Sparks of survival

Bruce Goodison, BAFTA-award winning director, describes how he was drawn to tell the stories of young people seeking sanctuary for his first feature film, Leave to Remain.

A few years ago I started to research the lives of parentless young people. I stumbled across the stories of the many children who are forced to flee their homes each year, who arrive alone in the UK and are left to fend for themselves. Learning about their experiences for the first time, I struggled to contemplate how teenagers could be cast away from everything familiar to them, plunged into an alien society and expected to build a life. I felt compelled to explore their stories further.

One young woman I met, whom I’ll call Zaria, had arrived from her home in West Africa following a horrific ordeal. Zaria had been married off at the age of 12 to a Nigerian man, and after one year of marriage fell pregnant with his child. Upon discovering that she was carrying his baby, Zaria’s husband became violent towards his young wife, beating her so severely that eventually she lost her child, less than a month before she was due to give birth. Prevented by her husband from accessing medical attention, she suffered extensive internal injuries and was left permanently scarred, unable ever to have children. As soon as she was able, Zaria ran away from home, hoping to escape. She was soon found and brought back to her house where she continued to be repeatedly brutalised, and raped both by her husband and his friends.

With the secret help of an aunt Zaria eventually managed to escape and made her way to the UK. Telling her story to immigration officials she was granted only a male translator, a Nigerian man, who upon hearing her testimony hissed to her that she was lying. His fellow country-men would never treat someone like that. Her asylum case was eventually refused.

It would be easy when faced with a story like Zaria’s to feel overwhelmed by its horror, but actually what moved me most in this young woman was her effervescence, the spark with which she recounted her strategies of resilience to me. Zaria explained that when in need of strength she listened to her favourite song, Hero by Mariah Carey. She never understood the words but it became a source of solace to her, steadying her in her bleakest times. As she learnt English in the UK, she painstakingly took to studying the lyrics of the song, eventually translating them to French to understand their meaning. Animated, she told me that in the moment of finally comprehending the words, she felt her own story immortalised. A story of survival.

Zaria’s tale and the unfathomable inner resources that enabled her to share it are remarkable. It is she, along with the numerous other young people who have told their experiences to me over the last three years, which have moved me to make this film. Entrusted with such powerful testimonies I feel a responsibility to tell their stories with integrity.

In Leave to Remain I have combined elements of Zaria’s story with those of other people I have met. By doing this, I hope to have removed the burden for my collaborators of seeing their intimate experiences fixed as a single narrative on screen. I also reduce the possible risk to those I have met, by concealing the identifiable elements of their personal stories. I have made the decision to recruit non-professional young migrants to be mentored and trained to act all our major roles. This way, their depth of shared experience will contribute an honesty to the film. Shooting of the Leave to Remain feature begins in November, ready for the film’s cinematic release next year. I hope that by holding a mirror to these hidden stories we can effect change in the lives of these neglected children, and learn something about the country we call home.

You can keep up to date with the Leave to Remain feature film, action campaign and training academy by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter. Or, if you would like to support the making of the film, visit the Leave to Remain Buzzbnk page to discover how to contribute.

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