The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
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Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

Very Short Film: “The Wind is Free” – Calais June 2015

This very short film shows the basic living conditions of the migrants in the windswept “jungle” of Calais. Currently over 3000 migrants are surviving on one meal per day, in self-made shelters that vary from the miserably basic to the downright ingenious.

Filmed 21 June 2015.

Dean Puckett & Sengwer: Conservation vs Communities

This is the twenty-fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dean Puckett is a film-maker from the UK. His films Crisis of Civilisation (based on the book by Nafeez Ahmed) and Grasp the Nettle are Elevate favourites; you can see his promo stickers all over Forum Stadtpark and in the most unexpected of public toilets.

He is currently working on two documentary films, one set amid house demolitions in the Kenyan mountain jungle and another set in a volunteer-run radio station in Totnes, Devon. They might sound very different, but they are bound together by Dean’s driving fascination: communities. “I’m fascinated by how human beings function in small communities,” Dean says. “It’s kind of anthropological,” he adds. “People open up to me. I remember, as a kid, people would just come up to my mum at the bus stop and open up to her. I’ve inherited that.”

I ask Dean how he sees his work in the context of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s concept of creative-response. “Any art is creative-response,” Dean says. “It doesn’t have to be political, but with the Sengwer, there’s a fundamental injustice that I’ve been attracted to.” The Sengwer are a Kenyan tribe whose ancestral lands have been demarcated as national park by the Kenyan government, in a programme funded by the World Bank. Dean is filming the resistance to what has become a brutal campaign to evict the Sengwer from their homes.

Sengwer man

Grasp the Nettle (embedded at the bottom of the page) is another politically-charged film, about an environmental activist community in London. Dean lived and worked alongside the activists as they occupied a stretch of waste ground in Kew and followed them to a three month occupation of Parliament Square. There is one key difference between the Kew occupiers and the Sengwer in Kenya, however. While those at Kew chose their struggle, the Sengwer have had their direct action forced upon them; their houses are being burnt to the ground.

What draws Dean to make these kind of activist films? “I do get addicted to those kind of things. I’ve always felt like a total outsider myself,” he says. “It’s like a force of nature,” he adds. “I’m not thinking, I want to be a film-maker, I just feel utterly compelled to make these films.” The fact that film is the medium through which he tells these stories appears to be entirely coincidental. “I always wanted to be creative,” he says. “My career as a film-maker has risen hand-in-hand with the tools of my generation: digital cameras, YouTube. It was just the thing that I got into.”

Dean is keen to stress that his films aren’t “black-and-white” campaign films. “There’s quite a lot of humour in my work,” he says. “I’m attracted to the absurd, even with the Sengwer.” Despite the ongoing destruction of their way of life by the Kenyan Forest Service (KFS), Dean does not want to gloss the Sengwer as the one-dimensional miserable victims you often see portrayed in emotional campaign films.

Embobut Forest

“There’s a gallows humour there too,” Dean says. “One minute they’re talking about getting arrested and their house getting burnt down and the next minute they’re joking about their co-wife.” It’s these contrasting moments that capture reality in full colour. “Nothing’s black and white,” Dean says. “There’s often humour side-by-side with tragedy.” He doesn’t want to ignore those elements of life, which would limit the scope of his films. “You can either do a campaign film about the Sengwer,” he says, “or you can do a film about the life of the Sengwer.”

I appreciate his nuance. I feel betrayed when I see a one-sided film that doesn’t concede areas of grey; it makes me distrust the premise, no matter how well-intentioned. “I think that’s my strength as a film-maker,” Dean says. “I embed myself in the community and allow the grey areas to come out.”

It’s exactly the same approach he took with Grasp the Nettle, which shows every aspect of activist life, from the everyday struggles of cooking and cleaning to the more extraordinary struggles with accidental arson and a self-proclaimed messiah. “It’s about what it’s really like to live in an activist camp,” Dean says. “I do agree with the anti-war message, but I didn’t want to make a campaign film.”

Dean feels the same about his work with the Sengwer. He does believe that his film can make a difference – he has recently been contacted by officials from the World Bank and believes that pressure can be brought to bear on them – but that isn’t the limit of his scope. He wants to show us the Sengwer’s way of life in all its richness and complexity. “What some NGO films do is give you a warped view of Africa,” he says. “I understand it’s sometimes appropriate, but if you’re going to make a film about a community, then people should find out how they really are.”

