‘Homeless Youth’ – a local collaborative film project
@Porchlight1974 @KentSAC @CTunaker @Pelaris
Carin Tunaker is a PhD student in social anthropology at the University of Kent. Her research examines the conditions and circumstances that contribute toward LGBTQ youth homelessness in East Kent. Carin and the co-director for this project, Prem Konieczny from Porchlight, used participatory film-making as a research tool for this project. Below she explains the process and the outcomes both for the young people and for her own research.
The film was a project by and for young homeless people living in Porchlight’s young persons’ services in Canterbury and Tonbridge. It follows three young people, Josh, Shaunagh and Michael, through their journeys as homeless youth living in hostels in Kent. In making this film, they wanted to show people that being young and homeless isn’t always what you think it might be; they wanted to challenge negative stereotypes of homeless people and show what the ‘reality’ of homelessness is, for them.
There were never any grandiose intentions for this film project, it simply started out with me, as a Support and Resettlement worker in Porchlight, asking the residents in the project where I worked, to sit down and brainstorm with me about perhaps making a film on homelessness. I had little hope of engagement and excitement about the project, because engaging young people who are going through a traumatic time in their lives in something as time consuming as making a film, seemed a distant and optimistic idea. But after a few false starts, one young person, Shaunagh, who had done a course at college in film, decided she felt confident enough to take the lead and motivate others to join in too. All in all, around 15 young people from Porchlight took part in the process of making this film. There was one simple guideline: the film had to be about homelessness. The rest was up to them.
After careful consideration, the girls decided that they wanted to make a film about youth homelessness, to show people what it’s REALLY like. They often hear homeless people described as rough sleepers, dirty beggars, drug or alcohol misusers and generally a drain of society’s resources – descriptions that they felt do not fit them in any shape or form and they wanted to challenge this. So then they had to figure out HOW to make their point. Initially, they thought that just filming different activities and doing a general tour of the hostel would be enough, but it wasn’t long before they realised that they needed some hard evidence of people’s ignorance and misconceptions. Reluctantly, all agreed that they would need to go into town and ask the general public for their opinions – on film!
We borrowed equipment from the Visual Anthropology programme at the University of Kent, but at first, nobody wanted to touch the camera and nobody wanted to be ON camera, which gave a bleak outlook for the entire project. To take the pressure off, I decided to keep the camera in the hostel’s office and told the service users that they could wait until something ‘interesting’ happened and come and get it when they felt inspired and wanted to use it. Eventually they did take the camera away and returned to me with it full of footage of interviews that they had done with each other on their ideas of youth homelessness. Most was not useable because of issues with sound and/or image, but because they had now broken down the barrier of fear of the camera, the film project could now mature into something that they felt capable of taking ownership of.
Week by week, they got more and more confident with the camera and eventually we could have a session talking about HOW to use the camera, what to think about in terms of positioning of the subject, background noise and other technicalities. Keeping the camera on site for ‘interesting’ moments turned out to be a much better idea than trying to produce interesting moments on demand, so this is how we proceeded. All the service users taking part were dealing with issues of their own during this time period, such as difficult family relationship problems, depression, self-harm, problems in college, trying (and mostly failing) to find work, relationship problems and so on. These, of course, took precedence, so finding ‘good’ days to film was always a challenge.
Eventually, despite personal fears and inhibitions, a group of our young service users took to the streets of Canterbury and bravely approached strangers to ask them what they thought a homeless person looks like. The replies were shocking and showed exactly the kind of negative stereotypes that they were expecting to hear – and worse! There were comments such as homeless people are dirty, disgusting, smelly, have a lack of personal hygiene, and (a personal favourite), they always have long hair (!). While filming in Canterbury town centre, I started out as the cameraman, since nobody else dared to do it, but after a few of our interviews, confidence grew in the group and eventually everyone had a go at either asking questions or holding the camera.
Film as Method
Most of the filming was done by the young people, but my colleague Prem Konieczny (who edited the film) and I also did some. I took the camera with me to any activity I did with the service users and rigged it up for some group discussions as well, for which I asked the questions. I had my own agenda for this film project: I wanted to get the service users to engage in meaningful conversations about their ideas of what ‘home’ is to them, and what ‘homelessness’ actually means, which in turn would inform my own research into youth homelessness. A lot of the conversations ended up far less serious than intended, with more banter and jokes than thoughtful ideas; breaking through this hurdle of protective chitchat was quite challenging. One of the more successful ideas was to put the questions up on the wall behind the camera and allow the service users to speak freely about them, rather than me probing and asking questions directly to them. This somehow seemed to give them more power over the conversation and removed the teacher/student aspect that can sometimes feel more like an interrogation.
