What would you do if you had escaped death or persecution in your home country and then arrived on foreign shores with absolutely no way of proving the traumatic experiences you had been through? This is the situation that awaits thousands of young people who arrive in the UK from conflict zones around the world every year. Far from being welcomed with open arms, they are confronted by a system sceptical of their claims and administered by staff under constant political pressure to reduce asylum statistics.
Director Bruce Goodison stumbled on this story with the intention to make a documentary, but realised the subject matter was too sensitive and the young people involved so vulnerable, that the only way he could legitimately tell this story was through fiction. Leave to Remain features one of the UK’s most distinguished character actors Toby Jones playing alongside a cast of non-professional actors who have themselves been through the asylum process. Bruce ran an acting workshop to help young asylum seekers learn to come to terms with their traumatic experiences through drama and from this group he found the young people who would go on to star in the film.
Huck spoke to Bruce to learn more about the challenges of making a film about such a politically charged issue.
Why did you chose to present this story as fiction rather than documentary?
When I found out that unaccompanied asylum seeking children and teenagers arrive on our shores to the tune of three or four thousand each year it blew my mind. I had to do a double take when I first heard it. I’m from a background of documentaries and fact-based dramas and this was a dirty little secret that I didn’t really know anything about. I found the fact that they come here alone – without their parents – completely baffling.
I initially set out to make a documentary because I thought it was incredible that teenagers would come to the UK compelled by war or famine, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sub-Saharan Africa and other places, then try to build a life for themselves while growing up into adults. When I started conversations with some organisations that work with unaccompanied asylum seeking children, I just became aware of how vulnerable a lot of the kids were to exploitation through the media of their stories, because obviously everyone wants to know how awful their journey and experiences have been. That’s when I chose to protect them, if you like, with the cloak of drama.
How close did you get to the personal stories featured in the film?
I started to become what’s known as a ‘responsible adult’ for a lot of these kids. I would go to Home Office interviews, doctors appointments, social worker interviews, anywhere where they would have any kind of exchange with authorities, which were many. I would be there to witness how they would be treated.
The most shocking environment was the judicial process, where kids aged 15 or 16 had to stand up in a court of law and defend a story which cannot be proven or disproven. No one was going to go to their country of origin and check out their stories. I thought ‘what kind of society is this that we examine a child on circumstantial evidence of their awareness of the geopolitical landscape of their home country?’ If they get their questions wrong, like University Challenge, they are somehow discredited. Through all of these conversations and through all of these meetings I wove a script together out of their stories, of their experiences at the hands of a very adversarial system of application for asylum.
Why did you chose to work with non-actors who themselves have been through the asylum system?
Once I’d written the script I then realised that I’d got a script which represented a whole range of characters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, where they use both English and their own native languages. I thought, ‘where the hell am I going to find actors that can do these roles, these pretty demanding roles?’ Some of the characters go through pretty extreme situations.
I decided on a storyline where the arrival of one young boy from Afghanistan threatens the application of another boy from Afghanistan who’d been in the UK for two or three years and was on his final appeal. It was pretty charged as a subject and goes to the heart of the controversy that surrounds asylum, which is ‘are they lying or telling the truth?’ Clearly, it shouldn’t really be an issue if you’re a child, you shouldn’t be examined in the first place.
With this script, I realised I had to train a group of actors who had no experience, were new to the UK and whose ability to speak English was limited. I set up a thing called the Summer Film Academy where we trained young refugees how to make films, how to use drama to express themselves and build their confidence. Little by little I selected a group of young people that I thought were robust enough to go through the process of making a film that reflects their own personal stories. We really took our responsibilities to these kids seriously. We had doctors and child psychotherapists to make sure they were being protected and that by exposing them to a film like this it wasn’t going to further traumatise them.
How did you work around your actors’ lack of experience?
It was interesting seeing someone as accomplished as Toby Jones in an environment where there is a slightly looser approach to blocking and directing, where there were elements of improvisation. Some of the younger people who came up through my acting school didn’t read scripts so I would be guiding them into the performance and then guiding them into the dialogue. If it’s in their own mother tongue, pretty easy, but I didn’t want them to fell undermined by having to read a script and interpret it. It was a matter of gently introducing them to the person they’re playing, the story they’re playing, then to the scene and then to what they have to do within that scene. It would be very much broken down so that they could manage each day as it came.
Leave to Remain is out in cinemas in the UK now.