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Rewriting the script

Posted on 26/09/2018
By Commonwealth Foundation

Photo credit: Russell Watson. 

The Commonwealth Foundation (CF) spoke to Lisa Harewood, a Bajan filmmaker, during the Commonwealth People’s Forum 2018.

We talked about storytellers’ experiences, working with the Commonwealth Writers programme and the ways in which less-heard voices can influence public discourse.

CF: Please tell us how the work of the Commonwealth Writers Programme has supported your work and whether it has enhanced or impacted on your storytelling and if so, how?

Lisa: I would have to say, and this is no exaggeration, that the Commonwealth Writers programme changed the course of my career. They not only supported the development of my film, Auntie (2013), but they also premiered it in New Zealand and supported its screening at a variety of quite high-profile festivals. Due to the publicity and the conversations those screenings generated people started to tell me their own stories which then led me to say: ‘Wait a minute, there is so much more than just the one story that I told!’ A year after the film was out, Commonwealth Writers reached out and asked me whether I was willing to do some outreach which they offered to fund.

‘For a wider audience, especially policymakers, hopefully the effect is that they perceive and understand an issue in a different and more powerful way.’

What I created was Barrel Stories, an online oral history archive where I record and share the stories of people who have been affected by parental separation because of migration. The site also includes a list of resources and other work on the issue. Commonwealth Writers didn’t hesitate in saying, ‘How can we help? What do you need?’…They trusted me to pull it off and they helped me to understand my own process and the logistical and emotional pitfalls of getting involved with the recording of real stories. Out of that I developed a much deeper interest in non-fiction storytelling and two years ago I moved to the [United Kingdom] to do an MA in documentary.

Auntie (Harewood, 2013) follows a middle­-aged seamstress and respected caregiver in her rural Barbadian community

Now I’m in the process of developing this project across multiple platforms. I’ve hit this rich vein, not just of stories but of emotion and I feel a responsibility now to see it through. I want to create something that really gets to the heart of this issue and provides a tool for understanding and maybe even some healing where it’s needed.

All of this is a direct result of being selected for the Commonwealth Writers programme in 2012.

‘I would have to say, and this is no exaggeration, that the Commonwealth Writers programme changed the course of my career.’

CF: What are the most effective ways to reach people with your storytelling, and raise awareness of issues so that it influences public dialogue?

Lisa: I’m open to using all sorts of means to craft and to deliver the story I want to tell. I’ve made films, I’m building an audio archive, I’m experimenting with VR and immersive technologies and old school community workshops. As long as it works for the story and for the audience, I’m at a stage where I think beyond just film.

Harewood on the set of Auntie (Harewood, 2013)

From a content standpoint I’m interested in empowering the people whose stories I want to share. I want to help them to co-create the work with me. In that regard they are the first audience that I am trying to reach. I want them to feel heard and validated and supported by a community of other people who have shared similar experiences.

For a wider audience, especially policymakers, hopefully the effect is that they perceive and understand an issue in a different and more powerful way and are moved to act to bring about positive change. I have to be careful though not to allow myself to be burdened by an expectation of certain outcomes from this work. I have to be focused on telling the best stories that I can.


CF: How important is it to hear from storytellers outside of the mainstream, those less heard voices and less heard stories? Can such stories impact the dominant narrative?

Lisa: As a person from the Caribbean I grew up seeing so many terrible depictions of Caribbean people. Usually as happy-go-lucky, ‘everything is great, yeah man!’ people. And it sounds like a really silly thing… but when someone says this is how your country is and this is how these people act and sound and it’s not anything that you recognise, you feel really insulted and demeaned. Having other people tell our stories takes away so much from us if it’s not done well. I’m not saying that you can’t tell a story from a community that’s not your own. You can, but you have to do it with a great deal of sensitivity and a desire to get it right. So I’m really glad to be a part of a generation of filmmakers and writers and artists who are taking control of our own narrative. We can have rich, fully rounded portrayals instead of damaging stereotypes.

I’ve seen through my own work on Auntie and Barrel Stories just how amazing it is for an audience of Caribbean people to see and hear characters who they recognise. It’s almost a cliché to say people need to see themselves reflected but they do. It’s one way for them to make sense of their own lives and experiences and their place in the wider world.

Lisa Harewood is a film director. 


Commonwealth short films