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Tinygiant director Daisy Ifama talks to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt about the power of graffiti, the difficulty of summing up a person’s life and the need for better funded NHS and healthcare services for the UK’s people of colour - and exploring all of it this short film

In June 2020, graffiti bearing the message “RIP SENI” appeared outside of the south London psychiatric hospital, Bethlem Royal. 

Referencing Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old Black man who was killed in the hospital during the year 2010 - while being restrained by 11 police officers - Daisy Ifama expands the story in a short documentary film while exploring the UK’s racial injustice, specifically in the realm of mental healthcare. 

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt caught up with Daisy to find out more about ‘RIP SENI’, portraying poignant moments gracefully and why this conversation needed to be fueled. 

LBB> The RIP SENI graffiti is obviously a big element of the story. How did you get from a place of learning about it to deciding to make a film about it? 

Daisy> I was brought on board by the Lewis family [led by Ajibola Lewis, Seni’s mum] and Lucy Owen, a producer on the Bethlem Gallery’s mental health and justice project that had commissioned the original artwork that went on to be graffitied. They wanted to make a film, supported by South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, that encouraged free, critical speech and commemorated Seni’s story, the act of graffiti and the feeling of resistance that was present in the UK during the summer of 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. I then brought in two great friends of mine, creative Lizzie Reid and producer Grace Shutti and we started to think about how the different stages of the artwork, pre and post-graffiti, could lead us through a wide ranging, but always intersecting story that reflected the state of mental health, race and grassroots community organizing in the UK. 

LBB> Going into the project, what were you aiming for with the end result?

Daisy> The film was always about peeling back that hidden layer to highlight conversations and moments that people don’t tend to really see – whether that was staff and service users at Bethlem Royal Hospital’s reaction to the graffiti, hearing how medical professionals respond to the very real tension that exists around their work or experiencing a community discussion with those that have been affected by deaths at the hands of the state. There is never just one story or one reaction and it was very clear from the beginning that we needed to show those multiple perspectives in order to tell the story properly.

Working closely with Lucy on the Mental Health and Justice project, we also knew we wanted the film to go on to exist as a resource for training and to be able to support the incredible work being done by those in the film, particularly Aji’s work around implementing Seni’s Law [officially known as the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Act 2018] which is a piece of legislation that aims to reduce restrictive practices across mental health and learning disability services. 

LBB> An interesting element of the film is that it doesn’t use an excessive amount of fancy camera-work, rather focussing on key elements of the story and interviews. What led you to taking this approach?

Daisy> I’m not sure this was a conscious decision, it’s just what felt right. We met with Aji every week on Zoom and Lizzie and I had hours and hours of really incredibly moving calls with each contributor. Every time we learned something new and left feeling different, so it felt natural to make a film that centered conversation without distraction and provided space for the same type of processing and reflection that we got from those initial talks. 

I did want it to feel like there was a progression in the way audiences were viewing the graffitied artwork, rather than employing a particular technique to make it all feel different. At the start, the focus is on revealing the spray-painted letters, which then builds into understanding the impact of the artwork on the boundary of the hospital and then you begin to see the placards in full and (hopefully!) start to think about the artist Mark Titchner’s original questions underneath the graffiti that maybe you hadn’t been able to see as clearly before. Whether those sections connected dots for people, or just provided some breathing space for reflection, I wanted what people were thinking about in those moments to be the things that sat with them once the film was over.

LBB> The film spends a good deal of time talking to the family as well as people impacted by situations like Seni’s. What was the process of working with them like?

Daisy> Heartbreaking, but also really galvanising. Although each family has a different story, they are all joined by a failure in mental healthcare in England and are led by courageous, incredible women. Talking with Donna, Marcia, Aji and Anna really highlighted the depth and the ripple effect on people’s lives when you lose a loved one at the hands of the state and face injustice at every turn.

LBB> Something interesting about the film is that it tells Seni’s story through the combined perspectives of various people. Was this your intention beforehand, or rather a byproduct of the interview content you received?

