Exiled: Making A Political Documentary In An Election Year

In the 1960s, some 2000 British citizens were forcibly removed from their island home of Diego Garcia so that Britain could lease it to America for a military base. Exiled follows the journey of these displaced people to rebuild their lives and fight for their return to their homeland.

In 2009 I started work on the documentary Exiled. I was working for a small production company at the time, so small that it was common to be involved in each project in numerous roles. Only about 5 people worked on the film in production and post-production roles. I was the film’s researcher, production assistant, interviewer, scriptwriter, one of the camera operators and the film’s main editor. I probably put in more hours on the project than the director did, by which I mean to say that I was very close to this film.

It was a formative experience for me. The project introduced me to the power of documentary, giving me a new respect for the form and a huge appreciation for factual storytelling. It also gave me one of my greatest experiences of creating a film for and about a community, allowing me to learn about and interact with amazing and inspirational people whose strength and determination should be an example to all of us. I was already engaged in community filmmaking, but this was my first opportunity to see it working on a wider scale and in a more vital context. It played a huge part in shaping my identity as a filmmaker today. The project also brought about my first real engagement with politics and social issues, helping to inform my value system and political leaning.

I felt extremely passionate about telling the story of the Diego Garcians. My experience of making Exiled, and of meeting and working with the Diego Garcian community living in the UK will always stay with me and I still feel a connection to the community.

I learned a huge amount in my research of the islanders’ plight and knew nothing of the situation before embarking on the project. I ended up with a massive wealth of information and I was horrified by my findings. I was shocked to discover that our country could be responsible for such injustice in recent decades, and that so many of us are completely unaware that it even happened and that the saga is ongoing. The history of the Diego Garcians’ experience is long and complex. I’ve posted a brief summary here.

In the build up to the general election, I’ve been reminiscing about the project, which was completed during the last general election in 2010. As the documentary touched on local, national and international politics, the backdrop of the election began to influence the project more and more in the build up to Election Day as it began to attract interest and scrutiny from politicians. I’ve also been in touch with President Allen Vincatassin to find out how the community have fared since the film was made and what progress they have made with their campaign to return home.

Making A Political Documentary In An Election Year

In the 2010 General Election, Crawley’s seat was a swing seat, having been won by only a tiny margin in 2005. Henry Smith was the Crawley Conservative Parliamentary candidate in the 2005 General Election where he received the highest national swing from Labour to Conservative (over 8.5%) reducing the Labour majority from 6,770 to just 37 – making Crawley the most marginal constituency in the country. The winning Labour candidate, Laura Moffatt, had the number 37 tattooed on her ankle as a reminder of how slim her victory was.

The growing Diego Garcian community in Crawley made up over a thousand new voters in the area, so winning their votes was set to make a huge difference to the outcome of the election in 2010. Laura was retiring as an MP and Henry was taking another run at her seat.

Both politicians were involved in the documentary as both had been greatly involved with the Diego Garcian community – Laura in her role as the MP for Crawley and Henry as the leader of West Sussex County Council at the time of the Diego Garcians’ arrival in Crawley. I met them both and interviewed them about their support for the Diego Garcians. Both seemed genuine and engaged. Both continue to support and work with the Diego Garcian community.

We’d reached out to numerous other members of Parliament, past and present who had been involved in the story or could offer a valuable opinion, but we had no take-up.

In March 2010, David Miliband (then Foreign Secretary) visited Crawley to attend an event for the Diego Garcian community. He was involved in declaring the waters around the Chagos Islands a Marine Protection Area in the interest of conservation. The Diego Garcian Society were optimistic about the plan, considering it as not just a means of protecting their homeland, but a potential opportunity for new jobs in the Chagos and a chance to be more connected to their home.

We originally had permission to film the event for our documentary, but found ourselves turned away by security when we arrived with our cameras. After some negotiation by our hosts on the council we were allowed into the event, but sadly, not with our cameras. When the event ended, however, our Director used the question and answer session to his advantage, introducing himself and our project to David Miliband and asking him in front of the audience if he would agree to a quick interview with us. David agreed. We charged back to the car for our kit, ran back in –almost getting blocked by security once again – and hastily set up an on-the-fly interview.

