Sunday, November 11, 2007

Filming the transatlantic slave trade.

Museum in Docklands’ new London, Sugar & Slavery gallery, opens with an arresting film montage which steps through time and space, drawing together people and places affected by the transatlantic slave trade. Shot on location across the trading triangle, the film blends images and artefacts from the gallery, with on the ground footage and historical text. For the filmmaker Stephen Rudder, of Quiet Voice Productions, the commission marked a personal journey of discovery.

“My interest and love of film and the moving image lies in its ability to educate and inform. In the Museum in Docklands’ new gallery the intention is to draw the connections between London and its major involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. I felt strongly that this was an important story that people needed to know. I wanted my film to work within the gallery, but also to stand alone as a strong contribution to revealing this history. I wanted it to show the scale of this untold story and its central importance to London’s history. It had to feel like a big statement not a simple comment.

“I felt it was important to get away from making a traditional ‘Museum Film’ so I thought about a language that everyday people and the Museum’s younger visitors would be familiar with: commercials, music video, trailers.  I also recognised that this was serious and sensitive subject.  The challenge was to create a piece that brought the two together.

“I’ve read a lot of different opinions on the bicentenary year, and that is partly why I felt so passionately about the need for this gallery. What touches me deeply doesn’t touch other people in the same way. I felt the only way to get through to those people was to attempt to touch their humanity.  Olaudah Equiano's  ‘An Interesting Narrative and Other Writings’, written as a first person account, was a bestseller in its time because its power, spirit and poetry transcended race. I had never read anything on slavery that connected me with the human experience in quite the same way – from the start of this project I knew I wanted to use his words. I wanted to hit home the message of a crime against humanity by putting an African man’s words in the mouths of many people, of different races, ages and genders. I want people to feel connected with that experience and that crime, whilst at the same time bringing London's involvement into this history.

“The favour I received whilst making this was definitely a blessing from above. How the film got made isn’t something I can completely answer. It just seemed as though against all the odds things fell into place. We desperately wanted to represent all points on the trading triangle, although this was really ambitious and beyond the scope of the original commission. We stretched things to get us to Barbados, and then a last minute sponsorship from Afriqiyah Airways allowed us to complete the triangle by shooting in Ghana.  I didn’t expect this to happen but somehow it did.

“It’s easy to imagine that we where out there living out a jolly jet setting break, but I can tell you we hardly relaxed at all. The schedule was fierce and we simply didn’t have the time to unwind. We filmed all day, digitized in the evening, then headed early to bed to be up in time for sunrise. We had to be in and out. We were in Barbados for six days and Ghana for only three days.

“On a personal level, I had never been to the African continent before this trip. However, I felt strongly that this is where my origins lay and was looking forward to the time when I would touch that land. The reality was quite challenging because rather than taking it in and letting it wash over me I was always on the look out for shots.  I was filming in a dungeon where it was likely that my ancestors were kept before being shipped to the Caribbean. Whilst finding the shot and making sure we were covered for the edit, part of me wanted to break down. It was a very difficult headspace. I’ve been to Barbados before but with the knowledge I have on this trade I don’t think I will ever look at it in quite the same way. Its beauty will always be tainted. 

“It was a real growth in my life. I’ll never forget the experience of making this film.”