An elderly traveller standing in front of his small trailer speaks directly to a camera about what it’s like to be illiterate and to feel an outsider in the modern world. An Army wife wipes her eyes as she describes her loneliness in a new rural posting while her soldier husband is in Afghanistan.
These remarkable scenes are from Wiltshire Voices, a series of 12 films made by Wiltshire Council. Filmed in a fly on the wall, documentary style, these films enable people who would otherwise rarely be heard to have their say on their lives and the issues they have to cope with every day.
Engaging with hard to reach sectors of society is something all councils strive to do but often fail to achieve. By the very nature of their lives, many of these groups go out of their way not to have anything to do with authority and are suspicious of people from outside their own community.
That is what makes the Wiltshire Voices films such a remarkable achievement and why they are already having a major impact and will continue to do so for years to come.
The project is the work of the council’s community area boards team which was looking for a way to reach groups identified by the joint strategic assessment documents as being disengaged or suspicious about authority. Twelve were chosen including gypsies and travellers; rural families living on very low incomes; Army wives; dementia sufferers and carers; people living on canal boats and the Polish community.
Winning the trust of these groups was the first hurdle and, in the case of the gypsies and travellers, took two years. Champions, people each community knew and trusted, were indentified and acted as the liaison.
Steve Milton, head of community governance and area boards, said: “The gypsies and travellers film presented a real challenge as they were so disconnected. We knew that every time anyone from authority went on to any of the three sites, they took a police escort. It was things like that that we had to overcome and it took time.
“The champion worked with them for a long time and then we organised a free barbecue, something they could just turn up to, and it went really well. There was a huge amount of groundwork that went into making all these films.”
There is no narration of any of the films and the participants weren’t coached, they just talk about their lives and the issues they face. Each group was asked the same set of questions based around the themes of health, housing, education, benefits and transport.
A traveller mother describes how she’d rather be on the road but stays in her static mobile on a permanent site for the sake of her teenage daughter who is doing well in school. She describes living with prejudice and being regarded as criminals by many people.
Many of the topics dealt with in the Wiltshire Voices were controversial, such as the film about the large Polish community in Trowbridge, shocking like the film about rural families struggling to live on low incomes or moving such as the film about families affected by dementia.
Mr Milton said: “Making the films was eye opening and has given us, in the council, an incredibly powerful insight into these people lives, things we would never have known otherwise. We have been able to take that information and to act upon it with the communities themselves. We have been able to identify their priorities and help them act upon them whether it’s been linking them with relevant organisations or helping them to identify funding.”
The film about the long standing Polish community revealed that language is a major issue and Polish interpreters are now used with information provided in both English and Polish.
One film which has already had a significant impact is that of the Army wives based at the large military base at Tidworth in south Wiltshire. Again the area boards team had to work to build up trust as the wives were concerned about being perceived by the Army as being critical of the military.
They spoke of the challenges they faced as young wives and mothers being moved to a rural area where they knew no-one while their husbands are away for months at a time in a war zone.
Mr Milton said: “What was so remarkable about each film was we didn’t know what would come out of them, what the issues would be. What we found with the military wives film was that the cost of public transport was a huge issue for them as many didn’t have their own transport and getting themselves and their children to Salisbury or Andover was costing around £20 which was too expensive.
“We also discovered that many were isolated in their homes with young children, they didn’t know people and many wanted to work but couldn’t find or afford childcare.”
As a direct result of the Wiltshire Voices film, the mums formed a group and, with the information and funding they were able to access, set up a social group and the Cheeky Monkeys and Active Monkeys childcare groups to enable those who wanted to work to be able to do so.
They also created an information website which is regularly used by 1,000 people and provides information and a contact point.
In the film, the mums spoke out about the poor condition of a nearby play area saying they were unable to let their young children use it because of broken glass and damaged equipment. The group they formed lobbied and, with funding from the Ministry of Defence and town council, was able to provide a new play area.
Work was a big issue with many mums unable to take on jobs with regular hours as their husbands were away for months on end. They spoke in the film of their frustration of not being able to work because of the constraints on them.
Mr Milton said: “The impact their film has had on their lives has been incredible. They have such confidence now and know they can get things done. They have a real voice. We have been able to step back and to let them do it themselves. Many wanted to work but needed flexibility so they have set up their own small businesses.”
The mums are working with a local centre that provides small business units at low start up costs and one group member has been co-opted on to the town council giving them a real input into local services.
The films have not just helped change the lives of those featured but also changing perceptions in Wiltshire’s communities as a whole. The films are being widely broadcast and are online on websites, YouTube and being shown at area boards.
Mr Milton said: “The films have a real impact and what has been so rewarding is the way people react to them. We’re finding that people are deeply moved and the feedback we are getting is that the films are blowing away preconceptions that people held. We’re seeing empathy and understanding across the wider community for people and lifestyles they knew little or nothing about before seeing these films. They are definitely helping to bring communities together and make them more cohesive.”
The issues raised in the films are being used to help the council decide its future priorities and action plans and have given people who would otherwise never been able to influence local decisions to do so.
Mr Milton said: “Wiltshire Voices was an enormous piece of work and we are immensely proud of it. It has given people who would otherwise never been heard to have the chance to speak, to have a voice.
“They can now see their words making a real difference and being turned into actions, actions that are improving their lives and helping them become part of their local community. The films are innovative and it was a challenging project for us and something we’d never done before but it has been such a success and had such a significant impact.”