work has led me to two key questions to conclude: firstly a question around the notion of empathy. I am suspicious of the idea that we need to be told stories to empathise with fellow human beings. Relatability feels to be a better notion, because it underlines that the biggest differences between individuals are in our circumstances. We would be telling better stories if we acknowledged this.

Secondly, it is everyone’s responsibility to hold storytelling gatekeepers to account. People whose roles it is to fund, commission, broadcast, review, amplify on mainstream stages are essentially making decisions about which stories get told and which stories get seen. Gatekeepers are there to represent people – us – and so make your opinions known by being selective in what you amplify, and being vocal and what you don’t want to, and why. Equally, champion strong storytelling to ensure there will be more of it.

Storytelling happens at every level of the equation – engage, and make your voice heard at every one of those levels.

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