Tag Archives: Politics

Exiled: Five Years On

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In my last post I discussed the making of the documentary Exiled in 2010 and my experiences of producing a political film during an election year. Whilst reflecting on the film I caught up with President Allen Vincatassin about what life has been like for the UK based Diego Garcians since the making of the film, and the latest developments in their campaign for a return to their island.

In February of 2013 Allen met with Mark Simmonds (then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Foreign Affairs) who agreed to a new feasibility study into the possibility of resettlement in the Chagos including Diego Garcia. The study has now been published and can be found here.

As part of his research, Mark Simmonds visited the island in March 2014 despite protest from Mauritius who are still pursuing claims of sovereignty. He was the first UK minister in history to visit the islands.

The study had favourable results, concluding that there is no legal barrier to resettlement and theorising various options by which a return could be implemented. This feels like a big step forward for the Diego Garcians who have been held back by such feasibility studies in the past. Previous studies have focused on a lack of infrastructure and environmental changes such as rising sea levels, claiming that the island would be uninhabitable despite the contradictory presence of some 5000 military personnel.

The new report in fact states that the ideal island for resettlement within the Chagos Archipelago, is Diego Garcia. The report concedes that the island base means that an infrastructure is in place as Diego Garcia already has a port and airport. Diego Garcia would be better for resettlement than the outer islands because of this existing infrastructure so the presence of the military base has actually become a positive factor in the case for resettlement.

A larger question remains as to how to create jobs and industry on the island and this is one of the areas that now needs research. A number of contractors from the Phillipines currently work at the base, so it is clear that the base does provide potential employment for civilians. Allen has managed to convince the UK government that the defense of the base isn’t a problem as islanders can occupy the other side of the island which is currently uninhabited. In the past, resettlement of Diego Garcia has been discouraged on the basis of it being a threat to international security, but people live next to and near to military bases all over the world.

The US is leasing the land from the UK and the lease officially expires in 2016. The lease will need to be renegotiated soon and the US is in an awkward position following revelations of the island base’s use in renditions flights and as a suspected black prison site – activity which may well be a factor in the USA’s reluctance to have a civilian population nearby. The US are unwilling to allow a civilian population to use any of their infrastructure such as housing, but they have not spoken against civilian use of the port and airport where immigration is controlled by the UK.

A week before Parliament’s dissolution, James Dudderidge, Simmonds’ successor at the Foreign Office, said that there is more work to be done to make a decision as to how resettlement could happen and who would want to return.

Allen has said that there is a need for more in depth work to be done as to who would like to return to the islands but the very realistic terms in which resettlement is now being discussed are encouraging. People have begun to register their interest in returning.

Allen has been in discussions with the Foreign Office about a pilot resettlement. One of the big questions is how much the resettlement will cost the treasury.

My conversation with Allen was conducted before the general election, this progress was made with the coalition government and the hope is that the work can continue when the new government come to power. There is a need for more studies in order to work towards a pilot resettlement in order to see if permanent resettlement could be sustainable. The Diego Garcians have a plan and are waiting to present it to the new government.

Today marks the State Opening of Parliament and with James Dudderidge and the Foreign Minister Philip Hammond returning to their posts it is hopeful that these discussions will continue to progress.

Looking back on the film.

Allen’s reflection on the documentary is that it highlighted the Diego Garcian’s story very well but he can’t confirm what impact it had on the local or national public. The biggest hope was that the film would reach a wider audience than just the local screenings that it was commissioned for and the Diego Garcian society haven’t had the resources to organize further screenings of the film. It seems that the Road to Crawley project hasn’t continued much contact with the community since the film was made.

Henry is still Crawley’s MP and Laura has retired from politics but both have continued their support for the cause. Henry has helped a lot with organizing meetings with Mark Simmonds to negotiate resettlement and speaking on the Diego Garcians’ behalf in Parliament on several occasions. Allen’s feeling before the election was that if the Conservatives remain in government then the DG population stand a good chance of achieving their right to return home.

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Charlesia (Saji) Alexis sadly passed away in December 2012.

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Myleene continues her work with the Sega dancers and the Diego Garcian youth group.

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Marie-Ange has made progress learning English and is now living in the Brighton area.

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Selmour is well and enjoying being a Grandfather.

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Allen has self-published his memoir Flight to Freedom which is now available on Amazon.

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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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

Exiled: The History

What follows is a summary of some of the research I conducted for the documentary Exiled. I am posting it in order to serve as context to the film and to subsequent posts regarding its making.

Diego Garcia is the largest island of the Chagos Archipelago. The islands became British territory in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic War. Coconuts and coconut oil (copra) were the main industry with most of the islanders involved in working for the coconut plantation.