Daisy> It was always our intention to tell Seni’s story through his family and friends and especially from Aji and Omari’s perspective during the events leading up to Seni going into Bethlem as a voluntary patient. Again, I think this felt like a natural decision, to show the reality of the story. Seni was a normal 23-year-old guy with aunties and sisters and best friends that cared about him and all interacted with him during those final few days, so it felt right for them to tell the story from their perspective and to acknowledge that his death was so unexpected and entirely preventable. 

LBB> The film takes a very sombre but reflective approach to the issue, in a situation where one potentially could express anger or some other kind of emotion. Why did you choose this tonal approach? 

Daisy> When editing the film we showed our friends and family various cuts along the way and everyone came to the film with different perspectives and felt touched at different points, which was really interesting to see. We covered so much ground in the film and we definitely needed moments for people to sit with what they were feeling and to really listen to what they were being told. For me, there are moments of anger in the film, but also a lot of sadness, frustration, hurt and at times hope – which is the reality of what this experience feels like.

LBB> In the later part of the film, we see the groups being invited together by Aji Lewis for a discussion. What was the process of filming like without interrupting the natural flow of the discussion itself?

Daisy> We shot the discussion in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is upstairs from the Bethlem Gallery on the hospital site. It was the first time Aji, Marcia and Anna had met Donna outside of their weekly Zoom calls and it was straightaway a really warm atmosphere. We’d spoken to all the ladies lots leading up to filming and so once we set up upstairs I think I only actually asked one question to the group and then they naturally steered themselves through the conversation. For two hours we just sat and cried and soaked up everything they were saying. We hope the full discussion will be available in the Bethlem Museum’s archive for years to come. 

LBB> The background music during the interviews juxtaposed against the silence of the messages on the black screen is certainly poignant. However, how did you go about finding music that supported the emotional nature of the content without being too distracting?

Daisy> The amazing and very generous Simon Bass composed the music for the entire film. Lizzie and I had spent a lot of time working with Simon before and he’s just so wonderful and great at creating music that really supports, without overpowering, what’s happening on screen. One of the most beautiful parts of the film for me is the song played at the very end title that Molara, Seni’s Auntie, references near the start of the film. She’s an incredible musician and she has a song that she’d written and sang about Seni after he passed. Simon then composed a piece to run underneath it. It makes me cry every time I watch the film.

LBB> What was the most rewarding part of working on this project?

Daisy> Meeting and learning from Aji, Donna, Marcia and Anna. It was really special to be in the room with them that day and I feel forever changed by hearing them speak. 

Something I think we’ve all learned from working with them is the importance of applying pressure and remaining persistent because these institutions really do rely on you losing momentum. The United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) and Marcia Rigg, in particular, are such a core part of the fight for justice in the UK and they are a testament to the power of community support in creating meaningful change.

LBB>What were some of the challenges you faced while working on this project and how did you overcome them?

Daisy> Something I’ve learned from my own experience of losing someone under horrific, unjust circumstances is that it never feels like you can quite sum up a person’s life and their impact on the world well enough because it feels so overshadowed by the events surrounding their death. When speaking to Seni’s friend, Ashley Ward, he said something that really stuck with us about how difficult it is to have your friend’s life always being spoken about under such sad circumstances, when Seni was a really upbeat, funny, lively person. It was definitely a challenge for us to talk about the sadness and the hurt, but also do Seni justice and show what a wonderful personality he had and how much everyone around him loved him. 

LBB> What do you hope viewers will take away from this film? And what has the public reaction been like?

I hope people are angry and they understand that everything they protested for last summer is happening in the UK too and on their front doorsteps. I hope for greater conversations around properly funding the NHS health services and mental healthcare for people of colour, particularly Black people. And I really hope people are inspired by all those who have spoken out publicly.

LBB> Any parting thoughts?

Daisy> One of the darkest moments when making the film was every time we delivered a new draft, Lizzie would go on Inquest’s website to update the number of people who have lost their lives in police custody and every single time the number was higher, meaning a new person had died. The figure we put in the final version of the film quite quickly became out of date.

view more - LBB Film Club
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Tinygiant, Wed, 01 Sep 2021 12:32:16 GMT