By allowing the service users to be in charge of this project, not only did they get a huge confidence boost themselves and learned a great deal in the process, but it was also a method for me to open different channels of thought and reflection from them, as opposed to normal casual conversations or interviews. As an anthropologist in the hostels, I had spent significant time trying to get them to talk about these concepts in general conversation and interviews, with mixed results. Suddenly, with them in charge of the camera and their own voice, they felt the need to put words to their thoughts in a way that was never necessary in my previous inquisitions as ethnographer and fieldworker. Rouch, in his 1973 essay ‘The Camera and Man’, couldn’t be more right when he said that “The situation is clearly this: the anthropologist has at his disposal the only tool (the participating camera) that offers him the extraordinary possibility of direct communication with the group he studies-the film he has made about them.”
I never had any intention for ‘true objectivity’ or a search for the ‘truth’ for this film, if ever such a thing existed (Pink outlines this debate well in the introduction to her book Doing Visual Ethnography). As Vertov’s concept of the ‘cine-eye’ dictates, my own intent and actions inevitably shaped this film. However, as Rouch advocated, I did engage in ‘audiovisual reciprocity’ where the participants were a part of the process, from start to finish: the service users that took part in this project had a say in what the film should show; the participants “staged” the reality that they wanted to portray publicly. In a way, it feels like fulfilling the dream of Jean Rouch, when he said that this type of ethnographic filmmaking will help us make a ‘shared anthropology’; “Which is to say, the time of the joint dream of Vertov and Flaherty, of a mechanical cine-eye-ear and of a camera that can so totally participate that it will automatically pass into the hands of those who, until now, have always been in front of the lens. At that point, anthropologists will no longer control the monopoly on observation; their culture and they themselves will be observed and recorded. And it is in that way that ethnographic film will help us to “share” anthropology.”
Once the filming was done, Prem and I started the painstaking process of sieving through hours of footage, much of it unusable, to find the hidden gems – footage of the service users interviewing each other and thinking seriously about their own situations, about homelessness, about being young and living in a hostel, about their potential futures, hopes and dreams. We constructed a rough draft of the clips and invited the service users to the Visual Anthropology lab at the university to watch the draft film and comment. They deemed the film inconclusive, and a bout of new shooting ensued. They had a clear idea of the direction they wanted the film to take, so they constructed interviews with each other targeting the information they felt was missing. This part of the project was truly inspiring, since at this point the service users had really taken charge of their own film and displayed a proud ownership of it.
The young people that joined us in the Visual Anthropology lab had mostly never visited a university and never thought they would ever do so either, and after the end of this some had grown aspirations for taking up study and possibly even continue onto university to pursue a career in filmmaking, grades permitting. Seeds of hope and possibilities were sown and self-esteem grew and blossomed in a way that you could almost see and feel. It all culminated in a cold but sunny afternoon at the UKC campus, where some final shots were done in the UKC campus’ labyrinth.
I was a mere bystander while Shaunagh walked through the labyrinth, making her way to the centre, through the maze of paths, filmed by her friends from the hostel. The shot captured the apogee of the film project, where the service users thoughts and realisations met in the middle of the maze, expressed by Chelsea who exclaimed in realisation: “Hey, the maze totally symbolises everything about this film, about us and what it is we want to say!”
Finally we added the music. Porchlight had for some time collaborated with an agency called Rhythmix, who visited our hostels to teach our young people to make their own music. Michael (a.k.a. ‘Ike Boi’), who appears in the film as one of the main characters, provided most of the music that he had created together with Rhythmix, and another service user Amy provided the songs for the start and end credits with her own wonderful talent.
It took over a year for the film to make its way from the end of filming to the finished product. In that year, our service users moved on, moved out, and quite possibly forgot temporarily about their experiences as filmmakers. Unfortunately some made themselves un-contactable as well (purposefully or un-purposefully), so they missed the opportunity to see the film in its finished form, screened at the Lupino Screening Room at UKC in November 2014. Those who came told us they felt very proud to have taken part in something like this. They spoke of their hopes for futures in the film industry – they want to send the film to the BBC and E4, and some hope to start careers in singing and/or film. In the least they want to pass the buck to other young homeless people now living in Porchlight’s hostels, for them to continue with ‘Episode Two’ of Homeless Youth!