The plantation provided housing for the workers but also gave them permission to build their own houses, which most preferred. There was no monetary system on the island, islanders traded and shared everything. The workers were paid a small wage, which was saved for them until it was enough for a trip to Mauritius. The only thing the islanders really needed money for was clothes, which they would go to Mauritius to buy.

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Diego Garcia became the intended site for a planned US Military Base sometime in the late 50s. During the Cold War, the US was looking for a territory in the Indian Ocean from which to monitor the Soviet Union.

As a result, Mauritius was offered independence on the condition that the country laid no claim to the Chagos Islands. Mauritian Prime Minister Seewoosar Ramgoolam was persuaded to sell the Chagos to Britain for the price of £3 million. Ramgoolam also received a knighthood in the 1965 New Year’s Honors list and it is speculated that this may have been a form of reward for the sale.

The Americans had originally wanted to build a base on the Aldabra Atoll, which had no human inhabitants. However, it was found to be home to the rare Aldabra tortoise. The wildlife lobby ensured that the US plans for Aldabra were dropped.

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The island of Diego Garcia is horseshoe-shaped, making it a natural harbour capable of containing a large US Naval fleet. To the cabinet of Howard Wilson, Diego Garcia seemed a natural second choice for the US Government, who wished the island to be unpopulated for security reasons.

It is implied that American ‘bought’ the island and not the people, and that part of the agreement was that it was Britain’s responsibility to remove the islanders.

The deal was struck and the inhabitants were removed under a lie by the Foreign Office that they were merely migrant workers – “some few Tarzans and Man Fridays that are hopefully being wished on Mauritius.”

Britain proceeded to “maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population” and began covertly removing the population of the Chagos whilst avoiding the attention of the media. This secrecy continued throughout the following decades with actions such as the UK deliberately under-counting the number of Chagossian residents to play down the scale of the depopulation.

The depopulation process was an underhanded one.

  • Islanders refused right to return – those visiting Mauritius simply not allowed to go home
  • Food supplies cut off – ships no longer sail to Diego Garcia
  • Britain buys out plantations – workers no longer have jobs to support their lives on the island
  • American military arrive and construction of base begins
  • The military tell the islanders that there is a war going on and that they aren’t safe on the island
  • Intimidation and killing of pets – rumours on the island that islanders will be harmed, then all of the islanders’ pets are rounded up and horrifically slaughtered as they are made to watch
  • Evacuation of Diego Garcia – the remaining islanders are moved to Salomon and Peros Banhos islands where they live for 2 years
  • Final removal in 1973 – loaded on to a boat under inhumane conditions and dumped on the docks of Mauritius with no one to meet them

With no one to meet them at the docks islanders were left to wander through the streets of Port Louis looking for family and assistance. The majority of islanders were allowed to take very little on them so most family photos and items of sentimental value are lost forever.

The initial compensation made available to the islanders for their relocation was minimal and was not made available to them until 1978 by which time inflation had rendered it almost worthless. Each islander received approximately £20 each. The islanders struggled to survive an endured a parade of court cases, protests and political debate in order to gain financial assistance. It is not until 1983 that the islanders receive any substantial payment and the 1983 payment only constitutes half of what the UK government had been advised was necessary. The islanders were offered the money on the condition that they signed a contract stating that they would make no further compensation claims and that they would renounce all rights to return to the Chagos Islands. Most of those who signed the contracts did so out of desperation and many who signed could not read and had no idea of what they were agreeing to. To date the US government has taken no financial responsibility for the removal of the islanders.

The islanders were treated as second-class citizens and lived in abject poverty in Port Louis’ slums. They had no electricity or running water. Many of the slum houses lacked doors and windows. The community suffered from problems of crime, drugs and prostitution, which they had not encountered on Diego Garcia. By mid-1975 at least 1 in 40 had died of starvation and disease. Suicides and child deaths were common.

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The islanders had trouble adjusting to modern life in contrast to their simpler lifestyle on the island. They had no money and had to adjust to living in a society based on economy. This also meant that workers were often exploited, as they had no understanding of the value of the money they were being paid.

The Diego Garcians and Chagossians held regular protests to gain justice in Mauritius. Elderly women performed hunger strikes and were beaten by police. A series of legal battles ensued.

Finally, in 2002 the UK Parliament enacted legislation giving all Chagossians the right to obtain full British citizenship. For years the Diego Garcians were restricted as British Indian Ocean Territory citizens, British citizens with no rights to live in the UK.

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On the 16th September 2002, Allen Vincatassin arrives in the UK at Gatwick Airport with a group of 18 other Diego Garcians. Allen declares at customs that he is a destitute British citizen in need of assistance. The local council accommodated the islanders in the Airport Travelodge under the National Assistance Act of 1948. They spent 3 days and nights waiting at the hotel for a decision on their circumstances. They were then moved to a Premier Inn in Crawley. They spent a total of 5 months living in hotels as they started to build their new lives.

