Richard York and Hannan Majid have been working under the name of Rainbow Collectivefor 10 years now. Since 2005, they have filmed a great amount of feature and short docs capturing the life of garment workers in Bangladesh, refugee camps, schools in South Africa and Jamaican townships. As documentary filmmakers, their focus is on fair working conditions, education and the life of children and young adults in developing countries all over the world.
Besides their artistic dedication to social justice, they took their projects even further when playing an active role in campaigning with TRAID, War on Want or Childhope and setting up training programmes in Bangladesh and Jamaica that teach kids, adolescents and women to express themselves with a camera. Their experience in actively using their films to make a difference makes them the perfect patrons for this year’s Cheap Cuts Festival. During their workshop ‘Documentary for Social Change’ [grab your free tickets here] on Sunday, they will take us through the details of their social projects. In this article, we took the opportunity to know more about their beginnings.
How did you get into filmmaking?
HM: At the film school in Leeds. I was doing a business administration degree before, but did not enjoy it. And I started showing an interest in this film degree, which was headed by Richard’s mom. She was the class leader. I was working at the film and photography museum and in an art house cinema. I just had this interest in film and went to this interview and Richard’s mom gave me an unconditional offer right away. That was in 2001 just around the time 9/11 happened.
RY: My dad was an editor in the early 70’s. In his later years, he went into teaching to the Leeds Art College. He and my mother then set up a film unit within the art school with some old kit to work with the kids. That department then gradually became the film school, which Hannan and I attempted later on. Because of my family background, I worked on the student’s film at a very young age. Every time the shoots were over, I just did not want to go back to school. [Laughs] I just wanted to see how the editing was going. I just followed the whole process until we received calls at home from the school asking: ‘Where is Richard?’ After that, I went to a community school.
How did you guys meet?
HM: We started to get to know each other in the editing suits at school while doing our student films. We were short in time and tried to get everything done under tight deadlines. So we just edited night and day and Richard was just in the booth next to us working on his third year project. We just hung out and invited him to see our progress and vice versa. That’s where our friendship started. We were interested in each others films.
RY: We just saw each others work and then came this project on South Africa. My mum had set that up and she picked a couple of graduates to go to South Africa and shoot a feature documentary funded by the university. Hannan was doing documentaries at the time and I was more working on drama, fiction and experimental stuff. The idea came up that Hannan and I should be directing together. So we then spend a year I think…
HM: A year for the two films. Bafana (2006) and Amazulu (2006). We were going back and forth a lot.
RY: A year from the idea until shooting itself. We set up the distribution while we were making the film. Ster-Kinekor, a chain of independent cinemas, wanted to show more South African films and started to be interested in our project. We had a distribution deal right away, which gave us a lot of confidence. It also made us think about it in a really cinematic way.
HM: We also got involved with film festivals there so we knew that this was going to get out.
What was the project in South Africa about?
HM: The idea was to go and shoot in this school in a South African township in Durnham?
RY: My mum is from South Africa and was involved in projects over there with a footballer from Leeds United. The school was really special. In these townships, schools are usually pretty empty because the teachers are having trouble to keep kids interested in attempting the classes. No one wanted to go to a school in Velabahleke. But the school we were working in was always full of happy students and did really well in the national school rankings. Their headmaster was just amazing and successfully ran this school in the middle of the township. He managed to get 95-100% pass rates on the exams. So he was actually scoring higher then some of the richer schools.
HM: And this was post-apartheid as well.
How was it then to shoot a whole feature doc there at such a young age?
RY: It was just this incredible place and experience. You have to imagine there is this red brick building on top of the hill and the kids wear those blue and yellow uniforms. The township in brown, rust and mud colours surrounds the school where everything is just in these primary colours. It was just this world this headmaster had created. This experience really influenced us in the type of visual filmmaking we were aiming at.
HM: Richard and I spend a lot of time before that time talking about film. I came with my documentary background and Richard came from film. So we would try to fuse this together to make Amazulu. If I look at it now, I can see how it had a really filmic look about it for a documentary. What really help was that the environment was so loving and friendly and positive which came from the teachers and the kids. The headmaster and all the young people were really supportive. You have to imagine: you just walk through these corridors and in each class you had the kids singing. In this environment and with our style in our heads, everything just came together really nicely and it started to all make sense. As Richard says, it became about transporting the audience into that moment and show how it felt being there from our perspective.
RY: Troy Inman was also the cinematographer on the project and he was also hugely influential for us. He is a photojournalist and a wild life photographer. His images really come from reality, from what happens just in front of him.
HM: Yes… of all those ways of making shapes. Here we also learned the importance of really working together with our team because every night we would go through the rushes together and discuss what works with the whole crew. When we later came together as director those previous discussions where hugely important in the way we came to decide about what works and what does not. I would really recommend that to every filmmaker.
How did your first films shape your later work in Bangladesh?
HM: If I look at it now, all of our films have this mix between distance and closeness in common. The camera has a sort of observational distance, typical for documentary, to the action but, at the same time, everything seems always really close. There is a certain intimacy to the people and the situation. I think that aspect of our films really came from that time in South Africa working with the school and these young people.