Sengwer man and boy

Dean remembers shooting one beautiful scene of a group of women sitting around in a hut, chatting. When his interpreter translated the conversation later, he discovered they’d been talking about how they thought Dean should give them money for the filming, while another person off-camera berated them for such an idea. “The world on the one hand is a dark place,” Dean says, “and these funny moments can really bring things down to earth.” He quickly adds that this kind of cynical conversation was a rarity. “The Sengwer are a wonderful, warm people,” he says. “It’s surreal,” he adds. “You’re in this misty forest, up on a mountain, and people are having their homes burnt down, but you’re enjoying being around these warm people.”

Dean found the same thing when he went to support around four hundred travellers who were to be evicted by riot cops from Dale Farm in Essex. “On the one hand, they’re about to have their homes destroyed,” he says, “but on the other hand they’re cracking jokes.” This is another common thread to Dean’s films: communities under siege. Grasp the Nettle was a film about a community under siege by police, by the government and, eventually, by themselves as well. “It’s about the human spirit,” Dean says, “to laugh even when the worst things are happening.”

Dean’s words remind me of a fundamental flaw in the capitalistic ideology of more, more, more: we humans have only a limited range of feeling. While more might be more for capital, more isn’t more for us. You can always add five pounds to the bank balance of a billionaire, but you can never add five “pleasure points” to the happiness balance of a boy bouncing around on a trampoline. The human scales of happiness, pain, pleasure, fear, suffering, love and joy are finite.

This explains why you can neither measure nor compare the joy of staring into the eyes of your newborn baby niece with the joy of sharing a lingering kiss with a lover or a gasp of fresh air after being sucked under by an ocean wave. It also explains the absolutism of our emotions; how, whenever the worst thing imaginable happens, it feels no worse than it did when you got fired from a job you loved, when your teenage crush ditched you or when you lost your favourite blankie as a kid. Prisoners on death row are as happy as lottery winners.

Understanding the finite nature of our emotions explains otherwise difficult questions: How can disabled people be happy? How come billionaires get depression? How could I ever come to terms with the death of my grandmother? The answer is simply because there is no profit and loss account of emotions, there is no capitalism-style more, more, more.

The moral consequence of this realisation is not that we should leave the Sengwer – or anyone else – to find the light moments in the darkness of their suffering. The daily hardships of their persecution has a chronic damaging effect on their happiness that no one deserves.

Dean illustrates this with a story about two Sengwer women he met, who had just been released after being arrested by the Kenyan Forest Service. To escape, the women had to tell the KFS that they didn’t live on the land, but were just passing through. As they were “just passing through”, the KFS decided that the women wouldn’t need the bags of flour that they had carried all the way over the mountain. They slit the bags with knives and poured the flour out onto the floor. The two women passed the incident off with a laugh, but faced the prospect of a night away from home and a week without flour.

Sengwer woman

No. The moral consequence of the finite nature of our emotions is that we should support each other, not in our pursuit of more, more, more, but in our pursuit of enough. The Sengwer are having their enough, their homes, their livelihoods, taken away from them by people who are pursuing more, more, more. The same is true, on a broader scale, across the entire continent of Africa, where western corporations extract natural resources for profits that rarely return to their country of origin.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we subject ourselves to capitalism’s addiction for more, more, more, when we humans fundamentally can’t process more, more, more? We have nothing to gain in going after more precious metals or more money or more slaves; we have enough. Ultimately, happiness is not gold, frankincense and more, but a blood red sunset, a dive into a cold river or an apple straight from the tree. We have no more need of more; happiness is enough and there is enough enough for all on earth.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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(Yes, that is the same Simon in Grasp the Nettle who inspired me to write about why we need people who go on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures!)

All photographs © Dean Puckett, taken from the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for his film Sengwer.

Let Fury Have the Hour: Antonino D’Ambrosio

This is the fourteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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“Let fury have the hour
Anger can be power
Do you know that you can use it?”
– The Clampdown by The Clash

Let Fury Have the Hour by Antonino D’Ambrosio is a documentary that follows a whole generation of artists and activists, from rappers and punks to comedians and lawyers, who use their creativity to respond to reactionary politics. That’s the bare synopsis, anyway. In visceral experience, it’s a ballistic assault on the mind, shot through with adrenaline, that will dynamite any resistance to participation and creativity. You will be split between running out of the cinema screaming and melting yourself down into your seat for the next screening.

The documentary took seven years to make and Antonino filmed seventy-five conversations with artists, fifty of which made it into the final cut. “The original idea was to have a hundred voices,” he says, “to really push the boundaries of film-making.” Some of his intended interlocutors disappeared or went into exile, like Chinese artivist Ai Weiwei. “This inspired me more to make the movie, as a testament to them,” he says. “I’d like to dedicate the film to Ai Weiwei and to the city of Graz.”

The lights dim and we hold onto our seats.

