East End Film Festival: This is a hidden story I had a responsibility to tell

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WHAT'S ON

By Lucia Blash

It was a story just waiting to be told. In truth it's staggering it's taken so long. But it is the tenacity of one man, and the courage, trust and faith of a small band of displaced young people that has seen the epic story realised on screen.

The man bringing the story to the public is Bafta-winning documentary and filmmaker Bruce Goodison, whose film Leave To Remain premieres next week at East End Film Festival (EEFF).

Shot entirely on location in the East End, set around East Ham and Stratford, the film uses the real life accounts of young asylum seekers in the boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets, and stars many of the displaced youngsters themselves.

"I started working on Leave To Remain about four to five years ago," said Goodison, pictured above. "I was really interested in what happened to all the teenagers who were suddenly left without families as a result of our intervention in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I discovered that somewhere between three and four thousand teenage lone refugees were coming to our country without their parents, without the ability to speak English, to try to build a life for themselves. I found it astonishing this was happening.

"I consider myself someone who is well read, knows what is happening politically, but yet I'd never seen this world reported before."

To get to the heart of the story, Goodison needed to gain the trust of this often hard to reach, almost always suspicious, group of people.

His journey lead him to the Trinity Community Centre in East Ham, and home to Dost, a charity that provides support to young refugees, seeking protection from violence, abuse and persecution in their home countries.

Here he began to form a bond with some of these young people, learning their back stories, finding out about their asylum processes - even accompanying them, undercover, to Home Office hearings and appeals.

"It started out pretty much as a documentary," said Goodison.

"However, I quickly realised that because of their vulnerabilities, they needed my protection. I realised drama would be a better way to provide this because it meant that if they were going to talk to me very openly, then they wouldn't be identified.

"This was important because they live in fear - fear that what is reported may impact on their asylum case; or it may identify them to a trafficker. Also, in this country asylum is a dirty word and I didn't want it to affect their futures."

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Drawing on their stories, Goodison wrote a script for the film he wanted to make, but he soon realised that there were many characters that could not be played by conventional trained actors.

He said: "I've got people in the film who speak Farsi, Pashto, Fula, Malinké; I was never going to find actors in the UK through the normal casting channels."

So he turned to the very people whose stories he wanted to tell and brought them on board.

"I started running workshops at the weekends and in the summer holidays where these kids would learn how to make films and to act. I would be in on the sidelines observing them looking at who might have what it took to be in a film.

"I worked together with a child psychotherapist and a casting person. We would try to figure out who was psychologically robust enough to go through the process of making a film and who could wake up in the morning and actually turn up!"

Leave To Remain also stars acclaimed British actor Toby Jones, inset, who has said how impressed he was with the professionalism, the skill, the determination, and the heart of his fellow cast members.

Having worked closely over a long period of time with the East End-based youngsters, gaining their trust, and earning their friendship Goodison has come to understand their motivation.

"There's a discipline when you have suffered greatly," he said. "Most of these young people do not want to be here. Unlike their adult counterparts in the asylum process, who have chosen to come to the UK, these kids are forced to come in some way.

"Once here, they have to pay back whatever has been paid to the handlers who got them here. If they don't someone back in their home country has to pay in whichever way they can. It's a horrible threat.

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"Having that level of responsibility makes you grow up very quickly so there's a huge amount of determination to succeed which you don't get from people who are born here."

And what has the director himself taken away from his experience of working on the film?
"I have made many films, documentaries and dramas but I've always been able to walk away from them whereas with this one I can't," he said.

"I have a responsibility to get this story out there. I know it can have a profoundly good impact on the public's awareness of what these youngsters go through - and continue to endure."

He added: "Basically, it all comes down to family, the need for another person's love."

Go to eastendfilmfestival.com

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