“But let’s be honest, a film isn’t going to make any difference, is it?”
On 13th April 2017 Pound Arts, in partnership with Bath Spa University created and delivered an Arts and Social Change day which included two screenings of Ken Loach’s BAFTA award-winning film I, Daniel Blake, discussions following each screening, arts and social change workshops and a panel discussion including the amazing Ken Loach himself.
For anyone who hasn’t viewed the film, you should. It is profound, heart-breaking, thought provoking and offers a real insight into the complicated and often inaccessible system navigated by so many. The piece, which is based on real life events, tells the tale of a 59 year old widowed carpenter who must rely on welfare after a heart attack. Despite medical professionals deeming Blake unfit to work, the British authorities (in this case primarily the Job Centre) deny his benefits, telling him to return to work. The film shows the painful, gruelling and often tragic battle which is fought daily by people within the UK desperately fighting against a paper-based, check-box system.
The events, which were part of Pound Arts’ SenseAbility programme of work (which is aimed at directly addressing vulnerability and diversity in our communities) were attended by the general public, academics, people within the benefits system, carers of those within the system and panel members Ken Loach, Faye Weldon, Alison Lee, Maggie Gee and Tanvir Bush. The reaction was staggering.
Following the first film, I sat in on the highly emotional discussion. Some of the audience were quite simply shocked to see that poverty of that scale existed. One woman, currently supporting a friend through the system, discussed how close the film was to the situation she was witnessing in real life and how she hadn’t realised just how harrowing and de-humanising the process was. She talked about not understanding the experience of embarrassment and shame until watching the film. Others talked about the importance of a strong system, but the need for flexibility, while recognising that flexibility could in turn lead to a system which becomes too easy to manipulate and cheat, and how this in itself was frustrating.
Sitting in the room listening to the discussion I was surprised by the outpouring of emotion and the genuine shock felt by those around me as they digested the harshness of the current system, especially the circumstances it imposes upon those deemed to be society’s most vulnerable – but perhaps that is because it is the industry that I have just left behind.
My role at Pound Arts is, it is safe to say, is my dream job. I bounce into work and genuinely can’t believe how lucky I am to be here. I should probably explain how I got here: my name’s Claire and I’m the Creative Learning Officer at Pound Arts. I joined the team in January of this year, following ten years working with children and young people in Severe Inclusion Support. This included roles within Education and Social Services settings, and Intervention Support Charities. Alongside this, in 2011, I set up a small but lovely Inclusive and Creative Arts company based in Cumbria, and we worked to support children and young people to grow in confidence, develop their own voices and to be part of the greatest, most inclusive tool education has – the arts.
Here at The Pound I have the opportunity to combine both passions, and it really is the most incredible opportunity. I am continually inspired by and in awe of the thriving arts community across Wiltshire.
In my spare time I have always been completely obsessed with the arts – yes, I was that child performing Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat with her Cousins and a floral dressing gown, re-enacting the Cats finale at the end of my parents’ bed while they desperately tried to sleep and waiting for an empty house so I could fill the living room with chairs and build the barricade from Les Miserables (sorry mum).
My first love was theatre – that feeling of being someone else for a while, or escaping into someone else’s world as you watch a story unfold in front of you, the realness and rawness of the emotion and escapism within it.
Like so many, I have always used the arts as a coping mechanism, a means of escape when things in my life haven’t been so rosy, and a way to express things I couldn’t verbalise. Working daily with children and young people suffering with eating disorders, disabilities, self-harm, loss and anxiety, I found that often their biggest frustration was the inability to deal with, process or express how they were feeling.
This leads to two problems: firstly, a built up anger and upset within the young person, often caused by the situation they were in, but demonstrated by the extreme behaviours. With the majority of young people, the problem we think we are dealing with is in fact caused by a deeper rooted problem, often completely out of their control. And secondly, a broken and fraught relationship with the practitioners trying to support them. This in turn often directly affect the young person’s education, their ability to get to class, complete work or even ask for help when they were struggling. In my first role, I remember being told to try to get them to talk: “we need to understand why they think it’s appropriate to behave like this”. It didn’t take long for me to realise that if a young person has resorted to harming themselves, throwing things in a classroom or has simply stopped speaking all together, they more than likely have reached the point of complete frustration as they simply can’t put into words the way they are feeling or deal with the excess emotions with themselves.
The arts offers an opportunity to deal with all three of these – an outlet for their feelings, a way to express how they feel and a way to explain their situation in a way which cannot be considered “wrong”. The use of arts in intervention sessions became vital to me, allowing young people to talk not about the problems they were facing but instead the music they listened to, encouraging them to freely create whatever they wanted, to write, not to meet academic standards but about what they were feeling, without worrying if it made sense, or to photograph their worlds and to discuss these little insights if they felt it was appropriate. This helped me to understand them as individuals, opened opportunities to discuss their wider problems and encouraged them to use these tools to channel their emotions in a productive way, and a way which could be understood and felt even when words were failing them.
Going back to I, Daniel Blake and the question at the top of this page: “But let’s be honest, a film isn’t going to make any difference, is it?” – lets replace the word “film” with “art”, and I guess we have the point of this blog. The people who best know the problems outlined in the film are those living with its reality. For example, those dealing with learning difficulties may not be able to express the answers on the forms needed to access the support they so desperately need. If they cannot successfully fill out the forms, how can they accurately explain the problems they face and successfully invoke change?
Participatory arts programmes, Pound Arts
Art means that we don’t have to explain with words, facts or figures. It means we can show a person how we feel, or how we can see, hear and imagine another way of life. The arts allow us to enter and understand someone else’s world and view point, whether that is the way the benefits system makes them feel, or the way in which a child dealing with severe autism struggles with the queuing system in their school canteen. Take for example The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a book and theatrical spectacular which offers a view of an autistic youth that as a practitioner I wish I had seen right at the start of my career.
My opening question was asked following the first screening of I, Daniel Blake during the Arts and Social Change day, and was met with silence. Perhaps film, like most things in the arts, is regarded as recreational, something we take in for entertainment only. Seeing a film could be regarded as a privilege for those who can afford to do so. The arts are being marginalised in the curriculum and often ‘core’ subjects are prioritised. Young people are often denied the opportunity to study the arts, and they will only experience what they can either afford to, or they are shown.
In my humble opinion, yes, a film can make a difference, as can a painting, a poem or a song, if it is accessible. As practitioners we have a duty to make art accessible to all, regardless of background, gender, social standing, location or age, in an effort to offer everyone the same unauthorised and unregimented opportunity to express themselves, and to access a broad and balanced view of the world, because art isn’t just a hobby or a privilege, it’s a language.
Now, as we are facing a snap general election, Brexit, economic and political uncertainty, over 100,000 young people have registered to vote in a handful of days keen to make their voices heard. In a world that changes how it communicates faster than ever before, the generation currently running the country and those 100,000 communicate differently, use different language and different technologies, many of which the other doesn’t understand. But that is when art becomes a language, it shows us another way, a difference of opinion, without which social change wouldn’t happen. We need to be shown change in order for it to become an idea and, in time, for change to happen.
Claire Williams, Creative Learning Officer, Pound Arts