our words make worlds

Deptford Storytelling Project 2020

The project

In Language Acts and Worldmaking we don’t often get to be at the events by the projects we’ve helped to fund through our Small Grants scheme. It would break our budget to visit them all across the UK and internationally. So, on Saturday 7 March, it was a great joy to be able to get on a bus and head to Deptford Cinema to see the short films created by the Deptford Storytelling Project, directed by Vicky Macleroy, Jim Anderson and Lucy Rogers. 10 short films by people who live in and around Deptford, south east London.

In some ways I knew what to expect. That is, a range of voices from all over the globe – the voices of London, of Londoners, the present iteration of what London has always been. And there it was: English in the voices and languages of the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Italian, Arabic. There was poetry in rap, in Levantine Arabic, language in handshakes, the language of faith, of the sounds of nature, ‘bad language’. In a prescient moment in one film, here was London imagined in an uncultivated state, ‘re-languaging’ our urban experience (a month later, in ‘lockdown’, this re-languaging, giving new name to our city as it is partly silence of its usual human activity, is happening around us). Multilingualism, I think, has many facets. And there in Deptford was a community I feel (even if often distantly) a part of and that these short films made me want to be more part of. Next time, for example, I won’t stride on past Deptford Cinema. I’ll know where this wonderful community hub, run entirely by volunteers is and go in. That, on a Saturday at mid-day, the cinema was full is a testament to the cinema and to the people who made Deptford Storytelling possible.

I leave the cinema feeling energised. I love this London. But I don’t feel dewy-eyed about it. That’s not really an emotion that is available to us, because London is harsh and difficult as much as it is wonderful and inspiring. And while I am inspired and moved by each of the films in turn, I don’t think their makers want us to respond dewy-eyed; each one demands something more complex from the viewer.

The films

All films can be found here.

Water and Light (Mai w Dai in Levantine Arabic) brings us the beautiful sounds of languages I don’t understand. Poetry by Farah Chamma set to music and in conversation with the music of Ruba Shamshoum and Kareem Samara brings us the harshness of London life, demands for voice and humanity and the iridescent shimmering of water and movement. For me, this is translation at its most powerful: movement, exchange and new expression.

Walk this way by Vanessa Couch, powerfully enacts a simple belief: that life has got better for the protagonist Michael Williams. He looks for people who are willing to make the same assertion and finds them, in statements of friendship, of moving on from pain and trauma, in the act of disappearing into the invisibility of the city to become visible to yourself.

Friendship, by Che Orjiekwe and Khumbo Kamana, is a glorious evocation of, well, friendship. Of knowing people, finding your clan, loyalty, the tumultuous experience of sharing. The analogy of the trials of long friendship being like a pizza – if you make a pizza and didn’t put enough cheese, are you going to throw that pizza away – is a great moment in a short piece that sets friendship against the streets of London and within the place of faith in everyday life.

Jellyfish nightmare by Margaret Jennings, invites us to watch jellyfish at their work, with voices listening in awe and fear and wonder, and maybe with incomprehension, about what they are seeing. Can we know?

Wild nurturing: Urban Wildway Rooutes, by Margaret Jennings and Jun Koya, leads us, with only the sounds of birdsong and natural noises through our urban life in order to recapture the natural soundscape that inhabits the city and surrounds the city-dweller. It asks us to ‘re-language’ ourselves, to create language out of sounds and voices that are barely audible, and to give space to the voices that are doing just that. (A month later, finding time to write this, in south east London where I can hear birds and not the thundering of the A2 towards the Blackwall Tunnel or the sound of sirens and helicopters, this re-languaging feels pertinent and necessary.)

Doorway to Tuat, by Zoë Neufville, is, we are told, about ‘Hawa drifting towards the inevitable journey’s end’. Yet it felt to me like a wonderful beginning, seeing Deptford through another’s eye and imagination, forcing a double take of images and scenes that are the remnants of the Deptford that Samuel Pepys relates, and that the long empire created. How much power there is in those same elements – gold, blood, salt, sugar and even death – doing such different work in the world.

Vietnamese Lunar New Year in Deptford, by members of the Vietnamese Family Association, took us documentary-style inside the London VietSchool, as a child’s voice told us in Vietnamese about what they do, how they learn about their culture, keep language alive, share experiences, language and knowledge with the community around them. They relate to us what words, signs, gestures, clothing and martial arts all do in their culture. Which is, also, part of the culture of their living in London.

Retracing the family footsteps, by Silvia Harvey, narrates in Italian with subtitles in English, an interpretation of a book of 19th-centurt photographs of French colonies. There are so many ways through these photographs by Aimée Sterque, and this short film relates a process of rediscovery and encounter. It speaks of the experience of the distant access to stories we read, always filtered through our own ability to decipher and understand the signs that come to meet us from the past.

Zaida Florian, the protagonist of Vida (by Hannah Davis, Lucy Wilson and Zaida Florian) puts on the shoes she wore in 1997 when she came to London from the Dominican Republic. In these shoes, in 2020, she dances, wearing traditional Dominican dress, on the Thames Path in front of a sign proclaiming multiculturalism in London. She returns to the Dominican Republic every year and makes her life in London, starting then with a job at the wonderful and now gone vegetarian restaurant, Heathers. (And I have a burst of recognition and memory, because my husband had a jazz residency there at that time.)

My bad sister by Joe Magowan carries a warning that tells all under 15s to go upstairs (out of the cinema) now! The film contains bad language. It is the bad language of Polly and Sophie, ‘Deptford’s locally famous twins’, a combative, abrasive sisterly relationship that produces art, dance, music, rap, ambition, independence. This short film is a fierce statement of place, of space, of belonging and ownership. And also, of hard work, getting to the gig on time, doing the job, building their own work, through determination and staying ‘sober and level-headed’.

The work

None of these stories sugar-coats life in Deptford. The joy of seeing them is not about some easy version of multicultural London. It is about hearing, tuning into stories told from different places, places not accessible to everyone, perhaps only, at times, accessible fully to those that made them and their closest community. But they communicate forcefully, they invite us into different voices and experiences, and they keep our eyes open to the harshness and pain that undercut the stories of a multicultural city. They cut through easy narratives of the city, and they illustrate the importance of seeing, listening to and acting with the complex multiplicity of voices in the city.

This project doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from the long experience of its directors, from their work over decades in education, in multilingualism, pedagogy, in the skills of storytelling. This work is also something we need to heed more insistently in education. It is needs to come more forcefully into practice in language teaching and learning; into the centre, not the periphery. So many people are doing such great work in rethinking this practice – as our Small Grants projects illustrate. Projects like Deptford Storytelling are evidence of powerful everyday responses to the dominant narrative that we are a monolingual society. We need to see this experience and knowledge as part of a curriculum and not as add-ons that schools are not able to find the capacity to accommodate, no matter how much good will and desire there is. The academic, theorised responses and work that come from these projects is urgently in need of a space in the wider discourse about education in languages at all levels. This is a project about how languages live and how storytelling educates us. So simple, so complex, so necessary.

I left before the sharing of the films with friends and families. I bet it was a riot.

Catherine Boyle

9 April 2020