Undercurrents: the campaign film pioneers still setting the agenda

Helen Iles
Helen Iles

Helen Iles has worked with Undercurrents for 13 years

Eifion Rees reports on the video journalists producing environmental and social justice films that influence public opinion - and consistently get closer to the issues than the mainstream media
It’s no less activist because it’s quieter and slower-paced

The mainstream media capture mere snapshots of the green movement. Fostering environmental knowledge, changing a society’s bad habits, building more sustainable communities – these are processes whose slow unfolding is often lost or ignored in the frantic search for headline news.

Documentary series are capable of highlighting individual stories in a different, more profound way, creating news of another order entirely. Helen Iles of Undercurrents knows the value of her medium in getting across the environmental message. She has worked with the alternative news service for 13 years, a documentary-maker rather than a video activist, a term coined during the 1990s, when Undercurrents was heavily involved in the protest movement. That isn’t to say her work – focusing for the most part on communities and positive alternatives – lacks an edge. ‘It’s no less activist because it’s quieter and slower-paced,’ she says.

Helen won last year’s Digital Hero Wales award for work educating children about green issues, teaching more than 200 how to make short films on the environment and social justice, specifically climate change and sustainability. These were then screened around the country via the Sol Cinema – a recycled two-berth 1960s caravan powered by solar-charged lithium ion batteries. More important than the accolade was the £5,000 prize money, which she has spent on more equipment, core costs being one of the most difficult things for third-sector organisations to fund.

She is currently editing footage of a conservation project teaching children from the Neath-Port Talbot area of South Wales about wood and green woodworking, and also filming with a local sustainability and natural building social enterprise, Down to Earth, which works with youngsters who are not in education or training (NEATs) and in many cases have been through the criminal justice system.

Campaign films and social justice

Helen's documentary-making career began in 1997, filming evictions at the Holtsfield wood chalet community, in Murton on the Gower Peninsula.

‘Friends lived there and I figured that by doing some filming I could help and support them, show people what was happening. Undercurrents told me they’d be interested in using some of my campaign footage – I hadn’t a clue that’s what it was. Campaign films are about being there on the ground as opposed to dipping in and out like the mainstream media, looking at life in close-up rather then through a long lens. Undercurrents helped me put the film together and that’s where the steep social justice learning curve started.’

One of her most celebrated projects came about as a result of an interest in low-impact living and sustainability. Living in the Future is a series of short internet films about eco villages that became a longer feature, Ecovillage Pioneers.

It’s no less activist because it’s quieter and slower-paced

Most prominent among the eco villages featured in the series is Lammas, the first sustainable community to set up legally as an eco village. Planning permission was granted a year ago by the Welsh Assembly Government for a settlement near Glandwr in Pembrokeshire, paving way for other developments.

Living in the Future was integral to Lammas’s success, providing much-needed publicity and support, and explaining the plans and philosophy of its residents to sceptics, naysayers and concerned local residents. The popularity of the series on the internet has also attracted a regular influx of visitors from the UK, Europe and further afield who want to replicate the success of Lammas back home.

Undercurrents and the internet

Internet series allow filmmakers to edit as they go rather than have to wait to finish filming before putting everything together, Helen says. Their advantage over television is their immediate global distribution and their longevity, a searchable resource rather than a flash in the pan. They gather a following as they progress, and are also helpful in financial terms as a product to show to potential investors. The Film Agency for Wales awarded Helen funds to complete another series, On the Push, exploring the impact of climate change on the seas around the Gower, three months into filming. Living in the Future received funding from the Welsh Assembly Government.

Helen explains that being a ‘crew of one’ allows her to build up strong relationships with her subjects, and that filming them over a long period made them more relaxed and natural in front of the camera, a trust cemented by being on the same side. Getting under the skin of the story like this is something the mainstream media cannot do – or has historically not wanted to.

Indeed, one of the reasons Undercurrents was set up in 1993 was to redress the one-sided reporting of eco activism and the environmental movement. That was the year John Major’s Conservative government rolled out a number of controversial road-building schemes and introduced the Criminal Justice Bill, effectively outlawing direct action protests. Its first audience community were the road protesters of the day.

‘Undercurrents was reflecting their lives back to them in a positive way, not as the dirty, disruptive hippies the mainstream media was portraying them as. It’s the same principle with Living in the Future. The planning system was very down on low-impact building at the time we started filming, and it had many critics, but the series reassured the residents of Lammas that what they were doing was important, encouraged them to keep experimenting, to find a way that worked and would be useful to others. Those films are now being shown to sustainable builders, community livers and anyone else who is interested in that way of being.’

Films such as these have the power to help their subjects and an ever-growing audience around the world understand why they’re driven to pursue their environmental goals and to keep doing so, Helen says, instead of dropping back into something more familiar, safer, easier.

‘The more accessible those ideas are, the more normal they become. The films’ subjects come across as intelligent people doing what they believe in; their way of life seems more accessible, meaning all or parts of it can taken on board more easily.’

An Undercurrents film from the 1990s celebrating the No M11 Link Road campaign To find out more about Undercurrents, visit www.undercurrents.org

Eifion Rees is the Ecologist's acting Green Living Editor


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