The original footage of the documentary is no longer in my possession (as Compulsive, and its archives are no longer in existence) but I do have a low-res copy of the interview. The quality is terrible and I didn’t include it in the final cut but I’m still proud that I was able to interview the Foreign Secretary.

It felt a little suspect for the government to suddenly take more notice of the Diego Garcians so close to the election but the islanders were optimistic and keen to support any initiative that could lead to a return. Unfortunately, the creation of the conservation area was later criticized as a further obstacle to the Diego Garcians’ right to return as the islanders would now find their return posing a threat to the environment as well as international security. The possibility of this being a tactical move by the British government to further deny Diego Garcians access to their homeland was confirmed by Wikileaks. 

Our clients at Crawley Borough Council, had set a screening date for two weeks before the general election and as the day approached things started to get crazy.

Once government entered Purdah, we were contacted by an official at the council who told us that we needed to submit the film to their office for approval before the screening date. They would advise us as to whether we would be allowed to screen the film and explained that we would need to accept any necessary cuts that they recommend or else have the screening banned. We were told that all publicity of the screening was banned. No photos could be taken at the event. A list of all guests at the screening was required, detailing their political bias. No political figures were permitted to speak at the event unless we allowed someone from every party to speak and be given the same amount of time.

Following this, we had requests from the Foreign Office, the local Conservative Party and the local Labour Party to allow them to see the film before the screening and make cuts if they deemed necessary.

We received a complaint from the Shadow Foreign Secretary about not being included in the documentary – the same Minister who refused our repeated requests for an interview months earlier. All kinds of people who had declined to appear in the film were suddenly angry that they’d been excluded. People seemed to be lining up to speak at the screening, all jostling for a chance to attach themselves to the Diego Garcian cause.

When we informed our clients about the situation they said that moving the screening date would constitute a breach of contract so we found ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Our film was at risk of being picked apart. All of our contributors had signed release forms. No one had any rights to our footage beside us. Our commitment was to the Diego Garcian people and to telling their story as best we could. Our intention had always been to allow the community to tell their story in their own words. We didn’t want to relinquish control of our film and allow others to dictate how the story would be told. All of a sudden, all sorts of people who weren’t even involved in the film were concerned about how the film could damage their chances in the election.

It was a stressful week but thankfully we reached an agreement with our client about rescheduling the screening until after the election, which put control of the edit firmly back in our hands. As soon as the screening was moved everyone lost interest again. The Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Office went back to ignoring our emails and no other politicians besides Henry and Laura retained an interest in taking part in the film or attending the screening.

After the screening in May we worked on a longer 60 minute cut of the film for October’s Black History Month. After that we had plans for a feature-length version of the film that we were unable to raise funding for. Our aim would have been to further investigate the right to return and to question the role of the base in light of emerging evidence of it’s use for renditions flights. We had hoped that this final version of the film could take a harder line against the military base and the politicians involved in the expulsion. We wanted to create a campaign film for the islanders that would really question how this could happen and how the islanders could still be denied the right to return home. It’s unfortunate that our funding applications were unsuccessful.

Then the election came. Henry gained the seat he had been campaigning for for so long. He continues to support the Diego Garcian community in Crawley. Laura retired from politics but also continues her support of the Diego Garcians.

With the new coalition government came austerity cuts to arts budgets and youth services. It was a hard time for community filmmaking. Compulsive Productions sadly closed down the following year and with that went any hope of continuing the project, although I still have hopes of returning to the story one day with a follow-up film. The silver lining of my time ending with Compulsive was that it set me on the path to building a business of my own and Exiled remains to this day one of the most exciting and inspirational projects I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on.

Since the making of the film, Allen Vincatassin has been elected President of the Provisional Government of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands. I spoke to him last week about how the community is doing and how the campaign has progressed and I’ll be sharing the update in my next post. It’s good news and it could be a step forward.

About the Author:

Evan Wilkinson is a Community Filmmaker based in Brighton. As well as producing videos and community film projects, Evan teaches workshops in filmmaking, script development and animation. For more information please visit: http://evanwilkinson.co.uk

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One thought on “Exiled: Making A Political Documentary In An Election Year

  1. Pingback: Exiled: Five Years On | Evan Makes Films

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