In Autumn 2010, as part of my PhD research in North London, I interviewed 16 young people about their sexual relationships. I asked each of them to tell me about their first or early sexual experiences, before going on to ask further questions about subsequent relationships and their hopes for the future.
Nearly 4 years later, in February 2014, I met with a different group of young people in Brixton, South London to work out how to turn these interviews into short films that young people would want to watch. Working with documentary film-maker Susi Arnott, the plan was to run an 8 week participatory film-making project in which a group of young volunteers would make a series short films about first sex. At a previous workshop Susi and I had worked with a young woman, Rebecca, who had been impressed by an extract from an interview with 17 year old Indiah in which Indiah describes being unsure whether the first time she had sex ‘was actually sex, or whether or not ‘it went in’. This was a ‘real’ story, Rebecca claimed, the kind of story that young people need to hear to counter the myths, lies and silences that young people encounter what asking what ‘loosing your virginity’ will actually feel like.
Building on Rebecca’s suggestion Susi and I planned to work with this new group to work out how to reanimate extracts from the interviews relating to first sex. When planning the workshops we imagined we would collectively select some extracts from the interview data, brainstorm, create and collect images that brought these extracts to life and edit them together along with audio recordings of the extracts being read aloud. We had tried something similar at a previous 2 day workshop but the images hadn’t worked well alongside the audio recording. The stories were compelling but the images (collected in a rush with limited time for collaborative editing) were too abstract. Or perhaps they were not abstract enough. The footage moved too slowly and was too ‘arty’, lacking the pace and feel of a youth led project.
In this new project 8 week project (that turned out to last for at least 11 weeks and possibly longer) we hoped we would have the time required for genuine participation – to enable the young people to collect images and footage from their own lives and to be involved in editing them together in a way they felt spoke to young audiences and reflected the sexual cultures of their peers.
At the first session we looked at an extract from an interview with a 19 year old young women called Kat. In the extract Kat describes her first sexual experiences with her first boyfriend and reflects on how their relationship developed over time. She describes her boyfriend as ‘controlling’ and states that she enjoyed the ‘rough’ sex that they had together. Later in the extract Kat goes on to talk about her subsequent sexual partners – her second boyfriend who just ‘popped it in’ one day when she was lying in bed with him and her current boyfriend – a ‘good boyfriend’ who is ‘not that good’ in bed.
After reading part of the extract – a difficult section where Kat talking about not really wanting to have sex with her boyfriend, whilst also being curious about what sex actually feels like – I planned to ask the group to brainstorm and visualize the kinds of images that came into their minds when they listened to Kat’s story. The group however, had different ideas. What seemed at the forefront of their minds was not visualizing or reanimating the data but fiercely debating whether or not ‘Kat’ had consented to the first sex that she had. The discussion was emotional and we left uneasy; one young woman found the discussion triggering, the only guy in the group had been quiet during the heated debate about gender, power and control and Susi and I were unsure if we had come even one step closer to figuring out how to turn such contentious material into film.
This was a powerful lesson for me; anxious about developing a method for reanimating the data I had forgotten something I have argued repeatedly in my PhD thesis; inviting young people to talk about what counts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, consented or un-consensual sex generates emotive, challenging discussion. As facilitators we need to be able to create safe spaces within which young people can explore this emotional, charged territory. Working in Brixton I had tried – unsuccessfully – to skip this step and to jump straight to visualization and reanimation techniques. One young woman left the group – upset and troubled and full of advice giving ‘trigger warnings’ to stories such as Kat’s. Lesson learned.
As homework, Susi and I asked the group to go away from the first session and collect photos that they thought visualized the extract I had read out. The following week two young women brought along a series of images both of which captured the unsettling interplay between pleasure and pain that is inherent in Kat’s narrative.
Running in parallel to this participatory film-making group I had been in contact with an East London young acting company, MN academy, to see if there were any young actors who might be interested in taking part in the project if needed. Overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response and encouraged by the photos from Elesha and Megan I asked if any of the volunteer actors would be able to come into the office, stick there heads in our makeshift sound booth and record a few takes of ‘Kat’s story’.
My plan was to take the audio recordings from my two volunteers – Frances-Ann Brakte and Sian Purvis – back to the group and play around with using them alongside the images that the group were collecting and visualizing. I could imagine Sian or Frances’ voice telling Kat’s story as the images of twisted hands and bedsheets appeared on the screen. Or I hoped that the audio recordings might generate new ideas about photos to take or footage to collect.The group, however, had different ideas. They wanted a young person speaking to camera. Less fussy. More powerful. Susi encouraged us to focus on what exactly would appear in the frame – did we want the whole body? Just the face? Any close ups?
