Animating Rights: Bristol Refugees

by Colin Thomas

It all began with a problem. Bristol Refugee Rights, where I worked as a volunteer, wanted to make a video about the plight of its members, refugee and asylum seekers from all over the world. But, if their faces were seen and recognised, there could be serious consequences for their family or friends back home.

So the idea of animation came up. Before my retirement I had produced animated films and inserts for BBC and Channel 4 and I approached Alex Williamson, who teaches on the Graphic Communication course at Bath Spa University, about the possibility of it becoming a student project. He took up the idea enthusiastically and, with the help of Tom Daly who ran the VOICE project at Bristol Refugee Rights, two groups of refugees and asylum seekers went over to the University to talk to some 60 second year undergraduates. Irene from Uganda movingly described the hurdles she had been through on what she called “the long asylum-seeking journey”. She described it as an obstacle race “which cannot always be described in words especially if the language is not your native or mother tongue.”


A few of the refugees were also recorded talking about why they had been compelled to leave their homeland, how they had got to Britain and what they had been through since arriving. Then, after the staff at Bath Spa provided the students with some refugee memoirs and poetry, all of the students made short films on the theme. One of them, Lizzie Wheeler, said that the conversations with refugees “opened my eyes to the extent of the struggles that they face and made me understand the fear that comes with the uncertainty”. She wanted to know precisely what the sometimes heartless communications from the Home Office looked like and then incorporated them into her animation.


When the films were completed, all of them were viewed by a group from Bristol Refugee Rights and twenty of them were then selected for viewing at Watershed, the local arts cinema, as part of the Bristol Refugee Festival. Before an audience of over a hundred people, the student filmmakers and the refugees appeared on a panel together to talk about the issues raised; the title given to the event by the Festival – ‘Moving’ – proved to be an accurate one. Irene saw it as “a unifying platform between the newcomers and the residents towards better understanding of each other.”


About the Author:

Colin Thomas is a television producer/director, three times winner of BAFTA Wales's Best Documentary Award and of a Prix Europa. He is the author of Dreaming A City, Slaughter No Remedy and Facing Up To The Fascists and has been volunteering at Bristol Refugee Rights for the last seven years.


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