Making a hard-hitting film about their own lives helped troubled pupils find new focus. Reva Klein reports
The stars of the film are young, rough, tough and on the fringes of society. Some of them have been gang members; others have had lives touched by them. "I think some people are scared of us," says one. Too right: they are the kind of kids you'd cross the street to avoid. But listen to their poems and their raps and the stereotypes quickly fade. These young people, all black, all now attending Daniel House, a pupil referral unit in Hackney, east London, are articulate, self-aware and aspiring to be something. In "Beneath the Hood", part documentary, part rap narrative, they reveal the reality of their lives: the experience and implications of being excluded from school. Their point of view is one that is rarely heard.
The film is a Creative Partnerships collaboration between students and staff at Daniel House and a local independent film-maker, Eelyn Lee. For a year, she worked with teachers and pupils, bringing in rappers, a poet, a music composer, an animator and graffiti artist to stimulate and develop ideas. "From the outset," she says, "I wanted to make a documentary using different art forms. It was the young people who informed the content."
The most basic - and frustrating - problem was gaining the trust of the 25 to 30 secondary pupils, many of whom automatically distrust strangers. "At the first workshop, most of the Year 11s blanked me," Eelyn recalls. With time, they got used to her and became interested. She organised six-week blocks of work for small groups of four to six pupils, swapping between digital photography, team-building games, drama improvisation and exploring values. It was during the drama sessions that Eelyn thought of bringing in fictional, animated characters that the students could use to represent their own feelings and experiences.
"The idea arose out of a need to get the students to open up. They knew that, in a sense, it was a vehicle for them to hide behind, but it didn't matter. They loved devising and developing the characters, who they called Bradley Argos and Chantel."
The Year 11s were the toughest nuts to crack: they either refused to participate or behaved badly in the small groups. So Eelyn asked Adisa, a performance poet, to work with individual students. It worked. One boy who had sabotaged the small workshops and was initially resistant to the idea of working alone with Adisa, eventually responded positively and, according to Eelyn, "showed a different side of himself".
The result of all the hard work is a moody, edgy, grainy and at times intensely poignant film that, in the words of Annie Cornbleet, headteacher of Daniel House, "gave our children a voice about difficult issues they couldn't articulate before. It's a strong, creative portrayal of the experience of exclusion through the words and songs of the young people."
Occasionally, it is a beautiful film that includes sequences of some pupils practising Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, with an instructor, dressed all in white and looking graceful and confident. Serenity at Daniel House is a rare commodity. Interspersed with the powerful raps, poems and Capoeira are scenes that show the realities of running a school for young people on the edge. In one, the head reads the riot act to two boys who stole a bike during breaktime from the secondary school across the road, the school they will be reintegrated into once they leave the pupil referral unit.
The focal point of the film is the young people: talking, cooking to camera (as one boy does in a quietly affecting food technology session) and, most interestingly, performing their raps, looking for all the world like rude boy and girl superstars on MTV. They come across as world-weary and vulnerable, hardened and at the same time hurting.
One girl, who has just taken seven GCSEs and is starting college this term, wound up at Daniel House after "beating up" a teacher at her previous school. She talks about how the unit was daunting at first. "I thought my life was over, being sent to a PRU," she says. "I was scared when I first came because I was the only girl to begin with, but it was okay.
"Being here, in a small environment, is like being in a family. At my old school, the teachers thought I would drop out and never make anything of myself. But here, the teachers have so much faith in you that if you mess things up, it makes you feel bad because you're letting them down. I want to be a success, to pay my mum back for all the stress I've caused her."
For Annie Cornbleet, who first approached Creative Partnerships with the idea of a film, the impact of the school's involvement has been profound.
"This has raised the students' self-esteem and confidence," she says, "and given them a sense of acclaim. Hopefully, it will challenge the stereotype of PRUs and the young people who go to them."