Identity and Belonging in East London

Living in Leytonstone: Identity and Belonging is a 12-minute film examining the experiences of pupils, staff, and community members in a diverse and multicultural part of East London. Located in the borough of Waltham-Forest, Leytonstone is one of several neighborhoods where immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean, South Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe have long made their home.

Moderated by BBC special correspondent Razia Iqbal, the film was supported by the Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe Project as part of its efforts to explore views and experiences of belonging and identity in 11 cities across Europe. It was recently selected to screen at the London Urban Short Documentary Film Festival (part of the London Short Film Festival), with a series of other films from young urban filmmakers that portray the glory, diversity, and reality of London.

Here, Razia Iqbal talks about her involvement in the making of the film and why she left Leytonstone School a little more hopeful than she went in.

It is an old adage in the movie business that one should never work with animals or children. Notwithstanding that a short film for a particular audience of policymakers is hardly Hollywood, I did approach the project with some trepidation. And the reason why was completely connected to the subject matter. It is hard enough to get adults to confront the thorny issue of identity and belonging, let alone young people who are in the throes of carving it out for themselves in the first place.

I do happen to think that how we navigate our place in the world from a very young age is among the most important building blocks in creating a healthy civil society. And in places where different ethnic backgrounds rub shoulders, sometimes uneasily, it is all the more necessary that these issues are discussed openly.

The young people of Leytonstone School, talking about their lives in front of teachers, turned out to be a surprising bunch. The paraphernalia of making a film must have seemed a little intimidating. But once they started to ignore the presence of the cameras, they began to relax and were quite forthcoming. I think a big part of it was to do with the kinds of open ended questions they were asked, and their willingness to engage with the subject matter.

It was quickly obvious that the school presented a good model for a multicultural institution, where the children mixed easily and were interested in other people’s experiences. But I was most struck by the distinctions some of the children made about the way they socialized in school—by and large quite willingly and with an openness which was genuinely heartwarming—and the way in which they socialized outside school. That appeared to be more limited by where they lived and who their parents socialized with. It was a common experience that those kids who were from different backgrounds tended to mix at school but not outside school. That seems to me to be an area worthy of some study and reflection.

Being a member of that often-reviled group, the media, it was not surprising to me that  for the children, TV, newspapers, and journalists in general were held responsible for the negative images of black and minority ethnic groups and in particular of Muslims. Some of their comments were spot on, but I left feeling hopeful that it is their generation, knowing, smart, and open to learning, who can remake their own societies in their image, without feeling anything is being imposed from the outside.

I loved talking to the pupils of Leytonstone school. It is meant genuinely when I say it is a privilege to have conversations with anyone who is willing to speak honestly about issues that matter and the young people who took part in this film were generous and courageous in their willingness to talk about who they are, how that makes them feel, and where their place in society is and could be.

Razia Iqbal is currently a special correspondent for the BBC, reporting on a variety of foreign and domestic stories for BBC News programs. Born in Kampala, Uganda, into a Muslim family, she has been living in London since 1970. She joined the BBC in 1989 and has reported extensively on radio and television, from culture to domestic politics, the Haaj in Mecca to the civil war in Sri Lanka, where she lived for two years. She was the BBC’s arts correspondent from 2003 to 2009. She has presented on the BBC News Channel, on Radio 4, most notably the PM program, Woman’s Hour and Front Row, as well as on the World Service and 5LIVE. She has also been a reporter for the BBC in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Living in Leytonstone: Identity and Belonging was filmed and produced by Chocolate Films.

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