Blue Cabin colour block graphic

Agents of change

Filmmaker Laura Degnan reflects on two days of creativity, sharing and making with a group from South Tyneside.

A number of young people had expressed an interest in filmmaking. That’s what consultation carried out by Blue Cabin had revealed. So, my brief was very simple – to provide a range of fun filmmaking activities for care experienced children and young people and their supporting adults from across South Tyneside, that would result in each young person developing their writing and filmmaking skills as they worked together to create a film. And yet – as tends to be the way with artistic activity – every child / young person benefitted in many additional and unexpected ways during the two days that we spent together.

My name is Laura Degnan. I’m based in Middlesbrough and I’ve been working as a community filmmaker since 2008. The emphasis of my work is on using storytelling to bring communities together, to enrich and empower them. Individuals can use visual storytelling to explore issues that are important to them – things that might be playing on their minds – in a way that’s entirely controlled by them, and can find emotional release through play and creativity.

These sessions were based at Creative Seed in South Shields and at the beginning of day one the room was very quiet and a number of the young participants were silent and withdrawn. However, only 15 minutes of creative, interactive warm-ups later – during which time they were encouraged to partner and to giggle with the young people around them – the atmosphere was transformed and the mood became vibrant and animated. The next exercise, asking how long they thought it might take them to memorise a seemingly random list of 20 words – the consensus was about 2 weeks – revealed the power of storytelling as everybody in the room was able to recite the list, forwards AND backwards, after ten short minutes of coaching. After that, the energy soared and never let up.

The children and young people each wrote a guided poem about the things that they love and recorded it – in front of the whole group – into a large microphone. There was an obvious pride taken in this, as we captured and treasured their words, and the two participants who had started out by asking for an adult to read their poem with them both changed their minds when their turn came and confidently delivered their piece themselves. Then they worked in groups to create a stop motion animation and, after being introduced to a bag of materials containing everything from play dough and wool to plastic animals and artificial flowers, their imaginations caught fire as impressive, imaginative works of art were unleashed. Equipped with an iPad and a short ‘how to’ lesson showing them how to use the free filmmaking apps, the young people soon had the tools, skills and confidence to take the initiative and push the creative brief to its limits.

Across the two days, the participants took part in a visual storytelling masterclass, learning about shot types and camera moves, and gained skills in storyboarding, directing and editing. They created a poem, a stop motion animation and two live action films. They used the props and materials that were allocated to them to continually impress us with their imaginative approach to every task. And, as the buzz in the room grew, they worked as a team: a team of professional filmmakers, buoyed by new skills, new possibilities and new ambitions.

I was lucky enough to have the support of a number of talented and enthusiastic artists throughout each day, including Elizabeth Kane and Lyndsey Middleton, who worked hard to ensure that every young person stayed on task. They entered into creative collaborations with the participants, developing their own writing and filmmaking skills along with their young peers – and several of the brilliant Pastoral Support Workers* commented that they couldn’t wait to get home and download filmmaking and editing apps onto their own phones and tablets, to continue using and honing their new skills and to share these skills with their own children. And, as every child and young person was properly supported to remain actively involved, the increase in self-esteem, even in the quietest and least confident members of the group, was evident.

By combining the filmmaking activities with Arts Award creative practitioner Lyndsey Middleton encouraged the young people to continually reflect on their experiences, to focus on what they had enjoyed the most and what new skills they had developed. This guided reflection allowed them to approach each new task with increased confidence and enthusiasm.

The Arts Award component also gave me an opportunity to share some of my own creative story with the young people as they ‘learned about an artist’ as part of their portfolio work. I was put in the ‘hot seat’ and the participants questioned me about my job, my upbringing, my education, and the minute details of my past and present film work. This session came towards the end of an action-packed day and we had allocated 20 minutes for it, but after 45 minutes of constant questioning we were forced to wrap up the session so that they could all go home. This highlighted the importance of real life role models – all young people need to encounter individuals from backgrounds just like theirs who can provide them with a version of their future that many of them have not thought possible before. And the opportunity to ask their questions can be life-changing. Moving from the details of my journey towards becoming an artist, they wanted to know what advice I would give to young people who wanted to become professional artists in the future. I am from a working class background, was the first person in my family to go to university and – as so many of the young people were keen to know – my parents weren’t artists before me. My filmmaking career was launched by a competition that I saw online and decided to enter one rainy Sunday afternoon. The message was heard loud and clear – you can do this too – and, as the energy in the room grew, an unforgettable moment came at the end of day 1 when one young person – who’d had a shaky start to the day as a result of nerves and uncertainty in the new environment – threw her hand up, bursting to let us know that ‘You have inspired me to follow my dream’.

Thank you to Blue Cabin and to all of the passionate and inspiring artists and the supporting adults and staff from South Tyneside Council, involved in the delivery of this fantastic project. Leaving at the end of each day, I truly felt that we had made a difference not only to the way that the young people were feeling about themselves in the present, but their attitudes towards their futures. Blue Cabin works with partners and they open up transformative opportunities for children young people which can support them to become active agents of change, taking control of their futures.

Laura Degnan

*Pastoral Support Workers is a role that Blue Cabin places great importance on. This role is often fulfilled by a Local Authority member of staff (such as a Family Worker), and they work alongside an artist, leading on safeguarding as well as the pastoral needs of everyone in the room.