RY: I would also add that feeling of being pulled along. Amazulu really set us up for the style that we came to use in our later films. We always felt like rather then just shooting people we always invited them to introduce us to their life our to a situation
HM: Yes. We would connect with people and understand their background in the school and through that relationship they would take us to the township and show us their homes. We are also really interested in those little moments, which make our films also very episodic.
Your films focus a lot on children and young people… Is that part of the intimacy you create?
RY: It is really about education. Everywhere you find poverty, one thing always comes through: the importance of education. Where education is accessible, you can use it to alleviate poverty. Everywhere we go, there is always a way in which young people are being held back and are not given opportunities. These kids are always in this working environment and, if they could go to school, it would not take long for them to go much further. When we were doing the films with the kids to talk about their birth certificates, it was also interesting to see how they were giving on the knowledge that they had to other kids and how they started to think about their own kids. That spirit can shape a whole community.
HM: They start to explain to you how they and their whole family can get out of poverty. If they get educated, they can start educating their whole family. That is how we as a community can bust the cycle. Our films are really looking at education and the right to education.
What came after that for Amazulu?
RY: After the film had its run in the cinema’s it was spotted by the Ministry of Education which then showed it at conferences for teachers that were struggling in there own schools. We saw that our film had an impact and a life that went much beyond the festivals and the cinema or TV screenings.
HM: It became part of an education for teachers and then these teachers show it to their students who are also inspired by it. It started making a difference and did not just sit on a shelf. That was just an amazing, blessing experience for us to see that our film is doing this.
RY: It also established what we were aiming at doing in our later projects in terms of campaigning.
So how did you move then to your Bangladesh projects?
HM: I went back to Bangladesh after my studies with a Sony A1 camera. As I had been away for so long, it really struck me how many children worked around the city, in the factories, in the tea shops, in the food stands, just everywhere. Even in the villages. So I just filmed a couple of images and started to talk to child labourers or parents. I showed it to Richard and we came to the idea of making a bigger project.
In 2008, we went there together for a month, from there on we started working on Mass E Bhat (2014). The film took about 6 years from start to finish. In the meantime we gave out some material to Aljazeera, TRAID, War on Want, training purposes and campaigning.
RY: The footage kind of worked before the actual film came out.
HM: We took the opportunity at the time with the relationships we had built to go into a garment factory and shoot for two hours straight. That was quite unique at the time, because most footage would be more under-the-sleeve type of shots. We could really shoot it cinematically.
RY: We really had that access to the factories and to the people. So we agreed to give it on under the condition that we were able to keep on using the material for campaigning purposes. So it was really important to us to keep on supporting the movement of garment workers and unions there at the same time as making shorts and making our feature doc.
MH: What really pushed us was to see how a film like The Machinist was able to educate people about the situation in Bangladesh and more importantly make it clear to people that the differences are not that big when you see these people’s life. You can see how they care about their family, how they brush their teeth and you can see that they are not that different but their working conditions definitely are. It became a tool to engage people into what the garment industry is really about.
How do you prepare for your docs?
HM: We don’t like to over think things too much, because you can have an idea about doing something in a kind of way but the reality of it will always change your initial plans.
RY: Exactly. You can think very intellectually about it beforehand but in the end it does not work out that way. The only thing we ask ourselves is how would these people represent themselves, if they had the equipment and the skills to make a film about their life. It is not helpful if you go too much with your own idea or your own agenda into a film.
What gives you the energy to push a film over so many years?
HM: It is just to help people push their cause. When Rana Plaza happened, we just really wanted to go there and capture what was going on and use that footage to help the campaign give the victims the compensations that they deserve. Here again, it is really about thinking how to support people in their struggle. It was by far the hardest shoot we did. The whole community was just in a very tough situation. But in the end after all those years, everything came together in Udita and Mass E Bhat and in so many of our training projects as well.
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RY: And also we wanted to just give a proper overview over the situation. The news at the time were only interested in how this affected Europe and how this made Europe feel rather than to engage really with what this community was feeling and what they had to say. We really want to give a voice to the people there and gain their trust in that we are there to help.
Was this part of your reasons to get into teaching and training?
HM: As a filmmaker you always think that your film is your legacy, but for us all of those teaching programmes and projects are our legacy. This includes the campaign videos that help these movements as well.
RY: If we end up with one of these kids going through university studying art or film because of the programmes that means more than any documentary in the world.
HM: There it is so important that you set up something permanent where you teach in a way that those programmes can go on even without you being there.
RY: A the kids are still filming now and with those films they speak for their community and they meet lawyers or officials from the government and explain like experts what it means to live in the environment they live in. And the same goes for our projects in Jamaica with Studio 174 where we spend a year and a half to set up this programme that teaches young people without a degree to get into making films like in an art school. Those young guys than are taught to give this knowledge on so now they teach other kids.
What interested you in Cheap Cuts?
HM: Both, Richard and I, have a long history of working in festivals where we would work, exhibit, curate for Amnesty International or other things. We love film festivals. Especially short films and that is really what excited me about this programme. It is a really great time for short documentary at the moment. Before your short would only be seen through festivals. Because of the boom online, you can show your film everywhere.
RY: For me, when I was young I would love to go to short film festivals. It was a major influence to me to become a filmmaker myself. All of those young filmmakers there presenting their stuff and then among all of that you could really see the potential of some people and it was exciting to spot that new talent.