UKREN blog

Monday 21 March 2016

#MakingaVideo: What does the EU mean to you?

I have nothing but respect for filmmakers who are willing to shiver and splutter on Tower Bridge for a chilly hour, just for the sake of filming the sunset for an artful time-lapse. I am also filled with wonderment towards filmmakers who have no qualms about chirpily interrupting someone mid-sentence to ask them to repeat their insightful, poignant, tear-rimmed personal disclosure again, because a nearby ambulance siren just completely drowned out their words. It turns out that I have neither the stomach for film-making, nor do I have suitably warm clothing for generally spending time outdoors.

Last month, I teamed up with documentary filmmaker Soraya Auer to create a short video for UKREN’s upcoming panel discussion on the EU referendum. Soraya has worked all over the world- from Bangladesh to Brooklyn- and her films typically illuminate intimate human stories, which in their nuanced presentation shine a delicate light on political and social justice issues which reach beyond the ‘personal’.

I asked why she agreed to be involved in the project.

“I am part-German, y’know!”, she reminds me, in faux-irritation.

The ‘part’’ is emphasised, in reference to a conversation we had the previous day about our ‘mixed’ heritages. We noted that people are often quick to describe us both as precisely ‘half’ European, as if to scale back any claims we might have to the respective Jamaican and Bengali part of our identities. Over quickly cooling gyozas, we swapped stories about what writer Sharon H Chang refers to as the “continual policing” that mixed race or multi-racial people experience from other people “with their own agendas”.

National identity is a minefield, we agree. Many of the people we interview over the course of the week for our video disclose feeling conflicted about advocating for a particular stance on a referendum which is so tied up in the notion of nation states; a structure which divides and oppresses people of colour in vast swathes.

From where I’m sat, the current set-up of nation-states seems at odds with the reality of a globalised world. As people, currency, and resources spin wildly around the world- indeed, stock-piling in certain areas, and circumventing others- one could question what purpose clinging onto concepts of nation states could serve. Eric Schnurer, writing for The Atlantic in 2013 posits that values and identities are no longer tied to territories in the way they were once imagined. In summary: “as global politics, economics, even self-definitions become less about physical ties and more, well, virtual -- attacking physical manifestations of nationhood will be less and less meaningful in the long term”.

Do the benefits of technological competition, the welfare state and so-called ‘common values’ outweigh the losses spurred by forced assimilation of minority populations and tight immigration controls? To consider another perspective, does the supranational state (the EU) pose a positive alternative to, a reification of, or at best an impartial safeguard against the nation state (the UK, outside of the EU)?

These questions were combed, dissected, and picked apart as we dragged our eclectic, rag-bag camera kit all over London. Throughout the week we met with members of Black/Asian/minority ethnic (BAME) and migrant communities, including people whose national identities included France, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, India, Ireland, Pakistan, Greece and more.

We asked people: “What does the EU mean to you?”.

There were highs and lows; delayed trains, weary shoulders, and unexpected sunshine. At one point we stood outside the Supreme Court interviewing a kind but sleep-deprived Labour member, trying to catch moments of relative quiet between the sound of pneumatic drills and a nearby bagpipe performance. I began to wonder whether I might just be wasting everyone’s time.

However, a few days later when I sat down to lend Soraya a hand with transcribing the footage, the doubt cleared. Amongst the hours of filming we’d compiled, there was, well...real heart.

The film clips laid bare an overwhelming breadth of human emotion- from anger, to fear and betrayal, and from confusion to frustration, and the brink of defeat.

And of course there was love: the love of a country that has given you your first ‘proper’ job. Love for human beings; a desire to help those who flee conflict and cross borders to survive. There was also a desire for justice, transparency, and good governance.

Throughout the week, Soraya and I found ourselves engaging with a much wider pool of people than we could ever fit into the film- and asking them questions about their opinions on the EU. It was our hot topic, our ice-breaker and time-waster that compulsively dripped off our lips whether we liked it or not.

I sent a message to a bunch of friends on Whatsapp, asking for people’s thoughts on ‘the whole situation’.

“I think staying in is beneficial” a friend typed back. “Although [sic] in a great position in maintaining our currency”. “EU is jokes” I responded- my over-immersement in the subject throughout the past week driving me fiercely towards flippancy: “Love a good city break”.

Another friend wrote: “If we leave the EU and the junior doc contract gets imposed I’m moving to Scotland - true story”.

A third typed, “Net immigration this year was lower. Not because of less coming in, but more white people invading Spain”.

I wait- the app showing me that my friend is still furiously typing away.

“Bugibba [Malta] is full of English people who sold their homes for 80k and bought flats here. English pubs and chippies everywhere. And they had the nerve to tell my British Indian friend that ‘your people have taken over London’”.

The stories pour out. My phone begins pinging so violently I have to switch it so silent.

There’s something cathartic about being given space to share thoughts on such a ‘big question’. Young people of colour who I’ve spoken to seemed to relish the chance to chip in on the debate. As a report published by the Runnymede Trust in 2015 revealed: a large amount of Asian, Black and minority ethnic people still feel that discussions on topics such as immigration are ‘about them’, rather than ‘with them’.

And so, on 6th April, UKREN is hosting a panel discussion, inviting BAME activists to explore the referendum question. Thus far, the debate has been pale, male and stale, and discussions have centred around business, security, and Britain’s position on the ‘world stage’.

Of course, people of colour will have concerns around these topics. However, if EU membership has implications for the segments of life which historically and structurally hit black communities the hardest- worker’s rights, welfare provision, freedom of movement, and human rights protection more broadly- perhaps it’s time to ask: What does the EU really mean to you?

We hope you’ll join us.


By Leah Cowan


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