A DVD devised, written, acted and filmed by people with learning difficulties is premiered at a Midlands cinema. Graham Hopkins hustles for space on the red carpet
How would you feel if somebody else told you where you had to live? Or if they wouldn’t let you engage with the person you loved? Or if you were the victim of crime but the police wouldn’t talk to you – preferring to take statements from other people instead?
For a group of service users with learning difficulties this was their life. But not any longer. Now supported by the charity United Response, they have drawn on their own experiences in Can You Hear Us? – a DVD aimed at showing what it can be like to have a disability.
“We’re telling people in the outside world how people feel when other people are not treating them nicely,” says David Fry, who appears in the film. “We’re getting into people’s minds that they have opportunities and equal rights. They can go to gyms, swimming pools, social clubs, football – they have a right to do activities and people can’t stop them.”
The DVD is the result of three years’ hard work, the seeds of which were sown at a regional conference – “a get-together” – to find out how the organisation could improve the lives of its service users. “They wanted to continue to meet together to support each other, and they wanted to help other regions have get-togethers,” says inclusion manager Isabel Ros Lopez. “But most of all they wanted to make a video of what it is like to have a learning difficulty.”
Meeting every month or so, the group used drama as an experimental tool. “It worked brilliantly,” adds Lopez. “David Boyes came up with first story. It was about an engagement that didn’t happen because other people made decisions for them. Then people came forward with their own amazing stories.”
Boyes, who has also published his autobiography, says the idea of making the film was to show that people with learning difficulties felt the same as everyone else. “We can work, we can fall in love and we can get married. We can do the same things, it’s just that sometimes we need some support to do them.”
The film is based on five scenarios and service users were supported in devising the ideas, scripting them, acting, filming and directing. “When we were filming, people learned the whole range of production skills, from using cameras to being assistant directors,” says the film’s producer Antonia Hyde. “The group controlled every aspect of putting the film together.”
The only outside input came from professional freelance director and producer Kate Jones, whose background is in documentaries. “They had all the storylines and had tried to film it but just wanted it to look more professional,” she says. “It was quite amazing – they were so committed and believed in what they were doing.
“Filming drama is complicated: you need concentration, lots of takes, shots from different angles, hard work, a lot of waiting, but because they were so into what they were doing they enjoyed it. These stories are really close to their hearts.”
“It took ages,” says Fry, who attended the premiere at the Odeon cinema in Derby. “And it took a lot of confidence and teamwork. I’ve moved on a bit more and I’m very proud of the film. I was a bit nervous at the start when I first saw it at the cinema – seeing yourself so massive on a massive screen is shocking! I couldn’t believe it!”
Service user and actor Yosief Semere was less nervous: “I wasn’t too scared because I have been on camera before. It made me feel good to see myself on the screen. I used to get bullied in school – so I hope that people can learn from the film.”
But as Day says: “Seeing yourself on a cinema screen – you don’t get many opportunities to do that. And you have to take them. It doesn’t matter if you have special needs, you have rights and you can do it.”
● For ordering or more information on the DVD go to www.unitedresponse.org.uk/resources_can_you_hear_us.html
● Involving people with learning difficulties in every step of the production inspires confidence, teamwork and raises self-esteem.
● By targeting the film for training and awareness-raising it is important to make it available in a variety of formats – BSL interpreted, subtitles and speechsupported signing.
● For Su Sayer, chief executive of United Response, it is the courage of the people involved that is so humbling. “They were re-enacting and reliving very traumatic experiences,” she says. “And, although they were experiences that happened in the past, we know that from time to time in other places these things still happen.”
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 23 March issue under the headline “Screen Stars”