Here was our list: Head and shoulders. Head. Mouth. Eyes. Hands. Struggling hands. A response to the extract
The following week met at Susi’s studio. Megan agreed to be our camerawoman and Carlos our actor. Tirelessly he performed extracts from Kat’s story to camera as Megan experimented with different frames; Carlos’s head and shoulders, his face, mouth, eyes and hands. We also played with the ideas that Megan and Elesha had captured in their photos and filmed two sets of hands untwined to convey moments of pleasure, tenderness, force and pain.
From the outset we had also been interested in finding a way of capturing on camera not just the young person’s story, but different responses to the story. Opening up a critical space that suggests there is more than one interpretation of this story. This had been Megan’s idea and on our first week of filming she had brought along her response to Kat. Not wanting to appear on camera Megan read out her response as Carlos pointed the camera at her hands, holding the piece of paper.
When we watched the footage back the following week the group were critical. They felt Carlos’s performance was too depressing – conveying a level of trauma and distress that they had not experienced when they first heard, or re-read the extracts. I was secretly pleased. I remembered the original interview with the 19 year old young woman and she had not seemed sad or traumatized. She told her story with energy, anger and vigour as if it was in the telling that she realized the injustice of her experience and the way in which she had been compromised in her previous relationships with her partner. This was not a young woman who saw herself as a victim however, or one that lacked burning sexual desire.
That was my interpretation anyway. My memory of the young women I had met four years previously and my ongoing analysis of her interview transcript, which I had now read – selectively – endless times.
The group were excited about the way that the shots looked: the loved the black back drop, the close ups on the eyes, the hands and the full body shots. They wanted to do more but they were tired of Kat’s story – unhappy about the way it had been voiced and wanting to have a go at filming other young people’s stories. They selected Indiah and Tommy and used these to make the two films that will shortly be made available on Brook’s website. By this time however we had developed our method.
1. Select the extracts (and make sure they aren’t too long! NB ‘Kat’ is too long..)
2. Identify a young actor (or young person willing to giving acting a go).
3. Sit the young actor in front of the camera and ask them to perform the extracts straight to camera.
4. Frame the shot around their (1) head and shoulders, (2) their face, (3) their eyes, (5) their hands.
5. Ask the young person / actor to reflect on the extract and what it was like to perform it.
6. Edit the footage together
We continued exploring ways of capturing different responses to the stories. We loved Megan’s messages but we weren’t quite sure that this method worked. Seeing the messages written down made them feel educational and possibly didactic, rather than opening up an ambiguous space for discussion. When I had met with young actors Sian and Frances I had asked them to reflect on Kat’s story, recording them using an ipod touch. One of the group members, Rebecca, had initially been opposed to this method – she felt it was unethical for us to comment on other young people’s lives and stories when they weren’t present to comment or respond. We proceeded carefully, asking the young actors – Rebecca included – to comment on the story’s that they performed, to pull out the key messages and reflect on what it felt like to become or embody the story’s narrator.
Running parallel to this participatory group project I organized two workshops with young actors from MN academy. I emailed each actor an extract in advance of the workshop and asked them to perform the extract to each other and then to camera. After several takes I asked each actor to respond to the story and to reflect on whether they could identify with their ‘character’ and the stories they were telling. Working with young film-maker Laurence McKenna I had one last go at capturing Kat’s story as young actor Ashlee Campbell performed part one of the extract to camera.
At the end of an 11 week participatory film making project and two workshops with young actors we had made 13 films – two with the Brixton group that tell Indiah and Tommy’s stories of their first and then subsequent sexual experiences. These films switch between different shots of Rebecca and Carlos’s eyes, hands and faces and that end with Rebecca and Carlos reflecting on the key messages in each story. It’s all expertly edited together by Susi and will shortly be available on Brook’s website and on youtube for young people to watch and for practitioners to use as educational tools. There are also 11 simpler films, each telling the story of a young person’s first sexual experience. Each film features young person talking directly to camera, telling a different story – sex on a plane with a girl from across the aisle, sex in a car with a boy from a nearby school, sex in a hotel room with a future husband, an abusive sexual experience with a brother and sister aged 10, the decision not to have sex just yet and tales of uncertainty about whether sex actually took place.
They will all be available soon and for now I leave you with Kat’s story – a film that tells one young woman’s story of gradually increasingly sexual confidence and empowerment and a film that records our collective experiments in data reanimation.
Trigger warning: the film contains description of sexual experiences that are unwanted and coercive.