Soy independiente

After my ghosting by Glasgow Film – see The Undoing – I wondered how I could help someone who wants to work in film and TV. Or help them make a movie purely for its own sake. I also thought of the obstacles one faces when trying to make a living in such a notoriously insecure field. According to BECTU, the main union for film/TV workers, 70% of the UK workforce was unemployed in September 2023. If 70% of UK politicians were unemployed, the country would be better off.

When the majority can’t get a job, it begs the question: what was/is the point of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)? In fact, it’s offensive to see the discourse on the low socio-economic population gain momentum, its sub-groups reduced to the acronym: WBCU – working, benefits, criminal and underclass; the latest minority in a morass of minorities. To get ahead, one might be well-advised to self-ID as the deserving poor or, since The Guardian is a reliable bellwether on social and cultural trends, neurodivergent. I say this not to be flippant but rather, to point out the absurdities of identity politics.

The idea that everyone deserves to be creative has been kicked around for decades. In the 1980s Positive Discrimination was promoted by both politicians and the media and centred on BAME and gay groups to the exclusion of the disabled, the elderly and the working classes, though in fairness Channel 4 Television’s remit covered minorities of all stripes in its charter.

To an extent, PD had a positive impact and while DEI is similarly well-intentioned, I question its efficacy because never in my life have I witnessed so much societal division resulting from such a benign aim. Even more worrying, the weaponization of minorities to kindle social/political schisms is both suspect and dangerous. As ever, one needs to ask: cui bono?

The other day I noted a Twitter/X post – my pronouns are Employment/Tribunal. Droll but true. In the current workplace culture wars, the leveraging of under-represented individuals into high office or specialist roles by virtue of ‘otherness’ but with no proven competence or talent is a kind of madness. No sane person would hire a heart surgeon, say, or an airline pilot based solely on their skin colour, sexual orientation or fear of punctuation.

They say timing is everything.

When a producer friend, Stuart asked whether I’d be willing to mentor a journalist, photographer, blogger and first-time documentary maker, Leah Pattem initially I hesitated, though Stuart assured me we would be simpatico. His prompt also forced me to consider what mentoring really means: the time, headspace and commitment required to steer Leah – or any other filmmaker – to the successful completion of their film.

While deliberating I realised the extent to which I’ve retreated from the world these last few years, sequestered by immobility, the Covid lockdown and chronic pain. Recalling this recent history, I’m aware of how the stories we tell ourselves, untethered from reality, can manifest in the most corrosive ways. I concluded that helping someone was what I needed more than what I wanted, so said yes.

Based in Madrid, Leah writes for The Guardian, the BBC, Al-Jazeera and El Pais among others. Currently she’s tracking a story about mass evictions taking place in her neighbourhood, Lavapiés, specifically Tribulete 7. Recently the building was purchased by what Leah describes as a ‘vulture’ company, Elix whose speciality is buying out historic buildings in order to revamp them for the lucrative rental market that presumably includes AirB&B-style short lets.

Housing is a subject close to my heart. Living in a privately-rented slum as a kid, the first charity I ever raised money for was Shelter. My late sister, Yvonne McShea was chair of the Thenue Housing Association for many years, having been homeless herself. Forced evictions, high rents, lack of housing and the negative impact of tourism affect us all, be it in the Scottish Highlands, the Parisian suburbs or worse, in a frightening perspective of San Francisco recounted by Rebecca Solnitt in a recent LRB podcast.

Working with her colleague, Eli, so far Leah has acquired over 40 hours of footage: interviews with tenants, boisterous, imaginative street protests as well as formal community meetings. They’ve also gathered unique portraits of the people and the vivid grassroots culture they’ve created – music, comedy, performance art, DJing. From the footage I’ve seen, the locations are photogenic, the characters compelling and the issue universal, so potentially the documentary could find a wide audience.

The only problem: Leah and Eli haven’t made a film before. So why ask me? Possibly because while they know what they’re about, the pair need practical advice from someone who’s been there. Having agreed to mentor Leah (and Eli), I paused for breath and in a contortion of self-doubt asked myself: what IS a mentor? I look up the definition: a trusted and experienced advisor. But am I that person? Sometimes we don’t know what we do know. Then I realised: I know A WHOLE LOT. In fact, for the sake of modesty I’ve just deleted a list of 30 or so roles I’m accomplished in, so perhaps it’s time to drop the aw-shucks, lil’ ole me pose. I want my mentees to make a beautiful, relevant film that should be seen by a wide audience.

For the past weeks and months, Leah and I have held regular Zoom calls. From the get-go there’s been a wonderful meeting of minds. Leah hails originally from the North East of England, and besides journalism, photography and her excellent blog, she also teaches writing. I’m grateful to Stuart for putting us together because to care for another’s talent is truly vivifying, So far it’s been a education for us both and all being well, she’ll be in Glasgow in August. Nice to have a happy ever after for once.

To quote Paulo Coelho –

“The world is changed by your action, not by your opinion.”

The above image is by Leah. I hope she doesn’t mind me using it. On her website – Madrid No Frills – there’s many great photos available for sale. At the moment she’s in Prague as a nominee for the European Press Prize 2024 for a team story published in The Guardian about unmarked graves across EU borders. I’m so pleased for her – I hope she – and the team – win/s.

Postscript on 7th June – last night Leah and her fellow journalists working as a team won the Special Award at the European Press Prize 2024 Awards. I’m so proud of her.