A second group of islanders arrived in March 2003. In April 2003 the press reported that Allen was urging Diego Garcians in Mauritius to come to the UK. “My vision for the community is that we come here – the first thing to do is to work to get finances, to be removed from poverty – and then to go back to Diego Garcia.”

In 2004 two more groups (approx 70 people) arrived in October sparking headlines. There was a negative perception of asylum seekers that was incorrectly applied to the islanders when they first arrived. The local media slowly explained the situation and the people gained a greater understanding.

At the time of making the documentary, approximately 2000 Diego Garcians were living in Crawley. Many were working and their children were in education. Members of the community were taking positive steps to rebuild their lives but some were struggling with language barriers and cultural differences. Some had been met with hostility from Crawley residents.

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With help from local MP Laura Moffatt, the Diego Garcians managed to broker a deal to allow small groups to visit the island under constant escort from the American Military. The Diego Garcians continue to campaign for their right to return home to their island.

The film was made as part of The Road To Crawley Project, a Heritage Lottery project designed to collate a social history of Crawley residents.

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

Exiled: Production Info

Exiled

Exiled is a documentary that I made with Compulsive Productions in 2010. It tells the story of the islanders from Diego Garcia; some 2000 British citizens who were forcibly removed from their island in the sixties so that Britain could lease it to America for a military base. The film follows the journey of the displaced people to rebuild their lives and fight for their return to their homeland.

The film explores the history of the Diego Garcians’ forced removal from their island, their experiences in the slums of Mauritius, and their journey to the UK where they struggle to build new lives and continue to battle for their rights.

The film features interviews with members of the Diego Garcian community who reflect on life on the island and give eyewitness accounts of the expulsion and the shocking conditions they endured on their journey to Mauritius. The islanders recount their struggle to survive in the slums of Mauritius when they were denied resettlement money and left to languish in poverty.

Roughly two thirds of the Diego Garcian islanders now live in Crawley after using all of their available resources to make the journey to the UK. Life for the islanders has improved but their culture and lives have been inexorably altered by the expulsion and the scars of this experience are still visible. Now the islanders struggle to overcome language barriers and integrate into British society despite racial tensions and violent oppositions within the town.

Our team worked hard to become trusted and accepted by the Diego Garcian community living in Crawley over a period of months. We conducted several interviews with residents before deciding on the community figures that would tell the story of the exile.

We spoke to Allen Vincatassin, leader of the Diego Garcian community in Crawley who led the islanders in their move to the UK. Allen is a spokesperson for the community and campaigns politically for their rights. He provides valuable support for community members settling in the UK and has also been instrumental in the recent government initiative to declare the Chagos Archipelago a Marine Protected Area for the future conservation of marine life.

Since the making of this film, Allen has been elected president of the Provisional Government of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands.

Allen’s late grandfather, Michel Vincatassin famously took legal action against the British Government for their treatment of the islanders and faced bitter opposition until his death. Michel’s son, Simon, told us the story of his father’s campaign and the poltical tensions it created. Sadly, Simon has now passed away so this footage shows him in his final days.

We interviewed Selmour Chery, an elderly man who reminisced about his life on the island and how a visit to Mauritius left him stranded with no home and no job when he was told he was not allowed to return to his home.

We spoke to Selmour’s sister, Saji Alexis, an inspiring woman who led the people in protest against their dire living conditions and lack of support in Mauritius. Despite being beaten by the police and thrown into jail, Saji continued to protest and lead hunger strikes until the Diego Garcians were finally granted British passports and full UK citizenship rights.

We spoke to Marie-Ange Modliar who was among the last islanders to be removed in inhumane conditions aboard the over-crowed ship, Noordvaer, and Myleene, a community worker, who teaches Diego culture to the new generation of Diego Garcians. Myleene and Marie-Ange visited the island together last year as the first Diego Garcian women to return since the expulsion.

Also interviewed are the former head of West Sussex County Council, Henry Smith, who recounts his experiences of providing welfare support for the 2000 islanders who arrived at Gatwick Airport as destitute British citizens and the former MP for Crawley, Laura Moffatt, who campaigned for the Foreign Office to allow the islanders visits to their homeland.

At the time of making the film, the US military base on Diego Garcia housed over 4000 military personnel. The base had proved a site of strategic importance for the US military in their recent actions against Afghanistan and Iraq. The Diego Garcian population are still banned from returning home. The American military have stated in the past that their presence on the island would pose a threat to international security.

The island’s ‘lease’ comes to an end in 2016 and will need to be renegotiated. The islanders are still campaigning for their right to return to their home.

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