Everything is about space,” says Trevor Blackman, founder of the Wha’gwan Film Festival, explaining the motivations behind this two-week event, which showcases the creativity of young black Londoners. “It’s about giving young people the space to develop, to mix, to debate, to be seen and heard.”
The festival launches its first-ever edition on April 12, with free online screenings of 22 films and four masterclasses. It is the latest venture from Blackman’s APE Media — the Newham-based charity that helps to develop the lives and careers of young people, in the capital and around the country, through the media of film and music. Many of those to have benefited from the charity’s work — some 15,000 people aged 10 to 24 since 2004 — have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, been excluded from school, lived with mental health issues or been involved in the criminal justice system.
In 2018, APE Media ran Newham Rising, a Home Office-backed project that asked young people to express their views on knife crime in the local area, and what can be done about it. Some of the participants responded with short films, which gave rise to the idea of doing a larger film festival. The name, Wha’gwan, came from Blackman’s desire to ask exactly that; amid all the upheaval of the Black Lives Matter protests, closed schools, an economy in freefall and the Covid-19 lockdowns, what’s really going on in the lives of young, black Londoners?
“These young people know the issues,” Blackman says. “They will talk about education, they will talk about employment, they will talk about gender identity and beyond, what it is to be LGBT+ within the black community today. They can talk about Universal Credit, they can talk about food insecurity and what it really means. They’re the storytellers of tomorrow.”
One of these storytellers is Esther-Rennae Walker, a 21-year-old from Romford whose film, 56 Black Men, is one of Wha’gwan’s standout inclusions — a beautifully shot, genre-spanning micro-short that picks away at the negative stereotypes foisted onto black men by today’s society.
The three-minute film is built around a poem Walker wrote, taking inspiration from the 56 Black Men project, in which photographer Cephas Williams took portraits of black men, all wearing hoodies. Participants ranged from a plumber working at Battersea Power Station, through to business owners, chefs, choreographers, NHS workers, podcasters, Uber drivers, dairy-free chocolate makers and even the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy.
The idea of banishing reductive perceptions and instead highlighting all the complexities of life as a black man is something that struck a chord with Walker. “I can’t talk on black men because the only commonality we share is that we’re black,” she says, “and being a male is a completely different experience, so I’m slightly ignorant in that sense. But I do feel like what I’ve seen represented, and what friends and family have told me, is that they have to deal with this stigma. And it’s not a true representation of them.
“I think there are so many nuances and quirks about black men that we just don’t see on mainstream media, and we don’t really talk about that much,” she adds. “Also, being a man, and the stigmas that come with that, you just feel that kind of double-layered pressure to strip yourself, or show yourself in a particular way when you know there are so many other things about you.”
As Walker explains, black men have been “indoctrinated” by a society that tells them what they can and can’t be; or, as the narrator in the film puts it, “all the colours of the rainbow that I apparently can’t see”.
“I like to bring imagination into it,” Walker says, “and imagine a land where they don’t have to wear a mask, or where they can dream ferociously, and it not be like, ‘Oh, you’re being over-ambitious.”
There’s certainly no lack of ambition in the films featured at Wha’gwan, even with all the restrictions of the past year. The inclusions cross numerous filmmaking borders, from spoken-word poetry pieces and animations to hyper-realistic portrayals of racist microaggressions and semi-surreal explorations of the effect social media is having on younger generations.
“They are amazing,” Blackman says. “All you’re doing is saying is here’s a camera and, in some cases, here’s a Covid-secure space as well. And they’ve overcome it. They’ve thought outside of the box.”
Aside from just celebrating the creative capabilities of these young filmmakers, the festival is also about helping them build connections for their future careers. Walker first met Blackman at Newham Rising, which gave her the contacts to get involved in Wha’gwan — a vital connection at a time when in-person networking is off the cards.
“Filmmaking is such a weird industry because no-one teaches you what to do, you just have to find a way into a room and then someone will take you under their wing and be like, ‘That’s that, and that’s that’,” Walker says.
“I think it’s hard to get into those spaces, but once you do, I find especially within the black British community, people will take you under their wings, because they know the struggle, and the struggle is not easy.”
Walker says that, at this early point in her career, she’s focused more on building those bridges than applying for traditional funding. When I speak to Blackman later, he says that if he were to advise Walker, he would say she shouldn’t stop going to those traditional funders, but rather, “just go differently”.
“You don’t go with cap-in-hand, saying, ‘Please sir, can I have some more’,” Blackman explains. “You say, ‘Look, what I’m bringing — the currency I’m bringing’.”
It does feel as though, after a criminally long time, black British filmmakers, actors and their stories are finally getting the attention and praise they deserve. Michaela Coel has been rightly held up as a pioneer for I May Destroy You; Steve McQueen shone brilliant light on West Indian history with his phenomenal Small Axe series; and the film Rocks, about a black schoolgirl trying to care for her younger brother, deserves every one of the seven nominations it got at this year’s Baftas.
And festivals such as Wha’gwan will prove the future is bright. But as Blackman says, now “it’s about keeping the momentum”.
“We’ve just got to keep going,” he adds. “Whether it’s Steve McQueen or Esther, everybody’s doing their bit to drive it through. That’s the key.”
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