An hour and a blood-pumping half later, we emerge, sweating. “The movie is not finished,” Antonino says, “with each screening it continues to be made with the audience.” So here are some of our questions and comments, along with my attempts to capture Antonino’s responses.

Was it difficult to get these artists involved?

No one said no to me. The artists never usually get a chance to speak like this, but these were just discussions that I would have with anyone. It was a discussion about how they see the world, how the essence of what they do is based on connecting. I wasn’t from that generation; I only discovered The Clash in 1983, when I was twelve. I think they really appreciated that I wasn’t quite of their time period.

What about the music?

There are forty-five pieces of music in the film, including fifteen original tracks. There were originally sixty pieces, including an entire album by Thievery Corporation. When I make a film, I switch off the visuals and, if I can follow the story just in the soundtrack, then I know I’m onto something.

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How can we distinguish creative-response from a potentially harmful ideology?

Ideologies are reactionary, they want to hold onto power. Creative-response is anti-ideological because creative-response is openness to ideas. Be flexible and fluid. Your idea might be a good starting point, but always keep bringing in new ideas.

Once, Nazi officers came into Picasso’s apartment in Paris and saw a photograph of Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of the Nazi strategic bombing of civilians in Spain. The officer remarked, “This painting, did you do this?” “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”

Aha.

The film ends before electronic music starts. Can electronic music be creative-response, or is it too abstract to be political?

When I’m creating, I don’t distinguish between genres. And, quite frankly, when you make overtly political music, it’s often not very good. I love the remix, the re-imagination of electronic music. You can find inspiration anywhere if you keep your heart and your mind open.

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Creative-response can go in the opposite direction. Punk is used by the far right, for example.

In some ways, I wanted to reclaim punk, because it did fall into the hands of the far right a little bit. When you come from a position of hate, you’re doing terrorism. That’s not creative-response. What’s interesting about the interviews is that, not only did these punk people stand up to fascism then, but they still stand by their politics now.

Are you only preaching to the choir?

We, the choir, still need new songs to sing. Our time is here, it’s now. We have the ideas and they don’t. The way I look at it is, if I feel this way, then there must be someone else who feels that way.

How do we get the creativity to change the world?

Well, what do you think? We all have the talent to creatively respond. Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but always as a citizen of the world. Citizenship is repressed in the US; there is very low voter turnout. At the end of the day, that’s what citizens are doing; their creative-response is participation.

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What else do you do for a living?

I’m an author and a visual artist as well as a film-maker. I’m able to cobble the three things together and make a living. I’ve created a non-profit network called La Lutta, so it doesn’t cost me much to make these films. The budget of Let Fury Have the Hour should have been around a million dollars, but it didn’t cost that.
Artists support my work. I have some patrons. And every time I do something like this, it leads to something else that will help me grow as a person and as an artist.

What was the point when you realised you had to do something now?

I take my responsibilities seriously as a human being on this planet. So when I realised I had a talent for this storytelling, I kept doing it.

Creative-response for me is also looking after my daughter. My daughter is my greatest inspiration. She inspires me to be greater than myself – and that’s one idea of creative-response. There is an incredible demand to never give up. She was six years old when I was editing and people like Chuck D would come in and sing to her.

I think the impact of political bands is very small.

For me, art and culture doesn’t change anything. We have to change. These are just tools. I love The Clash and their songs about working class people – but it was still up to me to do something about it. Picasso painting Guernica didn’t stop war, but it stopped a fourteen year old boy growing up in Philadelphia from thinking that war was a viable solution. Twitter doesn’t change things, Rage Against the Machine doesn’t change things, we change things. Like Joe Strummer said: “Without people, we’re nothing”.

And what’s the measure of impact? I don’t think about quantity, but quality. We have to push each other, inspire each other, give each other strength. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s done something has done it because they’re afraid; they’re afraid that things aren’t going to change.

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Do you have a favourite medium of expression?

Human expression. All artists are writers in some way. But, in terms of medium, for me it’s writing. I can really engage intimately with what words mean. Everything I do is writing, including the visual.

What’s that great Van Jones quote in the film?

When he went to Yale, Van Jones’s father said to him: “The next time I see you, you’re going to be smarter than me. But I want you to know something. There are only two kinds of smart people in the world: there are smart people who take very simple things and make them very sound complicated to enrich themselves; and there are smart people who take very complicated things and make them sound simple to empower other people. Now: the next time I see you, I want you to be that kind of smart guy.”

Did you face a lot of criticism?

The right wing don’t give a shit. They have the power, this doesn’t threaten them.

Any final words?

The film is a starting point. Where can we go from here with creative-response? What kind of a world do you want to live in?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK