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Spotlight: Culture in Conflict

Arts and culture can play a significant role in addressing issues of conflict. But how do we approach these difficult themes when working with young people? Jim Hornsby, founder of Runaway Media in Bedfordshire, looks at how creative activities, mentors and cross-generational conversations can produce rich learning experiences for everyone.

Projects that combine critical studies and creative practice can help young people relate their lived experiences to contemporary issues - Jim Hornsby

We all know what conflict is. Don’t we?

As they say about love, it’s all around us.  It’s in the workplace, in our homes and internally within each of us.  Young people get it from a very tender age through sibling rivalries, at school - sometimes through bullying - and now, of course, on the internet where any little silliness can be exposed when things ‘go viral’

Runaway Media is a not-for-profit media company that developed from an employability project at the University of Bedfordshire. We make public service films for voluntary and public sector agencies, lead creative projects with charities, schools and colleges and simultaneously help media graduates manage the transition from education to work by employing them on our commissions.  Most of our films show positive images of under- rather than mis- represented people.

A New Venture

 The idea was to engage with the widespread fears about religious conflict in ways that would be relevant to and supportive of the diverse communities in Luton.

Culture in Conflict was, for us, a new and ambitious ‘front-line’ venture.  The idea was to engage with the widespread fears about religious conflict in ways that would be relevant to and supportive of the diverse communities in Luton.

Because the project was especially targeted at young people, it raised the question of whether we should teach about conflict at all?  Looking back to my university days, I remembered teaching how to tell stories (e.g they need beginnings, middles and ends) but that was about form, not content.  Then it clicked. The dictum ‘all drama is conflict’ was a key concept in my scriptwriting classes. Conflict is a part of culture - and vice versa. If young people are to engage with culture they must therefore also engage with conflict.

Culture in Conflict explored international and local conflict in two distinct but related phases. The first phase, funded by the BFI’s Film Audience Network, was to show and discuss a season of independent feature films about major conflicts in different parts of the world. The second phase, funded by ROH Bridge, was for our graduate filmmakers to help young people make short films about conflict resolution in Luton.

student speaking at Culture in Conflict event

Key learning points from Conflict in Culture:

Projects that combine critical studies and creative practice can help young people relate their lived experiences to contemporary social issues.

When arts and educational organisations work together they can set benchmarks for future development.

A good way to learn about social cohesion is to study conflict.

Creating Conversations

We hoped the young people would be curious to see serious films and that they would engage with the discussions on the same terms as the adults.

We wanted to attract a wide cross section of people in the town to the film season, especially, young people. We hoped the young people would be curious to see serious films and that they would engage with the discussions on the same terms as the adults.

Three of the films were about on-going conflicts between Muslim societies and ‘the West’ and the fourth referred back to the armed conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.  The films were dramatic and the discussions were lively.  The home movie style of Five Broken Cameras, for example, had extraordinary emotional power and people were audibly moved during the screening. The following week, we watched In This World, a low-budget feature about the perilous journey made by two young Afghans trying to get from Pakistan to London. When Dr Patricia Hynes from the University of Bedfordshire talked about migration following the screening, two 18 year-olds in the audience who had made the same journey five years earlier, spoke about their experiences, the uncertainty of gaining ‘leave to remain’ in the UK and the fears that generated for them.

Educationally speaking, the talks and audience discussions set the critical context for understanding the films. Experientially, the screenings made for a dynamic and socially cohesive experience for everyone in the theatre - including the young people who could relate it to their own experiences.

Finding Their Voice

Luton Culture: Music In Conflict from Runaway Media on Vimeo.

Following the season, we got together with the media students from Luton Sixth Form College to plan making their own short films about conflict resolution. But how should we start? For a while the students hesitated, uncertain about how to turn the abstract ideas into stories about actual people and places in the town. Following some more brainstorming sessions more defined possibilities began to emerge and the students formed into two production teams.

Each team was supported by two of our graduate filmmakers who guided them through the project from start to finish. Alongside a one-day skills workshop and planning meetings, the mentors also assisted with the shoots. The students’ rough-cut their stories during the summer term and our filmmakers continued to give them hands-on support in college and at a London post-production house.

The final short films reflected the students' real life concerns and showcased their creative and technical skill. Music in Conflict was based on an extended interview with a young rapper whose love of singing conflicted with traditional religious views that forbid public performance. As he told his story, we saw how one British Muslim had reconciled the differences between his cultural interests and religious beliefs. Blessed Are The Peacemakers mashed up television news reports about conflict and intercut them with activists from local faith groups who spoke frankly about the problems they faced from Muslim extremists and right wing British nationalists.

The film making and mentoring process generated many positive outcomes. The relationship between the sixth formers and the mentors was relaxed as well as productive. Informally, they exchanged stories about university courses and what it’s like working as freelance filmmakers.  At the same time, the mentors helped extend the students’ experience by showing them how to use higher end equipment and teaching them professional recording and editing skills.

Space To Share

Culture in Conflict event

The conference reversed the usual cross-generational dialogue

To conclude the project and hopefully leave a legacy, we held a conference called New Filmmakers on Religious Conflict and the Media.  During the afternoon we showed and discussed the sixth-formers’ films and two more made by undergraduates from the University of Bedfordshire and Plymouth College of Art. Oh Syria, My Syria showed the plight of Syrians living in a huge refugee camp in Jordan. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie focussed on the policeman who was shot dead during the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris.

The conference reversed the usual cross-generational dialogue as the filmmakers answered questions from an adult audience that included academics, faith activists, council officers and others. Providing the young people with a platform to share and discuss their work alongside adults was an important conclusion to the process. Initially nervous about how to engage young people in this complex topic I saw how, through creative projects and mentoring, the young film makers grew in confidence, developed their own voices and made a meaningful and respected contribution to their community.

Written by Jim Hornsby, Founder of Runaway Media www.runaway-media.org.uk

More In The Spotlight

The Royal Opera House Bridge Spotlight is a selection of stories, profiles and provocations from inspiring leaders in cultural learning across Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and North Kent. Explore more…

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