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A new documentary shows how the UK’s hostile environment is seen through the eyes of those who have been affected
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A new documentary shows how the UK’s hostile environment is seen through the eyes of those who have been affected

The UK government is attempting to close the country’s borders to anyone who cannot afford to pay. The already hostile environment is set to become even more hostile. This makes it a very relevant time to release Sonita Gale’s new documentary. Sonita is a British Indian filmmaker who examines the different experiences of certain migrant groups at the extreme end of the policy.

Hostile is Gales debut film. The documentary tells the story through the eyes and experiences of Black and Asian immigrants and their advocates. It also reveals the complexity and dangers of the UK’s immigration legislation. Featured characters include NHS worker Farrukh Sair, whose sons don’t have British citizenship despite being born in the UK. Anthony Bryan, a Windrush Scandal survivor, recounts his struggle against deportation to Jamaica. Community organizers Paresh Jethwa and Daksha Varsani openly discuss their work in Brent running a community response center, which helped destitute students who were expelled from their universities.

Gale, 46 years old, grew up in Wolverhampton with a working-class migrant household. She was inspired by the Partition experiences of her parents. Although she has been making documentaries and films for many years, it was the pandemic which inspired her to make her own film.

The documentary tells the story through the eyes and experiences of Black and Asian immigrants and their advocates.

While she initially set out to document the response of migrant communities to the pandemic in 2001, she found herself drawn to the hostile environment by the people she reached out. Gale has seen the benefits of switching to filmmaking already. Hostile The BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by an English Writer, Director, or Producer has been long-listed.

gal-demGale and I spoke about the filmmaking process, stories she found about the hostile environment, her journey as an aspiring filmmaker, and how her own migration impacted her. 

gal-dem: I’m also from a migrant background. These legal issues can be confusing for people who have never had to face them. Did you find this to be true?  

Sonita Gale: Well, firstly, I grew up with a mum that couldn’t speak English, and she couldn’t write English. She lost her husband at 49 and had ten kids. As a child, I witnessed my mother struggle to fill out applications, go to the bank, have the insurance man come on Friday nights, while simultaneously working six days a week at a factory. So I know what it’s like to have a parent that can’t speak English, and can’t read and write English. 

Being raised in that environment gave me the ability to understand and empathize with others, and to be able to enter those environments knowing that I understand why it is happening. And I understand why you’re going through this. I wanted to pay attention to the details and think about how I could make it about them, not me. 

Everybody in this film had a voice. I was just a facilitator to make that happen. The emotional part is fascinating. My parents were Indians, and I came from India to escape Partition and its aftermath. I felt like everyone I was filming was a brother or sister, a cousin or a parent. It felt so close with Wolverhampton where I grew. Because of this familiarity, I was able to give the film that authenticity and empathy that I felt it needed. It worked. 

Partition is one of the most important historical events that the film explores. How difficult was that to explore? 

That was hard. As a child, I would hear stories from my mum about her terrible experiences. I actually recorded my mum on dictaphone, talking about Partition. She would often say to my, “You know.” puthar, It was hard, it took so much effort, and I would not want you to go through the same. But life was so difficult, it was unbearable. She would cry, weep, and she would weep. 

The contemporary hostility we have in our country doesn’t come just from Theresa May in 2012. It doesn’t just come from the New Labour movement in 1999. It goes back further than that. I also went back to legislation from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It made me think about empire and that led me to Partition. 

So Partition was deeply important because of my mother’s first hand experience as a child. I wanted to do it in support of the South Asian community whose parents and ancestors have experienced this.

As I was watching the film, I felt a real sense of anger, especially in the small moments. Paresh, the community organizer, says shame on government when he tore down British flags from the community kitchen after the council had failed to support their project.

This scene was for me a juxtaposition. Flags were there, and migrants felt proud to be British. Yet, Britain tries push them out. Where did this growing anger come?

While I was filming, there were explosions all over the world. We have a pandemic. George Floyd is killed. The Black Lives Matter protests rise to the forefront. And I think at that moment, people just felt that they’d had enough the NHS workers were not getting their pay rise, NHS workers, mainly migrant workers, were dying. This was a time in history when people were angry and upset. And I was documenting those protests while filming the story’s progression and the lives of my participants. It was a moment of history that I had to capture on film.

