I was approached by Michael Morris of Artangel – a wonderfully inventive organisation that works with artists on site specific pieces. Michael suggested I make a piece in Margate.
Margate is now in the process of gentrification with the Turner Gallery, a fast rail service and hip people moving there from London to find affordable housing but it was grindingly poor in 2007. Once low cost air travel made it affordable to holiday in Spain and other places where sunshine weather was more reliable, seaside resorts like Margate fell into penury. The hotels people had once stayed in remained and so when asylum seekers started arriving in Dover it seemed obvious to put them into these empty hotels. Local people call all asylum seekers ‘Kosovans’, whether they come from Afganistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because Kosovans were the first wave of people seeking refuge who pitched up in Margate.
The story of Exodus has always resonated with me. The people who are sent into the wilderness. And what happens then? It’s only the sentimental who think that extreme oppression and suffering are always good for the soul – if that were true then we should make it compulsory and stop fighting against it. Often people turn on each other, especially if they are aware that others have more. We see boys from impoverished backgrounds in our inner cities stab and kill each other, take drugs, sell drugs, threaten each other and worship false gods of money and consumerism. These days massive inequality is not a dirty little secret. It’s out in the open for everyone to see and the wilderness is everywhere.
Filming Exodus was extraordinary. Lucy Pardee who had been my assistant on Mischief Night scoured the town for extras. We had people from the local estates, people with learning disabilities and asylum seekers. And one wonderful thing I have learnt is that if people work together on something they believe in, prejudices evaporate with a common purpose. One of my favourite moments was when we were filming the Dreamers (the waste people were locked up in Margate’s old funfair) queuing up to be driven into the Wasteland. A black South African teacher told me that he was just in front of a pair of white twins who had taunted him in the street and thrown stones at him. Forced to stand together they had a long talk and at the end of it they bumped fists and told him that next time they saw him they would say hello. And they did. Dritan Kastrati who is now an actor was one of our young people – he actually was from Kosovo – and he was the first Kosovan many of the locals had ever actually talked to.
I set the bar high and everyone has to be professional and drive themselves hard. It’s not about the process (as in community projects) – it’s all about making the best piece of work we can but somehow along the way something magical happens.
This film has its fans and it was screened at the Venice Film Festival to a standing ovation but it somehow didn’t hit the spot for most people. I don’t know why it didn’t. Maybe I will figure it out.