How one driven, creative duo crowdfunded their way to make a film shining a much needed light on a crucial subject. We talked with 1500 And Counting‘s producer Siana Bangura about the project, the alarming statistics surrounding cases of police brutality and deaths in custody and the visibility of UK BAME victims.
Tell us about 1500 And Counting. Why this subject? Why now?
1500 And Counting is a film investigating police brutality in the UK. I’m the producer and award-winning filmmaker Troy James Aidoo is the director. We were compelled to team up and tell this story following the death of Sheku Bayoh in May last year. Sheku was a Sierra Leonean-British father killed by police in Scotland on 3rd May 2015. The stories surrounding his death were disturbing and upsetting and the silence surrounding his killng really unnerved Troy and I. We wondered why so many British people were outraged by the deaths of African-Americans, using platforms like Twitter and Facebook to react and protest in real time, but were completely silent when faced with the same situation on British soil. After much frustration we discovered that more than anything, people just didn’t know. They did not know or realise that these things happen here too. There was a strong feeling that police brutality and institutional racism are American problems. During the course of our research, Troy and I discovered that was simply not the case. Sheku’s death is part of a tragic pattern of deaths in or directly following police custody in the UK. Since 1969 it is reported that almost 3,000 people have been killed by police and since the death of David Oluwale in Leeds in 1969, no officers have been punished and no family has ever recived justice. Since 1991, there have been at least 1500 deaths in police custody in the UK but zero convictions. Of that figure, between 500 and even as much as 800 of those victims came from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. This disporoportionate amount of deaths of black and brown people is something I found alarming and indicative of insidious institutional failings. The death of Sheku Bayoh was the catalyst for us to educate ourselves on the matter and take action. Then, in January of this year, we learned of the death of Sarah Reed – a Black British woman. She died in Holloway prison and we found out in February thanks to Lee Jasper breaking the story. Her death really solidified our belief that this film needed to be made, so with a strong sense of urgency we set about gathering resources and launched a crowdfund campaign to make it happen.
What made you decide to finance the film through crowdfunding and how valuable has that been?
Although a terrifying decision, we decided to crowdfund because firstly, up until now we had been using our own very limited resources and making do. But we realised nobody would take this film seriously if it wasn’t of a certain quality. We also believed we owed the families and victims that – to tell their stories accurately but also in a way that people could not ignore. We wanted to be taken seriously. Trying to get money through more traditional means was tough – getting grants for something so anti-establishment is almost impossible and also the lengthy bureaucratic system is slow and Troy and I wanted to make this film and put it out this summer. Beyond the very practical considerations, the decision to crowdfund was also rooted in the belief that this film belongs to everyone because police brutality is everyone’s problem. It was very much a challenge to get people to see that at first but if we can’t trust the police to police us fairly then we are all vulnerable. I think towards the last leg of the campaign people started to understand that. Collective ownership is important. Now there are people literally invested in this project and our tiny team of two is now a large team of over 200 supporters who have helped us acquire the necessary resources we needed to make this documentary. Troy and I were always ready and willing but as young black filmmakers we were not able to continue with our work prior to the crowdfund campaign. We’ve also now got the confirmation we needed that there is an audience for this film and that there are people who believe we can deliver and deliver we will.
Crowdfunding can be mentally, emotionally, and even physically exhausting. It is a rollercoaster of emotions. We wanted to hit our target so badly so that we could have the money we needed to continue with this project and up our game but also to see that people believed in the project and weren’t victims of apathy. There was a lot of disappointment to start with and some doubt over the future of this project but Troy and I agreed we’d find a way to make this film regardless, but it was just a matter of how hard or easy people would make the process be for us. Now we’ve hit our target, an already challenging project has been made that bit easier to execute the way we want to. It was especially moving for me on the final day of our campaign to see how so many people pulled through for us. I have personally never witnessed or experienced anything like what happened that day – people were working together in that way ants do – like an army. We entered the final day about 51% funded and with 11 hours to go or so we had hit our target and by the end of the campaign we had raised over 105% of our target. It really boggles the mind. People were tweeting all day and donations as small as £3 and as large as £550 were pouring in. I saw that people were seeing my messages, tweets, and our project’s story and were responding with generosity. Throughout the campaign I made the point that talk is cheap and action is what is required. Sometimes the only way to support and ensure something you want to happen can actualy happen is if you put your money where your mouth is. I saw that there were people who always say they ‘support young people’ who turned a blind eye to this project and then there were others who rose to the challenge. Ultimately nobody owes us anything but we are making this film for all of us and so it needs all of us to support it. The entire experience – the good, the bad, the really bad, the remarkable and sensational – has been a really valuable learning curve and an important experience for us as creatives, storytellers, campaigners, activists, and members of society.
It seems self-producing is becoming the first option when it comes to documenting and sharing the stories young creatives want to tell. What are your thoughts on this?
We live in a society that does not value creativity. Too many of us have to work for free or ‘expenses’ and are exploited on a regular basis. And if you do get paid or sponsored then a lot of rules are put in place to restrict you and police your creativity and vision. If you take full control you can do things the way you want to but taking full control then means you need to finance your film or project yourself. From self-producing films to self-publishing books, it’s all a way to clapback at a society constantly putting obsctacles in your way and saying ‘no, you have to pass through this gatekeeper and that gatekeeper and be co-signed by this person and that person’. I personally am sick of it, which is why I very much operate in alternative media and indie arts spaces. It’s not an easy path to travel and sometimes you end up martyring yourself but if you have a message and a story to tell you’ve got to tell it. You can’t rest until you do. This film is our way of giving a platform to families and victims who have been denied that. This is our way of educating our society on a matter that affects us all. This is a very British story but with global rammifications because police brutality is something we see all over the world. Adding the British story to the larger conversation will hopefully help Black British people understand their place in this country and more broadly, help Black folk understand our fragile and vulnerable position in the world. Although we are putting emphasis on the stories of Black victims we do not for one minute want anybody to feel they are safe. We hope everyone who sees this film – Black, white, brown, male, female, none of the aforementioned or all of the aforementioned – will leave feeling vulnerable and compelled to take action, the way we were compelled to move after hearing about the death of Sheku Bayoh.
How have your previous experiences and projects contributed to your role in producing this film?
I am a journalist by trade and over the past three years I have been heavily involved in the Black British Feminist movement. I am very vocal about issues affecting women, the black community, and more specifically Black women. My investigative journalistic skills, along with my creativity, resourcefulness, profile, and commitment to giving platforms and space to marginalised voices all have played a part in bringing us to where we are today. I have also worked with Troy on many projects previously so joining forces on this was an obvious thing to do – a very organic partnership. There is no doubt that this is our most demanding and challenging project to date but it will be worth it. We’ve already learned so much from the process so far and hope to continue learning and raising awareness about the issues that affect the most vulnerable in our society. I am commited to doing meaningful work and using my resources, platform, and voice in a way that will make change happen. 1500 And Counting will be a landmark documentary and we can’t wait for you all to see it.
www.1500andcountingfilm.com / @1500ANDcounting
@sianaarrgh / @visionnaryTJ