Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
By Gary Marshall, documentary filmmaker.
In the summer of 2013 I directed Greenfingers, a short documentary which follows Ako Zada – a human rights activist and engineer from the Kurdish region of Iraq – during his transition from asylum-seeker to refugee. The purpose of the film was to explore a period in the asylum cycle, which I felt was overlooked in both academic research and filmmaking circles. Furthermore, I hoped to find a contributor who could provide a glimpse into the realities of life as a refugee; an antidote to the misinformed stories perpetuated by certain media outlets. In this blog post I will discuss how the film came to be, the production experience and reflections on the process.
Greenfingers began as a rebuttal to my Grandmother’s negative view of asylum-seekers. For years I have attempted to argue that people who seek asylum are fleeing life threatening situations in search of sanctuary; not on a mission to exploit the welfare system. I decided that a film which could engage in ways that facts and statistics do not could be the best medium in which to illuminate this point. As the concept evolved it developed into a piece of research and concluded as a short observational documentary. It became an opportunity to both fulfil the requirements of my MSc in Documentary Film Practice and to argue a point with my Grandmother; someone whose beliefs concerning asylum-seekers reflect a significant voice amongst any immigration debate.
My intention was to begin at the juncture where an individual had received leave to remain in the UK and thereafter, observe the step into the unknown. I was fortunate to find a contributor and now friend, who was honest, passionate and willing to allow access to their journey. When I embarked on my search for participants I spoke to UNITY – a drop in centre for asylum-seekers – who allowed me to sit on their sofa and talk to people who used their service. Eventually, I met Ako – an individual who was trapped in the asylum system after repeated refusals. That was, until early June when a positive decision on his case was reached. At this time we discussed the idea of making a film and our journey began.
Before production commenced we discussed the merit and justification of the filmmaking process. This seemed a necessary action due to the various ethical issues involved with such a film. In the broadest sense I was concerned about representation. Representing Ako as an outsider to his experiences, as well as objectively representing the process without either of our judgments becoming the agenda of the film. Whilst true objectivity is neither achievable nor desirable, we both agreed that filming this journey was relevant and beneficial not just for ourselves but for future audiences.
Earlier in 2013, I had made a film about a young farmer from Somerset. Whilst possessing its own challenges, it was a more simple process. I had the contributor’s consent and with that came access to his life and surrounding environment. With Greenfingers there was a constant difficulty in finding suitable locations. We made an attempt to record in his hostel room however we did not make it past the entrance. I was denied access and warned that it was best to leave before my equipment was stolen. On one occasion, one of the security team warned Ako not to bring female friends to the hostel – it was in their best interest not to be around men recently released from prison. Though this advice may have been sensible it was a moment of realisation that Ako’s situation was far from resolved. This was upsetting for Ako and difficult in terms of filmmaking. It forced us to film in public spaces that do not necessarily feel natural to Ako’s everyday life. Ultimately though, I believe it turned into an advantage – having to wander around Glasgow became symbolically important for the absence of a place to call home.
In the midst of such a complex and delicate situation it was difficult to make editorial choices as to what information was most relevant and necessary for the film to progress. I did not want this film to preach to the choir. I wanted to make it accessible to a wide audience, perhaps people sympathetic to my Grandmother’s opinion, whilst retaining a sense of the complexity of the situation. It was for this reason that I chose to narrow the focus on Ako’s quest for accommodation and to structure the film around two important meetings related to this struggle.
For me, the most powerful scenes are those where Ako has a chance to reflect on his experiences and contemplate his future. They are the glimpses into Ako’s internal world which, I hoped, would reveal somebody who has endured an extraordinary journey yet retained the same basic desires that all humans can relate to. The need for roots, a home, expression and identity are present in all of us.
I felt that it was essential to balance such reflexive scenes with footage that gave a sense of the linear narrative. The motivation to include scenes where Ako speaks with his advisers, was not only to offer a sense of time and place to the audience but to highlight the confused bureaucratic situation Ako found himself in. It was during these meetings that I was acutely aware of the challenging processes that a refugee must navigate in order to be accepted as a functioning participant in society.
As I was writing this post, the Glasgow Commonwealth Games committee issued a press release regarding their intentions to demolish five out of the six Red Road flats. Aside from immigration politics, this seemed a crude act in the name of celebration. However, what made this idea more inappropriate is that one block is still inhabited by asylum-seekers. The content and language of the press release indirectly highlights the manner in which people who flee danger, not out of choice but out of fear for their life, are still presented as faceless, unworthy victims. Descriptions of these buildings as ‘symbols of the past’ present an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the fact that one block is still the home of contemporary residents. As a group, these residents were disregarded and ostracised from ‘Glasgow’s regeneration’ – potentially having to stand by as the buildings that surround them were razed to the ground.
Thankfully the plans to demolish the Red Road flats have now been withdrawn, but this incident served as a reminder of why I made my film. For me, the most salient message of this mismanaged event is the necessity to utilise film (and other mediums) to encourage empathy and provide a more human perspective on the range of experiences refugees endure. My Nan is stubborn and at 87 I never expected her to change her mind but I hope that Greenfingers and films like it can stimulate debate based on truth, not on the extreme and isolated stories that make it to the papers all too often.
Gary Marshall is an Edinburgh based filmmaker who graduated with an MSc in Documentary Film Practice from the University of Edinburgh.
Greenfingers is an official selection for Fuse Film Festival and goNorth Film Festival, as well as being selected for Videotheque at Sheffield Doc/Fest. In addition to Greenfingers, Gary has made another short film entitled The Land, I Farm. The Land, I Farm is also an official selection for Fuse Film Festival and goNorth Film Festival, and has been selected for BBC Three Fresh Online.