I got more and more angry the more I filmed. Not outwardly, not inwardly. About halfway through my filming, I think it was maybe like June, July, I was thinking, Something’s coming. And it’s going to take us all and it’s going to be big. It feels like this is a testing ground, it feels like the hostile environment has been put in place to target migrants who’s next? 

We see the government turning against Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community and reducing our rights of protest with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The hostilities continue to grow. We are done. HostileThese events took place in September and they will continue to take place in September. [Were]on our way to an autocratic fascist country. So you’re right, it was a very emotionally charged film, because at that time, there was a huge amount of emotion and uproar and anger. It continues to be, very much so. 

You said you didn’t even know what NRPF (No Recourse to Public Funds) was before you started the film. There were many other elements you only learned about along the journey. Do you think that this makes it easier to see how secretive all of this policy is? 

Absolutely. In fact, everybody I met outside my participants and the people I met that were struggling from NRPF, didn’t know what NRPF was. Nobody knew what it was. There are many reasons why the hostile environment is hostile. The hostility comes down to the difficulty of understanding the legislation and policy. Even as an English-speaking, British-born citizen, I couldn’t understand half of the paperwork.the applications are extremely lengthy, the narrative around it is extremely wordy. And it’s that for a reason, because it tries to catch you out, it tries to make it difficult for you to understand what you’re in for. 

You can apply for exemption from NRPF, but you have to go through about six to eight months of application filling, then somebody has to tell you whether you are exempt and then you have to prove that you’re destitute. It is both frustrating and troubling. Seeing how that was affecting people, I realised that there is a reason why it’s completely stealth. It’s there to make life so unbearable for you that you either leave voluntarily, or you’re so broke that you get kicked out and you get deported. Or you hear about it, and you just don’t want to come to this country. 

We see that in the film, like when Farrukh says his children were born here, but they don’t have British citizenship. Was it strange to witness those moments unfold? 

How is it possible for his children to be born here and not have British citizenship? They must pay an NHS surcharge [an annual fee for the majority of migrants to allow them use of the NHS]. They are also subject the NRPF. Farruk also said, “How can they pay for their Pampers?” Everything is on him. He must work hard and pay high application fees. So that’s why he’s in significant debt. It was horrible to watch all that happen.

Finally, who is the target audience for this movie?

I think it’s good to approach the audiences that aren’t necessarily aware of what’s happening. This film touches so many generations. Take a look at the students queuing for food banks. My son is 16. I cried filming these. [international]Students [with no recourse to public funds]Because I would look at them, and wonder how this could be happening. These children, like, their parents don’t even know. And, you know, I’d buy them a cup of tea and think, they haven’t got money on their phone, they haven’t got anything to eat. 

The film features a wide variety of participants. That wasn’t deliberate   it was indicative that a wide range of people are being affected by the hostile environment. I’m hoping that because of that it will tap into a wide audience; [perhaps] younger audiences will be [particularly] affected by the students story, while older audiences will be looking at Anthony and thinking, how does a man that’s been here for 50 years get deported? 

I think my ideal audience though would be the demographic that wouldn’t necessarily go and see a film like this, or are not directly affected by this, or don’t know anyone that’s directly affected by this. Audiences that would not necessarily have empathy for the participants that are in our film, and might have an alternative view about the participants in our film   the view that was used for the Brexit campaign, the view that’s been used by our current government to drive a wedge between people in our society. 

And that’s why divide and rule was such a main theme of my film, to actually say, well, look, there’s a lot more that binds us than separates us, right? So I want to merge communities by going to those communities where I’m going to be faced with questions. I will answer your questions. And they will see that there’s more that brings us together that sets us apart. So that’s my aim with the film, is to build those bridges, and to start dialogue about that, and about our similarities and our differences, that’s really what I want to do as a filmmaker.

HostileThe film is currently in UK cinemas until March. Several screenings will be followed up by Q&A with Gale and other guests. Get tickets Here.

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